From “rivals” to business partners—that’s one way the relationship between Secretlab co-founders Ian Alexander Ang, 28, and Alaric Choo, 32, could be described as. The two hardcore gamers first met each other at a local e-sports tournament when they were both playing StarCraft II semi-professionally. Today, they run a SGD 300 million gaming chair company together, which was born out of a common love for gaming.
“We hit it off and grew to become close friends as we played a number of games together like Diablo, World of Warcraft, Destiny, Dota, Overwatch, PUBG and Rust.”
Today, Ian is the CEO of Secretlab who oversees engineering, marketing and product strategy, while Alaric is the technical and partnerships director (their respective office titles are ‘Protector of the Realm’ and ‘Warden of the North’, cheekily inspired by the Games of Thrones series).
Secretlab was founded in 2014, back when Ian was still a university student. He had struggled to find a “satisfactory” chair to complete the setup in his room. Other chairs that he tried lack the ergonomic support for long hours, which resulted in back and neck aches.
He also found that existing chairs that suit his needs were either too expensive, or the quality wasn’t up to his standards. Ian wanted to fill the void in the market by creating a comfortable, supportive chair himself and presented the idea to his boss at that time, Marcus Wee, co-founder of custom PC manufacturer Aftershock.
Marcus fully supported the idea and told him to not waste time waiting for someone else to make it. Ian went on to pitch it to Alaric, who was working in the same office space as him then (but for a different company). Ian described Alaric as “someone good with people” who had a “good intuition of how things are physically constructed,” so when he came up with the idea for Secretlab, Alaric was naturally the first person who came to mind.
Together, they invested SGD 50,000 to kickstart the company. Ian and Alaric was only aged 22 and 26 then, but they were confident that they would be able to create a product that consumers want.
“As competitive gamers, we know first-hand what gamers need in their chairs to prevent the health issues stemming from spending up to 16 hours in front of a computer,” said Ian. “With all these combined, we had an idea of what the perfect gaming chair would look like right from the start and never stopped pursuing that vision.”
School dropout turned business mogul
It took the duo six to eight months to create the first prototype, and it took them at least 20 iterations to finalize the design. In March 2015, they finally launched their very first gaming chair: Secretlab THRONE V1.
The first 200 units sold out within a week, and the company quickly broke even within a month. Describing the move to quit school for Secretlab as a “strategic decision”, he went on to liken business decisions and risks to gaming: “If you’re losing, take chances and make riskier plays. If you’re winning, play more conservatively and get further ahead.”
Ian previously asserted that he does not subscribe to the university-dropout-turned-business-mogul notion. In fact, if Secretlab didn’t take off, he would have stuck with school.
The need to continually innovate
“There’s this overblown thing about Bill Gates dropping out of university, and Steve Jobs didn’t have a university degree. That kind of fairy tale is overblown. In my case, I got extremely lucky that there were results to show for it,” he told The Esports Observer.
Secretlab quickly took off in Singapore soon after launching, but it posed the duo with a dilemma: they didn’t know how and where they would go from there. They invested in extensive research and development (R&D) to perfect every little detail, and that drive helped lay a really strong foundation for them to build a stellar product.
Its latest Secretlab 2020 series took three years of R&D, featuring significant improvements in form and function at launch. Showing off their achievements, Ian boasted that international tech reviewers almost unanimously rate Secretlab as the best gaming chair. They’ve also won numerous Editor’s Choice awards and have been named Hardware of the Year by PC Gamer.
Some of the biggest tournaments in the world have also used Secretlab’s gaming chairs including the likes of Dota 2’s The International and even the League of Legends World Championships.
Aside from e-sports, Secretlab has also partnered with some of the biggest gaming companies and brands over the last six years. Warner Bros, HBO, and Blizzard have teamed up with Secretlab to release chairs based on Batman, Game of Thrones, and Overwatch respectively. More recently, Secretlab has struck a partnership with CD PROJEKT RED to release a limited edition Cyberpunk 2077 Edition chair. This chair proved to be so popular that it sold out globally in just a few hours.
In 2017, Secretlab was one out of three companies that earned top honours at the 2017 Emerging Enterprise Awards, which celebrates young businesses with annual sales turnover of up to S$20 million and are outstanding in their respective fields. Since its win, sales have grown ten-fold. In 2018, the two co-founders were also named in Forbes’ 30 under 30 Asia list.
“These successes continue to inspire and push us to improve and only deliver the best. Alaric and I have been truly blessed with our crazily talented and driven team, who are the foundation to our continued success today,” said Ian.
Their young age is an asset
We’ve established that both of them founded the multi-million dollar company in their twenties. This is no mean feat and one key question that crosses everyone’s mind is this: how did they manage to get the funding to kickstart the business?
In a separate interview with Channel NewsAsia, Alaric said that bootstrapping the business from the beginning helped steer the company well and allowed it to grow at its own pace and not get ahead of itself. Regardless, they still had a bit of a financial struggle at the start—the duo had to forego their salaries in the first year and “live frugally” to get the business off the ground.
Secondly, has anyone doubted them because of their young ages? It’s been quite the opposite, said Ian, adding that their young ages have proven to be an asset thus far in their business journey.
“Being millennials ourselves has allowed us to relate to other millennials, including a core portion of our employees and our customers around the world.”
Helming a company of about 100 staff members with an average age of around 28 years old, Ian said that it makes it easier for them to understand and engage them effectively. This has helped them create a work environment where employees are excited by their work and are unafraid to share their ideas.
“They make a real difference rather than just assimilating into what already exists. That is extremely important to us,” stressed Ian.
COVID-19 reveals an adjacent user group
Many businesses have been adversely affected by COVID-19, but this pandemic has presented Secretlab with an opportunity instead. Since the circuit breaker period, many Singaporeans have been encouraged to work from home. As rooms turned into offices, many have invested in sprucing up their work-from-home setup.
Since Secretlab chairs are known worldwide as among the most comfortable for gamers, it have become popular options for workers to use in home offices as well. True enough, Secretlab saw a “massive surge in demand” for their chairs during this pandemic period. During the circuit breaker period in April, Secretlab also worked with e-sports partners to donate 400,000 masks to healthcare workers in Singapore, Britain and the United States.
Secretlab now valued at USD 300 million
Last year, Secretlab secured an undisclosed amount of funding from Temasek subsidiary Heliconia Capital, raising the company’s valuation to between USD 200 million and USD 300 million. Heliconia is its first external investor. According to Ian, the main consideration that defined their fundraising journey was that any potential partner they bring onboard must be aligned in terms of synergy and values.
“For us, Heliconia and Temasek’s corporate expertise has been invaluable as we scale up our business globally. Derek Lau and his team at Heliconia are great nurturers. They invest in founders and believe in letting the founders run the company, only stepping in to provide advice and connections wherever appropriate.”
“Our vision and day-to-day operations have not changed as a result of this investment. That’s really important to us. Ultimately, this partnership with Heliconia is like turbo-boosting our engines, further accelerating our growth to the next stages and beyond.”
Sharing more about the funding, Ian said that “the company was already well in the black” when they secured Heliconia as an investor.
“I think this helps set us apart from many other startups and gives us the breathing room to improve on our product even more through extensive R&D, instead of single-mindedly focusing on non-sustainable revenue growth or short-term profitability.”
Conquering the global gaming throne
According to Ian, the company’s grand vision is to put a Secretlab chair in front of every computer screen in the world. Secretlab manufactures more than 500,000 chairs a year and has made its mark in over 60 countries, with the latest expansion to Japan in June. Its biggest market is North America with over 50% of sales—this is not surprising given the sheer size of the e-sports industry in the US.
In contrast, Singapore only accounts for about five per cent of its total sales each year.
“As we continue to expand globally however, we’re looking into more creative avenues and platforms through which we can engage our customers, both in regions we’re already in and potential new regions that we are considering expanding to,” said Ian.
“As a direct-to-consumer brand, maintaining an unbroken line of communication between us and each and every customer is something that is extremely important to us. This is especially crucial when countries worldwide went into lockdown and people inevitably consumed larger than ever amounts of content online—you’ve got to be relevant and engaging to stand out from the crowd at first glance.”
When asked to share his business mantra, Ian imparted that entrepreneurship is a world of decision-making based on imperfect information. Not even Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk make the right decision all the time, maybe not even 80% of the time, he added.
This article was first published by Vulcan Post.