Want to be successful? Avoid toxic co-workers and culture, Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan tells SMU graduands

Min-Liang Tan, Razer CEO, also said he “conveniently” forgot to tell his parents he was no longer a lawyer when he quit to start up the company.
YouTube screengrab/Razer

Fresh graduates eager to carve out their own success in life need to first ensure they’re working with the right people, Min-Liang Tan, one of Singapore’s most well-known tech CEOs has said.

The Razer chief executive and co-founder said during his speech at the Singapore Management University (SMU) commencement opening ceremony last Tuesday (July 30) that the success of his gaming hardware firm was not his own work, but the work of the people he was lucky enough to meet along the way.

Addressing the class of 2019 at the SMU campus, Tan said: “The people that you will meet at work will dictate if you will be successful in life.

“If you hang out with negative, toxic people at work who aren’t committed to doing well, you’re destined for failure. Conversely, if you’re lucky enough to meet smart, driven people who want to do well for themselves, for the people they work with, and for the organisations that they work for, you’re more likely to succeed in life.”

He also reminded graduands not to focus on the wrong things at the start of their career. “I can’t emphasise how important this is, especially for your first job – that it isn’t the salary that you’re gonna get or the title that you will have. But it’s the people that you work with, work for, and the culture that you’ll be working in,” he said.

The people that one meets along the course of their work are among the three important groups of people Tan said one will meet in life. The other two groups are family and people “you will spend your life giving back to”.

“Family are the people that you take the most from and owe the most to”

Tan started his speech by telling the students about his parents, whom he described as “the single most important people in my life”.

His father is a “well-educated, stern, quiet man who came from humble beginnings”, while his mother was “the daughter of a school watchman”, he said.

“While my parents had so little to go through life themselves, they wanted only the best for their children, but expected nothing, except for us to do well”, he added.

The 41-year-old recalled that he was far from a model student in his younger days. “Clearly, I was playing games and doing everything that wasn’t necessarily in line with what the school wanted me to do,” he said.

He was also cutting classes and while he did well in his favourite subjects, he remembers failing just about everything else.

“I caused [my parents] a lot of grief, especially my mother, and till this day I regret every single time I let her down,” he said.

Tan had only S$4,000 in savings when he founded Razer.
Lianhe Zaobao

From his father, he saw and learnt about hard work, attention to detail and responsibility, while his mother taught him to “just go get what you [want] out of life.”

After graduating from law school, Tan found a job at a law firm, “but at the back of my mind, my mother’s voice would always be there saying ‘you can do whatever you want, just go do it.'”

And if you’re wondering how his parents reacted when he quit his lawyer job to found his own start-up, he says: “Truth be told, I never really told them. I just conveniently forgot to tell them that I quit being a lawyer and founded Razer with just about S$4,000 in savings.”

He figures they eventually learned he was no longer a lawyer when they noticed he was wearing a black t-shirt and jeans to work. “But they never said a thing about it, except my mother, who’d occasionally asked if I was taking care of my health,” he recalled.

“The thing I learnt about family is that what they say to you is what they think is the best for you. But what is unsaid is that no matter what you do – whether you take their advice or otherwise – your family will ultimately support you with any decision that you make,” he said.

“So I hope that you will learn that your family are the people in your life that you will take the most from and owe the most to,” he said, and told the students to appreciate their families “every single minute, every single day”.

“People that you meet at work can fundamentally change your life”

Referring to his own career, the lawyer-turned-techpreneur told students that what they ended up doing may not be what they spent their entire life studying or working toward.

“Your work is going to be a very big part of your life, and as such, it is incredibly important that you commit yourself to doing great work. If you’re lucky, like me, you’ll find your path early on. But if you don’t truly love the work that you do, move on and don’t stop looking forward until you find what you’re truly passionate about,” he said.

The former lawyer, who founded Razer in 2005, took the company public in Hong Kong in late 2017. Under his leadership, Razer has become one of the most recognisable brands in gaming hardware globally, with a strong fan base among computer gamers. In recent months, the company even made its own toaster (the product of overwhelming fan requests), and on August 4, it unveiled the Razer x NIO ES6 Night Explorer electric car – a collaboration with China’s Nio. Only 88 units of the car will be made and sold in China, Razer said.

But he says the success of Razer was the work of the entire team, and not just him.

“It was really the people I had met in the course of my work. And the people that you will meet at work will dictate if you will be successful in life,” Tan, who has an estimated wealth of S$955 million, said.

He also named Khaw Kheng Joo, Razer chief operating officer, as “one of the people that I respect most in my life”. Tan described Khaw as his mentor, friend and a person with “absolutely no personal ego at all”.

“He always puts the interest of the company and the people around him first,” Tan said.

Khaw was formerly CEO of MediaRing.
The Business Times

He told a story of how he approached Khaw, former MediaRing CEO, to be CEO of Razer but Khaw chose to be COO instead. “It wasn’t an issue of money, title or prestige for him. He just felt he could contribute the most as COO of a tiny company like ours back then,” he said.

“It’s truly the people that you meet in the course of your work that can fundamentally change your life, Tan said.

His advice to graduands was: “Find work that you’re truly, truly passionate about, and surround yourself with like-minded people that you want to grow with, learn from and be successful with.”

“You have a moral and ethical duty to give back”

Reminding graduands that they are only where they are today because of people who have helped make it happen, Tan said: “Whether you know it or not today, you owe a debt to them, and you have a moral and ethical duty to give back”.

These people could be the school they are from, their community, the country, and even the planet.

Tan also encouraged giving back without expecting thanks or recognition.

“In fact, it’s more likely that you will not be thanked, honoured or recognised for it and you will just hear negativity and naysayers.”

Read also: Razer’s new SEA HQ is set to open at Singapore’s one-north – here are 10 of the gaming company’s coolest products

Tan then recounted how critics had been unconvinced when he famously tweeted Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong about helping to create a cashless payment system in Singapore.

“But it didn’t matter to us. What mattered was that this was an opportunity for us as Singaporeans to step up and give back, to do something for Singaporeans by Singaporeans. And it didnt matter for us if succeeded or failed – at least we would have tried for the county,” he said.

Now, Tan says Razer runs one of the biggest e-money platforms in the region with billions of dollars in payments transacted. Razer Pay is also currently being trialed in Singapore.

“It’s not about being popular, it’s not about being liked. It’s about doing the right thing when you have the opportunity to do so,” he said.

“Life is short, don’t let the naysayers distract you because in the bigger scheme of things, they don’t matter at all in the work that you will do,” he added.

Tan ended his speech by telling the audience about the times he read the book series Choose Your Own Adventure when he was a child. The books would present dilemmas and give him choices to make, but the result was always “gloriously random no matter how much thought I put into it.”

Tan said: “Life is just a game, a series of random choices that I have made for the ongoing adventure ahead of me. And today, as you graduate to begin day one, I wish for you a life that is just a game with many random choices for the adventure that is ahead of you.”

Watch his full speech here:

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