Playing The Long Game

Gaming enthusiasts Ian Ang and Alaric Choo co-founded Secretlab out of necessity, and aim to build a sustainable business capable of serving more customers’ needs.

By Leona Ang      4 January 2019

It was the need for a beverage that first brought Ian Ang, 26, and Alaric Choo, 30, together. The two of them were at a local esports tournament eight years ago as rival participants. Alaric approached Ian to ask where he had gotten his Starbucks drink from. And, just like that, a friendship was forged. Their shared interest in gaming led to numerous gaming sessions, competitions and, eventually, the more serious path of business partnership. In just three years, the duo has built an impressive business that has expanded to over 50 countries. From just the pair of them working out of a small space in the office of custom gaming PC maker Aftershock (also co-founded by gamers), Secretlab now has a staff of 40 and its own premises, where customers can walk in to try out their range of chairs. What makes Secretlab ahead of the game is not just its relentless pursuit to produce quality gaming chairs – it’s also its understanding of the need to evolve continually based on shifting customer requirements.

Musical Chairs

In 2014, Ian was in the middle of moving when he decided to get a gaming chair. It proved to be an uphill task. “I couldn’t find one that fit my needs. I wanted a comfortable chair that matched the aesthetics of my room,” he says. “Eventually, I bought one from an international brand, through an importer. But when I later had issues with the chair, I was tossed between the importer, the overseas distributor and the company’s HQ.” This frustrating experience of musical chairs was the spark that Ian needed. “It got me thinking: First, the comfort and aesthetics of the chair weren’t even up to my standards. Second, there was a severe lack of customer service when an issue arose. So I figured: ‘What if I could do it better?’” He roped in his pal and fellow gamer Alaric and, together, they consulted a few designers and experts in the furniture industry to determine if this was something they could take on. In just one year, the pair launched their first Secretlab chair.

For Gaming, For Health

Being gamers, Ian and Alaric instinctively knew what features they wanted in a chair. “There are health concerns stemming from long hours in front of the computer,” says Ian. “And the scary thing is, these days it isn’t just the gaming community spending long hours in front of their computers. Most office workers are also doing the same. “That’s where we come in – to design a chair that can alleviate the potential health conditions that may arise from spending eight to 10 hours sitting, typing and clicking away.” The duo, together with their design team, worked with industry experts to examine the different aspects that would affect a seated person’s health. These include body proportions, the chair’s typical environment, the right amount of lumbar support to help maintain a healthy back, and more. The result was a well-crafted and reasonably priced chair that used top-of-the-line materials. The chair also included a suite of fully adjustable features to facilitate long hours of sitting.

Lessons From Gaming

Developing the chair was just the beginning. Growing it into a viable business was the next big step. Thankfully, Ian and Alaric were prepared. “We’ve been gamers since we were five years old, and that helps build my confidence and shape my business thinking,” says Alaric. “Through gaming, I picked up skills I wouldn’t otherwise have. Playing games at a high level, we spend more time strategising and planning than playing. Finding the most efficient way often requires you to think outside of the box. The same thing can be said about running a business.” Ian echoes those sentiments. “I started playing Runescape [an online multiplayer game] at 13. That’s where I learnt economic fundamentals such as demand and supply, how a marketplace works, the concept of economies of scale, and more. These lessons came in handy when handling our business.”

One thing the pair is adamant about their business is offering a robust after-sales service, drawing from Ian’s unpleasant chair-shopping experience. “That experience led to the key mantra for Secretlab today,” he says. “Beyond making sure that our chairs are of top quality, we also offer nothing less than world-class customer service, which guarantees replies from our in-house staff within 24 working hours to all warranty/sales inquiries, no matter where the customer is.”

Secretlab also focused on direct-to customer sales, so that it could interact with customers directly. While there may be competition, Secretlab has stood out for its excellent customer service. With this strategy working, it now sells to over 50 countries, home to more than 100,000 customers.

Once rival gamers, Ian Ang (right) and Alaric Choo now head a fast-growing gaming and office chair business.

Growth And The Future

With the business taking off, the challenge is to maintain a good level of quality and meet demands. The firm’s biggest hurdle this year was to scale up their production to meet orders. Being at the forefront of a niche manufacturing industry, there isn’t an established supply chain for the chairs yet, which makes it a source of stress. “Our supply chain is new,” says Ian. “Our main factory has sub-factories that are their suppliers. Those suppliers have their suppliers. If anything goes wrong for anyone on the chain, our whole production gets messed up.” So far, the founders and their team have taken everything in stride, tackling each challenge as it comes.

In the recent Black Friday sale, Secretlab staff put in over 100-hour work weeks leading to the sale weekend. It might have been an intense period, but it was a worthwhile effort. Secretlab sold over 15,000 chairs, earning a whopping $7 million during the late November weekend. As has been noted, Secretlab chairs stand out because of their quality, attention to detail, and the company’s personable customer service – and Ian and Alaric intend to keep it that way. “We started out as customers ourselves, and understood what it was like being frustrated with products that didn’t meet quality expectations and user experience,” says Ian.

“This is why Alaric and I take pride and care in every material and design decision on our products.” The duo are also willing to adapt. They listen to feedback from customers and make changes quickly. “As an SME, our best advantage is our agility. Our first products were great, and they are now better and improved,” says Ian. “This year, we’re going to get even better.”

The Long Game

Secretlab is planning to launch new products in 2019. It recently announced its global partnership with Cloud9, voted the esports organisation of 2018, and is preparing for more tie-ups. When the founders do have some rare downtime, they try to accommodate their first love: gaming. They would hold LAN parties at Ian’s home – with Secretlab chairs, of course. They do admit that these precious gaming sessions are getting less frequent. Most of their free time now is spent planning next steps and new launches for the company. “We aren’t in this for the short game,” says Ian. “We are out to create a sustainable business.”