Why are some companies more innovative than others? It all boils down to passion, says one.
By TAN KIT HOONG
TAN MIN-LIANG didn't directly say it but it's obvious that the chief executive of Razer USA Ltd, a computer peripherals manufacturer, is a great admirer of Steve Jobs and the company that the American icon built.
Tan, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently, speaks a lot about not compromising on his company's products and of making sure that design and function work together seamlessly - features which are inherent in Apple Inc products as well.
There's even a subtle nod to the Jobs-ian sense of dress style in Tan's black T-shirt (though it's not a turtleneck) and jeans.
"Call me Min, nobody has called me Mr Tan for years!" he said with a laugh, preferring to do away with the formal Asian honorific in favour of the name he's more commonly known by in his company, that is based in San Diego.
Indeed ... I had opted to address him as "Mr Tan" because the CEO (his namecard reads "Chief Gamer") is a Singaporean. Tan, er ... I mean Min was a practising lawyer in Singapore before he decided he wanted a complete change of career.
"The key thing is that I felt I wasn't creating anything; one of the things I really wanted to do was make a huge change by jumping into the unknown and do something I was passionate about," he explained.
That passion, funnily enough, was gaming. Min had spent a good deal of his youth playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) and first-person shooters.
So back when gaming wasn't yet as big an industry as it is now, he decided to go with his gut feeling and form Razer in 1998, with Robert Krakoff (now president of the company), to produce gaming hardware for serious gamers.
Razer has had its ups and downs, but today with gaming now an industry that's bigger than the movie or music industry, the company has been riding on a wave of demand for high-quality gaming peripherals.
In fact, Razer is now one of the largest gaming companies in the world, which has allowed Min to take the company from just producing gaming mice and keyboards to other products like the recently-announced thin and powerful gaming laptop called the Razer Blade, as well as a concept device known only as Project Fiona, a gaming-capable Tablet computer.
Designing for gamers
Bring up the topic of how and why Razer designs gaming peripherals and Min will use the words "no compromise" a number of times. According to him, working in a company where he enjoys and is passionate about what he and his team create means producing products that they as gamers themselves would want to own.
This attention to detail can be seen in products like the Razer Blade, where even the USB 3.0 ports, normally blue in colour, are finished in the company's trademark green colour.
"To do something like making the USB 3.0 ports in green, costs more, and we had to create a tool just to make our own green USB 3.0 ports, just to fit in with the rest of the design of the laptop," said Min.
Even the external power supply for the Razer Blade did not escape the scrutiny of Min and his engineers - they wanted a small power supply specially for the notebook and no Original Design Manufacturer (ODM) in
Taiwan would do it because there would not be enough product volume to make it worthwhile. So Razer bought their own ODM just so they could design and make what they wanted.
This no compromise philosophy started out pretty early in the life of Razer with a mouse that the company had designed in the early days.
The product had been designed, and manufacturing had already started when they found that the product had a hardware problem which would only affect a small group of users.
Instead of releasing the product, the Razer team made the tough decision to destroy existing units of the product instead of releasing them to the public with the flaw - a decision not to be taken lightly because the then fledgling company was still finding its legs financially.
"I'm glad we did it and even though it hurt us financially, it kind of set the stage for what our company was to become. We started this company not just to be profitable but also for the passion of designing and producing must-have peripherals," he said.
According to Min, many of the engineers who together made that decision are still with the company, and they know that every product coming from Razer has to be perfect, or it won't ship.
Right now, Razer has design centres in San Francisco, Singapore and Taipei. All report to Min.
His latest passion is Project Fiona, a Tablet computer with built-in controllers which the company showed off at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in the United States recently.
Min said that although the working concept-device was shown off at CES, the company hasn't yet decided whether it is going to be made into a commercial product or not.
Apart from the engineering concerns, Min said, the company is still also deciding on the operating system and other aspects of the design. "However, if we're going to produce it, we'll do this by year end," he said.
After more than a decade, Razer does not seem to have lost any of its original penchant for coming out with devices that are aimed at impressing the users, and has earned quite a following.
Min sums it up best: "You know, there are only a few company logos in the world that people will tattoo onto themselves - one is Apple's and the other is our Razer logo."
1998: Develops the Boomslang, a mouse targeted at hardcore computer gamers. It is claimed to be the first 2,000dpi (dots per inch) mouse in the world, which purportedly gives a gamer greater control and accuracy.
2001: Starts sponsoring computer gamers and international competitions; works with winning teams and gamers to co-develop its peripherals.
2004 to 2008: Markets the Viper optical mouse, which is followed by a 1,600dpi optical mouse, called the Diamondback. Adds various keyboards, mouse surfaces and audio products to its stable.
20092010: Moves into the console gaming space, with a controller and headset combo for Microsoft's Xbox 360. Unveils its Razer Hydra controller, which features motion-control technology for PC gamers.
2011: Wins the Consumer Electronics Show 2011 People's Voice Award with its Razer Blade, a handheld gaming device. Comparable in size to the Nintendo DS system, the prototype has a multitouch screen, is both 3G and WiFi capable, and has connectors for USB 3.0, mini-HDMI, standard pair of headphones and a microphone. The prototype is powered by an Intel Atom processor and runs a version of Microsoft's Windows 7 PC-operating-system. No price or release date is given.