Power Players

How this self-made billionaire built a pandemic-proof business

This billionaire gamer built a pandemic-proof business

When the #stayathome hashtag emerged on social media last month in response to governments successively announcing coronavirus containment measures, Min-Liang Tan was ready.

The Singaporean entrepreneur had already commissioned a run of isolation-inspired posters printed with the words "stay home and game on" weeks before the virus had reached global pandemic levels.

The international lockdown was hardly ideal for the self-made billionaire, whose 16 offices and five retail stores span many of the countries earliest and worst hit by the outbreak, including China, South Korea and the U.S. But he knew he could count on his customers to rise to the challenge.

"Gamers were built for this — to stay at home and play games," Tan told CNBC Make It.

A #stayathome company

Tan is the co-founder and CEO of global gaming giant Razer, one of few companies managing to thrive in the disrupted business landscape. 

Razer had already been growing rapidly since it was co-founded by the former lawyer and his gamer friend, Robert Krakoff, in 2005. The brand's triple-headed snake logo, online gaming services and iconic range of chroma-colored hardware have amassed Tan an army of loyal fans who would go so far as to tattoo his face on their body. 

Tan Min Liang, co-founder and CEO of Razer, showcases fan's tattoo at a Razer phone launch in Hong Kong.
South China Morning Post

But now, with large swathes of the public stuck indoors and looking for new ways to stay entertained, Tan said business is booming. 

"In recent times, with the whole COVID situation, we could see gamer activity just skyrocket," said Tan. "Everyone's stuck at home and we could see more people come online than ever before."

Gaming on the rise

It's not just Tan experiencing the boon.

Telecom giant Verizon reported a 75% increase in video game usage since the outbreak emerged in the U.S. Meanwhile, the week of March 22 saw 1.2 billion downloads of mobile games — the biggest week ever for downloads, according to App Annie.

Gaming and esports in itself is becoming an entertainment option.
Sahiba Puri
Euromonitor International

The surge reflects the current appeal of gaming for physical and psychological reasons; but also a wider uptick in gaming over recent years. Last year alone, the global games market grew more than 7% to generate revenues of $148.8 billion. By 2022, that figure is forecast to hit $189.6 billion. 

"Gaming and esports in itself is becoming an entertainment option," Sahiba Puri, home and technology analyst at Euromonitor International told CNBC Make It. "In the past few years the level of investment that we see flowing in has increased drastically."

Vision for the future

Tan said that speaks to his wider vision for gaming to play an increasing role in shaping the entertainment industry.

Even before the outbreak, Razer had been investing heavily in new media, including acquiring director George Lucas' audio company THX, as well as advocating for the competitive gaming industry, also known as esports. 

"We've been pushing this whole narrative of a holistic entertainment experience, completely immersive, and with ourselves as that platform to deliver it," said Tan.

COVID has really accelerated this five-year plan to a much shorter timeline.
Min-Liang Tan
co-founder and CEO, Razer

But the current pandemic — and the pressure it has put on technology to fill the gaps in society — has served to speed up that plan by some magnitude, Tan said.

"COVID has really accelerated this five-year plan to a much shorter timeline, because everyone right now who's stuck at home is really looking to 'how do I be more productive with the working from home?' Or, over and above, 'how do I get entertained?'" he noted.

In March, the gaming brand etched a partnership in weeks with Singapore nightclub Zouk to stream a series of cloud clubbing nights to people's homes. 

"We're going to be working with clubs to bring that club's streaming live to the masses. That's what's happening," said Tan.

An 'ethical duty'

Meanwhile, Tan said he felt the company had an "ethical duty" to help support the coronavirus relief efforts. Razer has repurposed some of its manufacturing lines and pledged to donate one million face masks internationally.

"It's not easy but part of the whole start-up mindset is that we just do things that aren't easy ... we constantly push to make the impossible happen," said Tan.

Tan Min Liang, the co-founder, CEO and executive director of Razer, at a press conference on the proposed listing of Razer at JW Marriott Hotel Hong Kong in Admiralty.
Dickson Lee | South China Morning Post | Getty Images

Tan's vision has appealed to investors, including Intel and Singapore's state-owned funds Temasek and GIC, which over the years have backed Razer to the tune of $175 million. When the company went public in November 2017, Tan, then 40, earned the title of Singapore's youngest self-made billionaire.

And other gaming companies have since followed Tan's path. This week, three U.K. game developers announced they would be adding coronavirus safety advice within their titles. The ads, which will feature in Candy Crush Saga, will initially focus on the theme: "Stay home. Save lives."

"We are a stay at home kind of company, where we are taking care of all the gamers who are at home or on the mobile phones," said Tan. "We can ride this out"

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