Among gamers, Razer is a household name: the company from San Diego, California, has sold millions of jazzed-up laptops, precision mice, and gaming tablets worldwide. Now, with its Nabu wristband, Razer is stepping into the world of wearable technology. The gadget, which won the coveted People’s Choice award at CES in Las Vegas, promises to make wearers’ lives more fun and informative in various new ways.
While it may resemble health trackers like Fitbit Flex and the Jawbone UP, the Nabu goes far beyond counting steps and guesstimating how many calories you’ve burned. An OLED screen embedded in the wristband shows text messages, incoming phone calls and other notifications from the wearer’s smartphone. And because the Nabu can wirelessly talk to other Nabu bands, Razer envisions all kinds of social applications – from swapping contact info by virtual handshake to dating games with a digital twist.
Ubergizmo sat down with co-founder and CEO Min-Liang Tan in San Francisco for a candid conversation about the company’s ambitions to gamify everyday life, surprising successes in the seemingly dead laptop market, comparisons with Apple, and an obsession with perfection that has been rewarded with a cult following, turning Razer from a once-obscure gaming startup into a fast-growing global brand with an estimated revenue of $250 million last year.
Below, edited excerpts of the conversation between Min-Liang Tan and Übergizmo contributor Karsten Lemm.
How would you describe to people who are not familiar with your company what Razer does?
Essentially Razer is a brand for gamers. We have a huge community around us. We’ve got gamers who tattoo [Razer] logos on themselves and stuff like that. But at the same time, we’ve got services for pretty much anyone who’s interested in entertainment. I think there are very few people who are not gamers anymore, because the demographic of gamers has changed. We’re not talking about the young, male kid who stays in his parents basement or anything like that. We’re talking about gamers who play anything, from PC games to console games to mobile games to Razer. All of these people are gamers – billions of people out there.
How did Razer become a cult brand? What is it that you do differently?
We’re really obsessed with designing phenomenal products. Every single thing that we do has to be great. In essence, where we are different is that we take our design and engineering really seriously. That’s the number one thing for us, and it shows. Our customers see our products, they appreciate it – and that’s where the whole cult following comes about.
With the Nabu band you’re suddenly branching out into other product categories. Why?
What we like to say is, we’re a company for gamers – but gamers don’t play games all day long. They like games, they’re passionate about games, but they have a life, they’ve got to go to school, they work, they have fun. Nabu is really a way to bring the game from a virtual environment to real life. That’s why we’ve got an open platform for people to develop applications on. It could be fitness games to allow people to compete. But it also allows for social interaction, people-to-people games. Location-based games. If you think about it, that’s right in the heart of our mission to create devices for gamers.
What makes the Nabu band different from competitors like Fitbit and UP that have long been on the market?
I think the biggest difference is the open platform. We’re not looking to create a closed platform for fitness. We’re not looking to create a closed platform for ourselves. Basically, we take all this data and make it available to any developer. We will have new games that we will ship right from the get-go, but anyone can make use of it.
How do you play games with an armband?
We’ll have tag games, for example. If a friend has a Nabu and I have one, let’s say I’m holding on to the tag at this point of time, then he can steal it from me when he comes within a certain distance. He can press a button and steal it from me. Things like that, all kinds of games, even dating applications – the sky’s the limit, pretty much.
The Nabu as a dating device? How?
For example, if I say I like dogs and taking walks by the beach at sunset, that’s in my profile. And if I come close to anyone with a similar profile, our Nabu bands can buzz. All these are applications that are available, and pretty much that’s what Razer is: we provide the tools to anyone, and the rest is really up to people’s imagination.
Everything that you do with the Nabu band is up to you. You can opt in and out of social settings. If you don’t want social settings you can take them out. If you don’t want your data and stuff like that, you can pretty much take that out. But take simple things, for example a handshake – if you’ve got a Nabu band and I’ve got a Nabu band, we can shake hands and boom! We can exchange contacts.
How much do people need to know about technology in order to use all these functions?
I think anyone can use it, because we’re running it off of smartphones – iOS and Android at launch. It’s a simple, one-step process to get signed on, and that’s it. In fact, we made it insanely simple, because we want to get as many people to sign on as fast as possible. Out of the box [you get] full functionality. If you’ve got a phone call coming in, it’s going to tell you, “You’ve got a phone call here.” If you’ve got a message coming in, you can read the message on your wrist. Out of the box. If you want to change settings, just pick up your phone and make the changes.
Can I answer the phone call with the Nabu band as well?
No. It buzzes you, you can see the message, caller ID, and things like that. But no. We design products for ourselves, and the thought of taking your band to do this… [Holds wrist next to ear and mouth, simulating a phone call] …was not something we wanted.
Could we have done it? Yes! Do we want it? No! At Razer, we tend to design in a different way. We don’t go out there and try to guess, “How many units are we going to sell?” We will say, “What do we want as users ourselves?” We design it exactly the way we want. For example, why do we put the screen to read on the inside of your wrist, instead of ontop? Everybody puts it ontop, right? Because I don’t like people reading my messages. It’s as simple as that.
Everybody said, “A watch has a face ontop, therefore [it should be the same here].” But if you could read all my private messages by just glancing at my wrist – I wouldn’t want that. What I do want is to be able to read it, and I can just turn it and read it, and that’s it.
All decisions come down to you?
We’ve got a team. It’s really the team. Pretty much anyone in the company can come up with the ideas. Do I sign off on certain things? Yes, I do. But in essence [it comes down to] the team – because we have some of the smartest designers and engineers on the planet. And candidly, I think a big reason why they’re here with us is because we’ve got a platform that allows them to build things that they love. There’s no point working in a garage somewhere where nobody sees how great your products can be.
Do you have a lot of engineers knocking on your door, saying, “Let me work with you?”
We do. But some engineers are also a little shy and we kind of knock on their doors and say, “Hey, why don’t you look at what we do…?” But bear in mind that it’s not just engineering. Engineering is important. But we demand perfection in pretty much everything we do. So the product must be perfect. But it’s not going to be perfect if we don’t market it in a perfect way. And not just the marketing, but the shelf has to be designed perfectly. It’s not just the shelf, but how do you walk to the shelf?
To me, design is an all-encompassing thing. You can’t sleep. You’re always, constantly obsessed at every moment, to always make it better. It’ll never be perfect, but that’s why we try to have the very best people with us. Because usually the very best people will kill themselves to make things perfect.
All of this must be very expensive. How do you make money?
Well, oddly enough, when we focus on making the best stuff, the money comes. That’s something I really believe. Because if you’re trying to make the money first, you make bad products.
[That said], I do want to make sure that things are efficient. Because part of design, for me, is making sure that the company is profitable, the company has enough funds to continue investing in R&D. But that’s a means to an end. It’s not the other way around, where money is a means to an end. If that’s the case, that’s why companies have no soul. That’s why you get crappy products out there.
A company like ours should not, in three years, suddenly [enter the laptop market] and have the best product in the world. It doesn’t make sense. It should not! The other companies should not allow guys like us to do that. But they do, because they’re looking at money [first]. We don’t.
The “other companies” are…?
Dell or HP or whoever it is. They’ve got so much more resources than us.
The PC market is generally seen as saturated, with low growth and minimal margins. Are you targeting a higher-end niche to prove that there’s still money left to be made?
Actually, no. Put yourself in the shoes of the CEO who needs to go to his investors and tell them, “This is a commoditized market that nobody can make money off. And I would like to invest and build something.” That doesn’t make sense, right? But throughout our whole organization, we’re all aligned on trying to make great products. So something as [seemingly] insane as to allow us building stuff like that – [points at Blaze laptop in front of him] – is not just permitted, but encouraged. That is, I think, the magic of the company, that we are able to convince our investors, “Hey, look, this is suicidal, it’s insane, we want to go into a commoditized business and sell at a higher price and try to make the best possible product.”
How do you convince your financial backers that you want to keep doing the insane?
Well, because they’re just as insane as us. [Laughs.] Because we are very judicious in finding investors. Are there people wanting to invest in Razer every day? Absolutely! But we don’t take money just because they want to invest in us. Many of them just want money. We don’t want people who want money. We want people who want to be part of something greater. And we well them, “Look, this is going to take a long time. You may never see your money come back again. But is it going to be fun? It’s going to be incredibly fun! We’re going to make incredibly great products.”
I’m being very candid. Because to be able to do what we do, from top to bottom, every single person must appreciate the fact that we want to make great products. That means no compromises. And that doesn’t just mean the staff. It means the management, it means the investors, it means every single person associated within Razer.
It’s a bit like a cult – yes, I know. But it’s a cult around great products. I have people in the company who beat themselves up over the smallest mistakes that they make. Because they know they fall below the level of what is expected of them at Razer. And usually they will either quit very fast or they get fired or they will step up and become great.
This uncompromising attitude comes from the top? People know that you demand the maximum?
It’s not just me but the other people they work with. There’s a lot of peer pressure. We’ve got a lot of smart people, but their egos aren’t about themselves. Their egos are about the product. And I think therein lies the kind of people we really want: people who are obsessed about product. They don’t talk about, “Hey, I designed this…” No! We created this thing. But if any part of this equation falls short of the expectations other people have, it’s very clear. I make it very clear.
Much of this sounds like it could come from Apple management, particularly the late co-founder Steve Jobs. Do you try to model Razer after Apple?
I don’t think you can see a company truly from the outside. I’ve got a lot of respect for what Apple does. But I never met [Steve Jobs], I don’t think you can guess how he ran [Apple]. It’s like us. A lot of companies try to copy what we do, but they can’t. I would just have them follow their own path. You can’t model a company. Because in the middle of the night, when you’re alone, you know exactly what kind of person you are – what you can do. It’s better to follow your own path. And this is our own path.
Is it in some aspects similar to what Apple does? From the outside, I suppose yes. But other things are very different. For example, we talk to our community all the time, through Facebook, Twitter, we’re very open. We share a lot of information. That’s not what Apple does, right? I run my own Facebook page, our team members are always out there, tweeting and talking to community, because that’s us.
Did you always want to go into business and run a company?
No. You know… No.
Then how come we’re sitting here, talking about you leading a fast-growing global brand?
I don’t know. It just happened, I suppose. It wasn’t something that we set out to do. It just grew. It was something we were passionate about – gaming –, as it started off. We had more people join us. But I’ll be honest, I don’t see myself as a business man even today. I see the business as part of the design. I see the business as a prerequisite to designing a great product. Because I need funds to have more R&D. We design everything around a product. And I’ll do all of that to make sure that we continually have the resources, the people, the talent to do that.
How much of the design comes back to you personally?
I look at everything, ultimately. I wouldn’t take credit for everything. I suppose I ask the right questions – but everything, whether it’s a graphic design in Poland or whether it’s a retail shelf in Greece or whatever it is, I still look at everything today. Every single one.
Next Story: Galaxy S4 Mini Review