The economics of ergonomics

Secretlab’s Ian Ang says the company’s main advantage lies in its scale.

BIGGER is certainly better for Secretlab, at least when it comes to scaling the business. Less than a decade after the homegrown furniture manufacturer launched the first 200 units of its gaming chair in 2015 - selling out entirely within a week - the company now churns out a million units of its flagship product annually for over 60 countries, with North America and the European Union counting among its largest markets.

"We've always been obsessed about how we can scale effectively, further develop and innovate products that meaningfully solve problems and serve our users better. That focus remains the same, especially with current economic conditions where even the biggest companies are tightening their belts," said the company's co-founder and chief executive, Ian Ang who clinched the Young Business Leader of the Year Award at the Singapore Business Awards 2022.

Though Secretlab has long been a household name among the e-sports and gaming community across the region and beyond, it was the pandemic that propelled the brand to cult status for its ergonomic chairs among the masses. Driven by soaring demand resulting from work-from-home arrangements becoming the norm, sales of the company's gaming chairs grew nearly 30 times from 3 years earlier to result in close to S$70 million in net profit for the financial year ended February 2021.

By late 2021 the company unveiled plans to invest S$50 million in R&D (research and development), and over the past year broadened its headcount by 50 per cent.

Ang, however, admits that 2022 so far has been "the most challenging year" since the company's 2014 inception, with massive increases in freight and raw material prices as well as an organisation-wide mindset shift that has become requisite as Secretlab continues to expand. But he remains confident the company, with its current size, remains well-equipped to deal with any potential roadblocks that lie ahead. "Now that we're making a million chairs a year, our economies of scale means that the unit cost of R&D, better materials and new-generation manufacturing technologies per chair is much lower. Anyone else operating at a smaller scale won't be able to compete," said Ang.

Backed by science

According to the 30-year-old, no other brand of its kind has been able to achieve Secretlab's sheer feat of having sold 2 million units of just one product. Such economies of scale, says Ang, unlocks cost savings for the company and gives it access to new technology and materials.

More importantly it enables the company to invest more back into R&D: the backbone of the quintessential Secretlab chair that Ang reveals is not only found in the offices of doctors and corporates, but even the entire security force at auxiliary police force Aetos' command centre in Singapore.

Today, the company's chairs are backed by an independent Ergonomic Advisory Board of experts across biomechanics, orthopedics and physical therapy - and even recommended by spinal health specialists, said Ang. Secretlab has also worked with specialised laboratories including A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) to stress test its products, which are internationally certified for safety and durability by the likes of organisations such as Britain's Intertek and the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association based in the US.

"Many people forget that we weren't the first company to make gaming chairs, but we are the first to have gone this far to build an ergonomic chair," he claims. "We've invested heavily into R&D alongside in-depth ergonomic studies such as pressure mapping tests which show that our chairs are more effective at pressure distribution than mesh office chairs, and this is further proven and supported by external academic research."

The result of extensive R&D investment thus far is Secretlab's answer to optimum sitting posture: the Titan Evo 2022 which was released last year. Ang touts this as the company's most technologically advanced chair to date, designed to support natural movement that would allow users to migrate stress away from pressure points built up over prolonged sitting.

Rising to the occasion

But the company is not resting on its laurels after putting itself on the map for its signature gaming chairs. It recently made a foray into the ergonomic desk market with the release of its first metal desk in 2021. A new height-adjustable 'Pro' edition of this desk was launched soon after in August this year, featuring what Ang calls the world's first integrated power solution.

"It has always been about enabling the best ergonomics for our users. Over the years, we studied our own data on how chairs affect users, and we kept refining and upgrading our chairs to what they are today. This also meant that we had accumulated a lot of data that would allow us to build complementary products to the chair - naturally, a desk was the first thing that we thought of," said Ang. "That said, our chairs still remain the core part of our business with dedicated specialist teams doing nothing but work on chairs all day, and that will not change."


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