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EY ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR: CONSUMER PRODUCTS - IAN ANG

Sitting pretty, thanks to quality gaming chairs

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Mr Ang says: "One thing that hasn't changed is our 'grow or die' mentality - every day is Day One for us."

IF Secretlab was not already a household name in Singapore, the massive shift to working from home in 2020 has definitely made it so. In fact, that understates the meteoric rise of this six-year-old company that started out making chairs for a niche market of serious gamers, but now churns out over a million chairs a year, selling them in over 60 countries.

Revenue this year is now projected to exceed S$300 million, thanks to a spike in demand from business professionals worldwide wanting a quality chair at home to work from. That is 30 times what it was just three years ago, says Ian Ang, its 28-year-old co-founder and CEO.

Keenly aware that Secretlab sits on the upward slope of the K-shaped recovery many economies now face, he says: "We're very fortunate to be one of the very few companies that have continued to see strong growth throughout the pandemic."

Even before Covid-19 hit, Secretlab had begun to attract a corporate client base of law firms, startups and even clinics. "It seems to us that each Secretlab chair sold sells another Secretlab chair, and the work-from-home situation seems to have amplified this massively," says Mr Ang.

He adds: "We've built our chairs with professional gamers in mind and these players spend up to 16 hours a day seated during practice. Ensuring that our chairs meet the needs of this demanding audience has naturally also made us the go-to choice for anyone else who spends long hours seated."

Global demand has been so overwhelming that most of its chairs - which go for at least S$499 and as high as S$1,184 for a leather-upholstered model - are now being sold on pre-order.

Things have been challenging behind the scenes. Scaling up production further to meet demand was not easy due to the proprietary nature of each component in the chairs. "Our supply chain and production lines are also unique to us, so it's not as simple as commissioning another factory to produce our chairs," Mr Ang notes.

But, having full control of operations did give Secretlab agility. It has been able to open up more production lines, shift to 24/7 production and explore alternative shipping options to cut customers' waiting times.

That control extends to quality. Mr Ang says: "Creating a quality product was the first and most crucial step, but we're also aware that the customer's experience doesn't end when they hit the check-out button - we have to provide top-notch service every step of the way."

Secretlab thus intends to continue focusing on its "direct-to-consumer" model, even as it works to make chairs more widely available - through more channels and in more countries. Just this year, it broke into several new markets including Japan, South Korea, China and New Zealand.

SUSTAINABILITY OVER SPEED

The scramble to keep up with demand harks back to Secretlab's beginnings. The story of how two former StarCraft II semi-professional gamers - Mr Ang and his co-founder Alaric Choo - put up their own capital to start a company, make their dream gaming chair, then sold out the initial run within a week and turned a profit within a year, is now a familiar one.

Milestones notched up since include the global partnerships that Secretlab clinched with Riot Games, the developer of the League of Legends esports title, and with One Championship's esports venture, One Esports. And, in August 2019, Temasek Holdings' unit Heliconia Capital Management took a minority stake in Secretlab, an investment that reportedly valued Secretlab at over S$200 million.

"I've heard optimistic evaluations that our valuation has skyrocketed since the last round, but we're just happy that we have more resources to continue investing in our people and into R&D for our fans," says Mr Ang.

Investment into R&D runs into the millions, he points out. But Secretlab is in no hurry to diversify its product range beyond chairs. "It'd be a disservice to our customers if we ever released a less-than-stellar product. So, while we have considered making more than just chairs, we'll only do so when we're confident we can produce something that is unparalleled in quality - just like our chairs today."

Mr Ang is also quick to stress that their business model has always been to focus on sustainable profit growth - not ever-ballooning sales. "This has allowed us to be self-sustaining and not be reliant on outside funding for growth. Instead, we reinvest the profits to fund growth."

To him, a public listing is unlikely. "We operate best as a private company with longevity and focus in mind. But never say never."

Amid Secretlab's frenzied ramping up of production this year, Mr Ang was named one of three EY Entrepreneur of the Year award winners in Singapore, in the consumer goods category. "I've always felt entrepreneurship was my path. It's in my blood," shares Mr Ang.

Too "rebellious and non-conformist to follow a standard path", Mr Ang believes he just needed the discipline, mindset and motivation - honed in his gaming days - to get started on building a business. Gaming at a semi-pro level trained him to strategise and think analytically, but most crucially, primed him with the right mindset for entrepreneurship.

"Firstly, I was addicted to self-improvement and chasing goals in gaming. Not gaming itself. Don't be addicted to gaming itself. Secondly, games are a great platform for one to learn from mistakes," he says. It is how he learnt to take risks in a beneficial manner.

"One thing that hasn't changed is our 'grow or die' mentality - every day is Day One for us. While we're still at the forefront of the industry, we have to keep innovating and pushing boundaries to disrupt ourselves in order to stay ahead of the curve," he explains.

Back in 2014, when he dropped out of university to start Secretlab, Mr Ang told his parents that he'd "rather die than fail". Things are no different today.

"Many big companies have enjoyed decades of domination, but they just suddenly fell and disappeared due to their inability to adapt to market disruptions. It has happened with search engines, mobile manufacturers, computer brands and many more. What I've learnt is that, ironically, the safest way to go about business is to continue taking risks and continue growing," he says.

His parents are small business owners of a few car workshops. They have never expected him to take over the family business, but watching them from young has shaped his own views on leading a business, reflects Mr Ang.

He imbued financial discipline from the days when his mother would make him tabulate expenses in order to get his next allowance. And seeing his parents show up to work every day, at almost the same time each day, for decades, was its own lesson. "Showing up every day is so underrated. It'll get you far."

On the flip side, witnessing how hard his parents worked without scaling the business made him determined to find talented people better than himself and delegate well. "This is a barrier that prevents a lot of small businesses from going to the next level," says Mr Ang.

MOST IMPORTANT ASSET

There are now more than 100 employees - mostly millennials with an average age of 28 - based in Secretlab's headquarters in Singapore. To cope with ramped-up production, the company recruited more than 30 Singaporeans for positions in operations, customer service and product development during the "circuit breaker" period alone.

Each person who joins is asked to take the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator test. "It's a framework that allows people to understand that everyone's different, respond, work and manage differently," says Mr Ang, an ENTJ, the personality type characterised by some as "The Commander".

"We believe that our employees are our most important asset," he notes. To him, that has meant taking great care to assess the role, growth and function of every hire, so that every individual can make a real difference to the business. Practically, he also lets staff take the lead on their own projects. His job, as he sees it, is to establish a clear vision and empower his team.

"Awards are definitely important, but at the end of the day, building a good and sustainable business should always be your No 1 focus as an entrepreneur. When you're able to do that, the recognition and investments will follow," adds Mr Ang.

"That said, I have my co-founder Alaric and the entire Secretlab team to thank for walking with me on this long and arduous journey. I couldn't have done it without them and as always, it's only Day One and we're just getting started."

READ MORE: Secretlab CEO Ian Ang is Singapore's EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2020

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