Secretlab Co-Founders Ian Ang And Alaric Choo On The Meteoric Rise Of Their Gaming Chair Company
As a new year rolls around, some people resolve to lose weight, learn a new language or achieve a career goal. Not Ian Ang and Alaric Choo. Instead, the co-founders of gaming chair company Secretlab want to spend more time playing computer games.
Not that these millennial wunderkinds are slackers by any measure. Hot off a stellar year for the business despite the raging global pandemic, their goal is to achieve more work-life “harmony” by doing what they love the most, in an attempt to balance out a madcap few years of seemingly never-ending hustle.
Since Secretlab was launched in December 2014, its ergonomic chairs—designed for a gamer’s comfort even through 14-hour marathon sessions in front of a computer screen—have been garnering rave reviews on multiple tech websites including CNet, TechRadar and PCMag. In 2018, Temasek subsidiary Heliconia Capital Management took a minority stake in the company which was, at that point, valued between US$200 million and US$300 million.
Then last year, as the pandemic forced desk-bound workers to set up WFH (work-from-home) offices, sales for Secretlab chairs surged. It sold its millionth chair in 2020, a feat which Ang quips means that they managed to sell “a million more chairs than we expected when we first started”.
The chairs, codenamed Omega, Titan and Titan XL, are designed to support users of different sizes and come in different upholstery options, including synthetic leather (or PU leather), SoftWeave fabric or genuine napa leather.
To cap the watershed year, the 28-year-old Ang, who is the company’s CEO, became the youngest winner of the coveted EY Entrepreneur of the Year award in November. “It’s definitely been a huge surprise and honour to win this award, especially considering that past winners and this year’s finalists are such talented and experienced entrepreneurs,” he says. “But nothing has changed as a result of receiving this award. We are still very focused on building a solid, sustainable business with explosive growth.”
This year, they hope to reclaim a bit of their past lives as hardcore gamers who spend their waking hours exploring the swashbuckling digital worlds of heroes and villains—but there is a business rationale behind this as well.
We try to treat each day as if it is our Day One. Basically, we have to constantly innovate, improve and prove ourselves so that we keep growing
“We’ve gamed for years and on top of the quality of our chairs, I think that is what has allowed us to stay relevant and collaborate with the biggest game publishers in the world,” says Choo, 32, who is Secretlab’s chief strategy officer. The duo first met when they were competitive gamers and became business partners when Ang approached Choo to start a company to build the ideal gamer’s chair.
One of the brand’s biggest claims to fame is its hyped-about collaborations with top gaming companies including Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft and Riot Game’s League of Legends. Secretlab, which ships directly to customers in over 60 countries, has also snagged partnerships with popular franchises such as HBO’s Game of Thrones and Warner Bro’s Dark Knight and Harley Quinn.
“We understand the franchises very well because of our gaming experience, and that has allowed us to collaborate on a level that other brands can’t. We want to stay true to that,” Choo adds.
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DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT
In fact, this year’s big game plan is to double down on the same guiding principles that have brought them this far—which is to make the best chair possible for gamers, the people who they believe will stress test these chairs to the limit with their habits.
“Alaric and I are obsessed with gaming chairs,” says Ang. At any given time, both of them will personally test out a few different chair models in their own offices, he says. “We’ve never developed chairs for mainstream users but for hardcore gamers, the one percentile users who demand a lot. And if it is good enough for them, we think that it would be an option for anyone else, who needs it just a little bit less such as when working from home.”
To stay ahead of the competition, they are not letting up their quest for the perfect chair and continue to invest heavily in research and development for each new series they launch. Prototypes are tested in glass chambers to test the effect of sweat, humidity and other conditions on the wear and tear of the materials. They also consult ergonomics experts and doctors to tweak the designs to ensure maximum comfort.
Improvements include using foam with more uniform consistency and leatherette that is softer, more supple and more durable. Likening the design progression to Apple’s iPhones, Choo says, “If we were to really compare the chairs side to side, there’s almost no similar parts at this point.”
We’ve gamed for years and on top of the quality of our chairs, I think that is what has allowed us to stay relevant and collaborate with the biggest game publishers in the world
— Alaric Choo
A SUSTAINABLE DIRECTION
While some startup founders launch companies with an exit plan, Ang and Choo are clear that they are in this for the long haul. “We are planning for a strong future and are very focused on building something that is long-term,” Ang says, noting that he keeps a close eye on Secretlab’s bottom line to ensure that its profit margin remains healthy.
In part, this is borne out of a drive to ensure their legacy lives on, especially with the ongoing hard slog to expand to more new markets. Ang reflects, “While we have successfully expanded to the biggest consumer markets in the world, each extension was risky and painful as hell.”
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As they function on a direct-to-consumer model, their expansion entails not just setting up an office but hiring the right personnel who are willing to innovate and also establishing an entire logistics chain.
Last year, despite the challenges of the pandemic, they launched in China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. “We are fortunate that we’re still growing in times like these where a lot of companies are struggling to survive, but it wasn’t without issues as well,” says Choo. “Our supply chain, production and operations are unique to us. The team has been working extremely hard around the clock to adapt rapidly and scale up the business.”
This drive is inspired by Ang’s “Day One” philosophy, which the duo says is how they have stayed the course through the daily bustle of steering their company all these years.
He says, “We have gone through so many phases of growth that it is easy for us to be complacent and stagnant—but this is what kills many companies. So we try to treat each day as if it’s our Day One. Basically, we have to constantly innovate, improve and prove ourselves so that we keep growing.”
See other honourees from the Engineering, Manufacturing & Energy category of the Gen.T List.