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Game on: Secretlab goes from startup to global brand in 5 years

Lee U-Wen
Published Sun, Apr 26, 2020 · 09:50 PM


THE story of Secretlab - the gaming chair manufacturer born and bred in Singapore that is now making waves around the world - is both fascinating and unconventional.

Co-founded by former professional gamers Ian Alexander Ang and Alaric Choo with their own capital in 2014, the company graduated from its startup status quickly by turning a profit in just one year.

The company's plush award-winning chairs - many of which are priced around the S$500-600 region, with the most expensive model currently on its website going for S$1,099 - are coveted by video game enthusiasts and non-gamers alike.

Singapore may be where it calls home, but the Lion City accounts for only about 5 per cent of its total sales each year. North America is its largest and most important market today with over 50 per cent of sales.

Secretlab now has 100 people on its payroll, most of whom are millennials with an average age of just 28. That, incidentally, is also Mr Ang's age, while his business partner Mr Choo is four years older at 32.

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In August last year, Heliconia Capital Management - a subsidiary of Singapore state investment firm Temasek Holdings - invested in a minority stake that reportedly put Secretlab's overall valuation at over S$200 million.

At the time, Heliconia's chief executive Derek Lau hailed Secretlab as being a "recognised global brand" with "significant growth potential".

Mr Ang, the company's chief executive officer, said that Secretlab's success in stamping its mark as a leading player in the global gaming chairs space was something he did not expect so soon.

Currently, Secretlab manufactures more than 300,000 chairs a year that are sold in over 60 countries.

"We honestly did not expect to be successful immediately upon launching, and for sure, it has been a surreal experience to be running a business borne of our passion for a hobby enjoyed by billions - gaming," he said.

"We were able to address a long-standing gap in the gaming industry, and our chairs quickly drew a strong following. We turned profitable in a year and looked ahead to scale the business."

Even so, he knows there is much work to be done and plenty of targets to aim for - whether it is growing the customer base in Singapore and Asia, or dealing with the downturn due to the severe force of the coronavirus pandemic.

"The economic slowdown is unprecedented in our time, and so many of us are facing tremendous stress and uncertainty," he said.

"As a digitally-native business, our revenue has continued growing positively, and we are lucky enough to have been resilient in weathering the current economic climate and our growth continues steadily."

To those who think e-sports is nothing more than a passing fad and a bubble that will eventually burst, Mr Ang begs to differ, given there are an estimated 2.6 billion gamers worldwide in 2020.

"Investors have been bullish about e-sports, and much money has been poured into the industry," he said.

"There is much potential, especially once you consider the viewership numbers, the stickiness of e-sports, and the exponential growth in discretionary income of the target market. The industry is booming and reshaping the sports and entertainment landscape."

Mr Ang said that as the sector continues to grow, there could be opportunities for Secretlab to develop better and more advanced versions of its gaming chairs.

"While we are not saying no to branching out to other product lines in the future, we plan to continue focusing on our core product in the immediate future," he said.

Mr Ang admitted that he is probably not in the best position to comment on how startups should court investors, given that he has not had to go through the fundraising process much.

"What I would say, however, is to focus on building a good business. That should be the entrepreneur's priority, not finding investors," he said in a recent interview with The Business Times.

"If you have a business with sound fundamentals, it will be easier to attract investors. Once your business is self-sustaining, you will not be at the mercy of having to fund raise to survive, especially in tough times such as now. Don't be greedy, and don't take shortcuts."

Mr Ang said that while he remains ''cautiously optimistic" about Secretlab's business trajectory for the rest of 2020, he stressed that the well-being of his employees is just as important during the coronavirus pandemic.

"This is a tough time for everyone and their families, and so we decided to issue a special bonus to our staff in the month of March," he said, without revealing how much.

Recently, Secretlab announced it was donating 400,000 masks to healthcare workers in hospitals in Singapore, the US and the UK.

The company initially said on March 30 that it would donate 50,000 masks to hospitals in the US - the country with the highest number of cases in the world - and would give another 200 masks for certain chairs sold by its e-sports partners over a two-week period.

In a post on its Facebook page, Secretlab thanked Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry and Enterprise Singapore for facilitating its outreach efforts to hospitals and healthcare institutions.

"We continue to explore other ways for us and the e-sports community to provide further support to those in need, and hope that this small gesture will be able to provide some relief to these frontline heroes who have been working tirelessly and risking their lives to keep communities safe," said Mr Ang.


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