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By Lyn Chan
SINGAPORE — Ian Ang, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Secretlab, the Singaporean gaming chair company, represents one of those stories people love: someone who got bitten by the idea bug, and turned the thought into a business that’s both fun and successful.
So successful that the 29-year-old in June put down S$51 million for two property purchases — S$36 million for a Good Class Bungalow and S$15 million for a triplex penthouse, according to a report by EdgeProp. Last year, Ang became the youngest ever winner of Singapore's EY Entrepreneur of the Year award.
The company recently moved into its new S$10 million, 44,000 square feet global headquarters and research and development centre in Braddell. Secretlab plans to invest S$50 million in R&D over the next few years. The Braddell headquarters currently houses more than 200 staff, with room for another 100 as the company continues to expand, Ang said in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore.
Not bad for a fervent gamer who, instead of merely lamenting the lack of an ideal gaming chair, decided to take matters into his own hands —and make his own.
He pulled in fellow gamer Alaric Choo to create a solution for the industry. The duo started out as rivals at a local esports tournament, but gaming over Diablo, World of Warcraft, Destiny, Dota, Overwatch, PUBG and Rust cemented their friendship.
“I knew Alaric to be someone insanely proficient with technical aspects and how things are physically constructed, as well as people, so when I came up with the idea for Secretlab, he was naturally the first person I thought of,” Ang said. Choo is now the company's chief strategy officer.
In 2014, with S$50,000, mostly from their savings, the duo started Secretlab. They have since turned a local gaming chair company which was building prototypes in a small room into a global brand used on the biggest international esports stages. The company now makes over a million chairs annually for 60 countries, with North America and the European Union making up 60 per cent of global sales, according to Ang. “That said, these are still growth markets for us, just like the rest of the world.”
Ang reckons that the perfectionistic streak inherent within Secretlab team has propelled the company to the global phenomenon it is today.
“Our entire company is wholly focused on developing the best chairs. Everyone on the team is specialised in either making gaming chairs, selling gaming chairs, or servicing people who have gaming chairs, and we've been at this for years. It’s a matter of life and death. To stagnate is to acquiesce, to decline.” Obsession pays off, it seems.
It may be one of the reasons that Heliconia Capital Management was drawn to Secretlab in 2019, taking a minority stake. Reports following the announcement valued the company at between S$200 million and S$300 million. Ang declined to comment on the numbers, saying only that “the valuation numbers you find online (other than Heliconia’s) are just hearsay or simply estimates".
“We don’t have an updated valuation number either until we go through a next round. We’ve been working hard on global expansion and product expansion, and our earnings have grown more than 10 times since Heliconia’s investment,” he said.
Ang reveals that other investors have been sniffing around. Although he is not actively on the hunt for more backing, he doesn’t discount their interest. Meanwhile, an external adviser manages such discussions.
As for going public, that’s not on the cards. However, he is quick to add, “Never say never."
As Secretlab steamrolls ahead towards long-term sustainable growth – increasing R&D, faster customer deliveries and further market expansion, for instance – how does Ang squeeze in time for gaming?
“Alaric and I still try to find pockets of time to game with our friends. We use that time to test out new prototypes. Thanks for reminding me of the resolution to game more – I think I’m maybe one-third there, so, more work to be done!”
Ang shares his thoughts on his entrepreneurial experience:
What made you drop out of university to pursue the business?
We were quite successful soon after launching Secretlab, and I realised I probably needed to spend 16 hours daily on building the business. How far it would go depended on how much time and energy I invested into it. I thought I had a once in a lifetime opportunity and would regret it if I didn’t give it my all, even if it meant going without completing my university degree.
For me, it was a calculated risk so I have no regrets. Not everything will work out the way you want it but that’s okay as long as you’ve weighed your options. It’s the same as poker, and also something that I learnt from gaming, which actually helped me a lot with running a business. Most people only look at the results and regret their decisions retrospectively but there is a right choice in that moment. If the odds are in your favour, you should play them.
What challenges did you face setting up the company?
Back in 2015, few paid attention to the gaming chair industry. We were also a digitally native brand and sold our chairs directly to consumers. Everything was very new; there was no playbook for us to follow, no guide for us to refer to in the hope of overtaking an established player. We decided to set our sights on becoming the first giant the industry has ever known.
We weren’t satisfied with the options for gaming chairs then, so we started from scratch. This meant exhausting every resource to source for components and premium quality materials. We eventually set up our own unique global supply chain which put us in full control over our entire supply chain and global operations, and enabled us to better adapt and respond quickly to the needs of our customers.
What advice would you give to people who are thinking of dropping out of school or leaving their jobs to strike out on their own?
I think dropping out of school for entrepreneurs is overblown and romanticised. I wouldn’t recommend it for most people. Ninety per cent of startups fail. Factor that number in when making your decision, consider what stage of life you’re in (if you have family to support, for example), and why you’re really considering striking out on your own.
What inspires you?
Rather than stories of inspiration, it is stories of failures that push us harder. It doesn’t matter that we’ve now sold more than 1 million units of the same product, or that we’re the only ones to have successfully done so. For us, it’s ‘grow or die’. It’s always Day 1 no matter how big we become. We have to keep innovating and improving, or we will one day become irrelevant, like many giants before us. It has happened to mobile phone manufacturers, search engines and many others who were huge but crashed and disappeared within just one or two years.
What are some of your favourite books?
Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly, Andrew S. Grove’s High Output Management and Ray Dalio’s Principles