Min-Liang Tan was “officially pissed off,” he wrote in an email to members of Razer’s marketing team in February of 2014. The gaming hardware company hadn’t made the business website Fast Company’s 2014 list of “Most Innovative Companies,” and in his email, part of an exchange obtained by Kotaku, Tan asked of his marketing employees, “Are you guys fucking off?”
Tan, who had been chief executive of Razer since 2005, received a deferential, 600-word reply from his director of marketing, Greg Agius. This email included a multi-pronged outline for getting Tan “in front of Fast Company” and boosting his image as the “Asian Steve Jobs.” Agius wrote that he had been focused on winning Razer awards at the Las Vegas tech expo CES, and was dedicated to getting Tan his spotlight in Fast Company. An in-person media tour would have given Tan a better opportunity to make the list, Agius added, offering suggestions for future media blitzes and Fast Company events they could use to their advantage.
“Wait,” Tan wrote back, “You’re telling me because I didn’t go for the tour you can’t do your fucking job?” Hours later, Agius was fired, according to three former employees.
This sort of incident was not an aberration at Razer, where Tan has developed a reputation for being a tempestuous, volatile boss, according to interviews with 14 former employees, most of whom spoke anonymously out of fear of repercussions. “We’re all there to basically serve him and make him money,” said one former employee. As another put it, “Razer looks like this cool place to work, but when you get in there, you realise you’re fighting for your life all the time. Either you’re working hard or you’re being told to bugger off.”
Ten people who worked for Razer shared stories of Tan yelling at employees or throwing objects. Some said they’d seen him publicly shame and threaten to fire employees on whims over the last 13 years. At Razer, former employees say, he instituted and celebrated a culture of fear, described by two as a “dictatorship.” Under Tan’s rule, Razer employees said they’d stay overnight at the company’s original offices in Carlsbad, California (they have since moved north to Irvine) to get work done, and that if they weren’t available at all hours to take phone calls or answer emails, they feared they would be fired. Many said they stuck around anyway, largely thanks to the hope of a massive payday once Razer eventually went public. Tan would often imply that all the long hours would lead to huge checks, they said.
When reached for comment on this story, Razer sent a long list of written responses, which we’ve incorporated throughout this piece. A company spokesperson told Kotaku that while they couldn’t comment on Agius’ termination, “no one would have ever been terminated for one such matter.” Razer has employed thousands of people, the representative continued, and “while the vast majority of our staff are happy and engaged, it is inevitable that a small number would be disgruntled and unhappy.” Further, the spokesperson said, Razer’s HR policies have evolved over the past 13 years.
Razer, which employs around 1,300 people across offices in California, Singapore, China, Taiwan, Germany, Turkey, and elsewhere, is now one of the biggest names in gaming hardware, boasting the sort of brand recognition that could have been engineered in a test tube. Acid green and black are their colours, with some of their governing design principles for their mice, headsets and keyboards reminiscent of a ‘90s laser tag arena—all stamped with Razer’s signature snake mascot. In 2018, Razer reported $US712.4 ($1,042) million in revenue. The products are often good, at least after a few iterations, and Kotaku has been reviewing them for years. Behind the sizzle and hype, however, is a CEO whose behaviour has left many feeling disheartened and abused.
The legend of Razer, as Min-Liang Tan tells it during interviews and speeches, is that he founded the company in 2005, ditching a lucrative law career to make a faster, more precise gaming mouse with some friends with whom he played first-person shooters like Quake. Through grit and vision—the stuff of starry-eyed startup hopefuls—Tan set in motion the entire PC gaming peripheral industry, he has said, positioning himself as gamer in chief along with a quiet co-founder named Robert Krakoff. “Back then, gaming mice didn’t exist,” Tan said of Razer’s “first” gaming mouse in an April, 2019 interview. “Essentially we created not just a product, but this entire industry.”
Reality is messier.
Before it was a company, “Razer” was a brand launched by a tech company called Karna to capitalise upon a revolutionary invention by a longtime PC gamer and marketer named Robert Krakoff. Krakoff had combined a hot piece of technology, the light encoder, with the unremarkable PC mouse to create a more precise device. Working with a marketing company, Karna “was able to determine the optimal features and functions needed for a new high-performance gaming mouse,” reads a 1999 release. Six years before Tan’s “first” gaming mouse, Karna had put out the first-ever Razer gaming mouse, the Boomslang, named for a sub-Saharan African snake. It was Krakoff who was quoted in the first Razer press release.
When asked about Razer’s history, Tan confirmed these details, telling Kotaku that the origin story “has, at times, been reported inaccurately by the media.” He said he started working with Krakoff in 2000 to distribute the Razer Boomslang in Asia and helped develop a new mouse with a different team (launched with Karna as the Razer Viper). In the early 2000s, with Karna facing money problems, Tan stepped in and wound up taking control of the Razer brand under a separate entity, which he founded with Krakoff in 2005. Technically, the company Razer was founded in 2005, but the hardware had existed long before that.
This myth of Min Liang-Tan as a revolutionary auteur of gaming PC peripherals helps him draw power over his employees, many of whom have described him as dictatorial or abusive as a boss.
Former Razer employees say that Tan often talked about taking the company public, which could mean big paydays for anyone who owned shares in the company. It helped that Razer was the darling of the enthusiast tech press, which published open-mouthed reviews for the company’s gaming mice inundated with sexy numbers: 1,800 DPI resolution; 1,000 Hz “ultrapolling” technology; 3G infared sensors. The peripherals all boasted early edgelord names like “DeathAdder,” “Megasoma,” “Abyssus.” Alongside the hype, Razer employees remember Tan making big claims about what could come of their initial public offering (IPO) whenever it happened.
“At our town hall meetings [Tan] would come by and say employees would be able to buy fancy cars, they’d be able to retire,” said one former longtime Razer employee. Another recalled Tan saying at a global meeting that he didn’t want everyone driving their Lamborghinis into work on the same day after the IPO. (In an email to Kotaku, Tan said he made that comment because, after the IPO, “I did not want to see anyone driving fancy cars to work or flaunting any wealth made from the stock grants.”)
Five former employees said Tan and other executives would talk up how much money they’d all make after the company went public. In hindsight, the reasons are clear to most of those employees: The dangling carrot of a big payday helped convince them all to work gruelling hours and put up with Tan’s tyrannical rule. “His management style became ruling by fear,” said one former employee. “He was without question a dictator. This was one of his quotes: ‘This is not a democracy. This is a dictatorship.’ Then he’d qualify it, meaning, ‘I am in control.’ There was nothing too big or too small he didn’t want to be controlling. Everything went through him. Nothing was done without him.” When asked about this, Tan said, “I have referenced decision-making in a company as a ‘benevolent dictatorship’ in the sense that someone needs to hear feedback from various sources and make a business decision and be held accountable for that decision.”
Tan has acted as Razer’s co-founder, CEO, creative director, chief of product, director of marketing and “chief gamer” throughout his tenure at Razer, in either official or unofficial capacities. His domineering attitude and trigger-happy disposition is said to have seeped out into every recess of its operations, including employees’ terminations. Several former employees believe they were fired for minor transgressions in fits of volatility, along the lines of what happened to marketing director Greg Agius. Alain Mazer, former global director of public relations at Razer, is currently involved in a complicated legal battle with the company over his own alleged wrongful termination, which Razer disputes.
One employee said they were let go in 2013 after running projected numbers for Razer product sales and determining that the company would not be able to hit Tan’s lofty sales goals within the requested budget. “I was very adamant about it—‘These are the numbers I’m committing. Either I get the resources I need and I’ll hit this number or you’re not gonna give me the resources I need and it’ll come in at this,’” the former employee recalled, adding that one of their colleagues backed up their calculations. They were already working nonstop to meet sales goals, they said, but they were terminated for not clearing what they say was an impossible bar.
Razer offered “no specific comment” on this employee’s termination, adding that, “like in most companies, we have sales team members that miss, hit or over-achieve on their targets.”
Tan also had a reputation for volatility, once threatening to punch an employee in the face, said one former employee who said they witnessed that incident. A second former employee, who was being disciplined by Tan, said Tan threw an object past him in anger. (The object did not hit him.) Two other former employees referred to Min as “verbally abusive,” saying they’d hear expletives and insults coming from Tan’s office whenever he called in other staff for disciplinary talks.
Two others said that, at a town hall meeting, Tan told attending staff that he was a sociopath. “Min has no recollection of describing himself as such in a townhall meeting but regularly makes fun of himself at townhall meetings,” said a Razer spokesperson. “He does remember reading an online article that describes CEOs as having sociopathic tendencies and may have shared that in jest with third parties but has no specific recollection of doing so.”
In an email exchange, Tan acknowledged that he is “very intense” when “it comes to quality of work,” and especially, he said, when it comes to products’ design and engineering. “If a product does not meet my standards, I may express dissatisfaction, including by raising my voice,” he said, adding that, “There have also been occasions where a prototype has not met my standards, and in a design meeting, I have thrown the prototype to the wall or on the floor.” His reason for this behaviour, he says, is “to demonstrate my dissatisfaction with the design, engineering or quality of the prototypes.”
Tan denied throwing objects at employees or threatening violence toward them. “I have made statements to the effect of ‘don’t make me punch you in the face’ or ‘I’ll send my killer robots after you’ but those statements have all been figurative or in jest,” said Tan. He added that he has not heard of any employees complaining about him to Human Resources, in his words, “fearful for their physical safety.”
Tan mainly worked out of Singapore, former employees say, but his rare visits to the California office could be memorable. One former employee recalled witnessing Tan enraged that Razer’s community team bungled a social media post and even madder that he couldn’t find anyone to take responsibility. When he encountered two employees who worked adjacent to the responsible team on a visit to California, two sources say, Tan yelled at them loudly enough, with his office door open, for the whole office to hear. “Every other word out of his mouth was ‘fuck.’ He went on for quite a long time at the top of his lungs.” The employee added, “It was a public shaming.”
During a visit in 2012, Tan was filming something in the U.S. office and grew frustrated by the office chatter. In response, according to two people who were there, he told employees to shut up or he’d start firing people. Over email, a Razer representative told Kotaku that “most, if not all” occasions of Tan yelling at employees were “in a closed-door setting, directed at the mistakes and issues at hand and with a view to providing candid and direct feedback to improve upon the work and not for public shaming.” When it comes to the specific incidents, a Razer representative said Tan has no recollection.
Asked whether Tan’s workplace issues have been addressed by the company or whether he has received management training, Tan told Kotaku that Razer has grown its HR department and has “put in place policies and additional training for employees over the years in which every member of the company, including me, participate.” Since 2016, Razer has been running what the company calls “regular employee pulse surveys.” Tan said that employees’ feedback indicates they are “generally happy,” and that, in 2018, “the majority of the staff were satisfied and engaged.” A Razer representative would not comment on whether Tan has received harassment or management training.
One common reason for Tan’s anger would be Razer staff not working enough overtime. Employees interviewed by Kotaku said they had to go through long, brutal periods of overtime, as is common across the video game industry, with some estimating that they worked 60 or even upwards of 100 hours a week to prepare for trade shows. Two employees said they slept overnight at the office many times so they could work as much as possible, adding that they were never off the clock. “When it comes to product launches or events, many of our employees work additional hours to prepare for it,” said a Razer representative. “This is common in a tech start-up. However, these are typically short windows that do not last more than a few days. Moreover, employees are not expected to work 60 to 100-hour workweeks or to sleep overnight at the office.”
Former Razer employees said they were expected to sacrifice their relationships with their families in order to succeed at the company, too. “I didn’t deny my family in obvious enough ways to satisfy Min,” said Alain Mazer in an interview with Kotaku. “My Razer career ended the day I didn’t ask for his permission to be a good parent and partner. He demands that employees reserve that kind of devotion only for him and his family’s business interests.” One former employee said their son was admitted to the ER after a car crash. While he was still in the hospital, they said, their boss told them to get back to work. Another said he was asked to work on his honeymoon. When asked about this, a Razer representative told Kotaku that they are a “family-friendly employer,” and have adopted policies aimed at supporting employees with families.
One employee said that after the financial crisis in 2008, around the holidays, Tan would ask employees not to take paid time off. The employee recalled Tan effectively saying that if employees took unpaid days off, or came in and worked regardless, they’d get bigger bonuses next year. “The people who did not do that, they would have [lower] bonuses,” they added. (Razer says that, in 2008, senior management, including the CEO, took temporary pay-cuts.) Later on, in 2013, two former employees said they and their colleagues were similarly encouraged to take unpaid or no vacation, for which, Razer says, they were later reimbursed or granted stock.
Three employees said the senior vice president who ran Razer’s U.S. offices, Mike Dilmagani, angrily phoned them while they were on vacation, asking them to come back or work, sometimes yelling. One former employee even made a shirt with the Razer logo that said, “I’m in fucking vacation mode” as a middle-finger to Razer’s disregard for vacations.
Over email, Dilmagani told Kotaku that “I do not recall ever requiring an employee to work during a vacation and would not expect an employee to do so. There may have been times when I have sent an email to employees without knowing that they were on vacation and received a response letting me know that the employee was on leave, in which case that employee would not have been required to respond until returning from his/her vacation.”
Tan, who worked mostly in Singapore, operated through Dilmagani in the United States, according to people who worked in Razer’s California office. In practice, that meant that the company’s culture of overwork and fear was channeled through him. One employee who worked under Dilmagani said that his mentality was to encourage employees to hit their sales target numbers at all costs. Three employees said he pushed Razer’s U.S. distribution centre to work weekends so Razer could record higher sales numbers for a certain month. For example, if the end of November fell on a Saturday, he would push distribution centres to work so he could record more sales for the month of November that would typically register in December.
When asked about this, Dilmagani said in an email, “We always expect our service providers to work to meet sales numbers, particularly at the end of the month. This may mean working on weekends if needed when the end of the month falls on a Saturday or Sunday. I have never asked anyone to falsely move sales numbers from one month to the next month. Sales numbers are always reported based on the date of shipment and/or delivery.”
Complicating employees’ long hours was that many did not receive overtime, according to some of the former Razer staff who spoke to Kotaku. They believe they were misclassified as “exempt” employees in California, meaning that they did not qualify for overtime pay. According to California wage laws, employers must pay overtime to “nonexempt” employees who do not make at least twice the minimum wage, perform executive or administrative duties or work in an independent manner. Three former employees said a small percentage of Razer’s employees should have been receiving overtime, but did not, and were afraid to argue for it. “People were intimidated and they were not able to record their actual hours they worked,” said one former employee familiar with the matter. “Everything was based on a culture of fear. Employees had to get the job done but they were intimidated, fear of job-losing, if they were to record extra hours.”
Employees who oversaw U.S. colleagues’ payment and employment statuses were pushed to save money, even if it meant circumventing required overtime pay, according to one person involved with those operations. “I was pushed to not necessarily be in compliance with state or federal laws,” the person told Kotaku. “It was challenging. Do I want to be in compliance or do I want to not have a job?”
“I do not recall any employee ever coming to me to indicate that they were misclassified as exempt from overtime,” said Dilmagani in an email. “An employee’s FLSA classification is determined by the Human Resources Department, following state and federal requirements, and not by me.” A Razer representative said they are “unaware” that U.S. employees believe they were misclassified as salaried. “Razer always expects employees who are classified under the FLSA as non-exempt to record their actual hours worked so that they can be paid properly,” they said.
But at least the Lamborghinis were coming. Weren’t they? That was always the promise—that all the hard work and sacrifice would lead to a life-changing payday for Razer’s employees. That was why some Razer employees accepted the lack of overtime pay and, according to five people, below-market wages. Yet the company never seemed to be going public, and year after year, Razer’s initial public offering remained distant. “They kept putting the dollar bill on the ground and pulling it further away,” said one former employee.
When Razer finally did go public, in November of 2017, some estimates put the company’s reported valuation at as much as $US4.55 ($7) billion. (In fact, a Wall Street Journal report described Razer’s IPO as “an expensive game,” comparing its cult fandom and huge valuation to its unclear plan on retaining profitability.) In the weeks and months to follow, when Razer employees finally got those long-promised checks, some did indeed get the big paydays they’d hoped for—in some cases, upwards of $US200,000 ($292,612). Others, however, said they were underwhelmed by the results. “We didn’t get what we expected based on the initial [stock] letter,” said a former employee. Said another, “It was used car money.”
Tan is now among the 50 richest people in Singapore, with his fortune swelling to $US1.6 ($2) billion, according to Forbes. Tan was hailed by some news outlets as the youngest self-made billionaire in Singapore.
When asked about the disparity between his own gains and his employees’, Tan wrote in an email, “At Razer, employee stock grants are made on a merits-basis… While some employees may feel that they were not granted as many stock units as they would have liked or made as much money on the stock units granted that they would hope to have made, I believe that many employees were actually very pleased with their stock grants and had not expected to receive as many shares as they actually did. Many of them have reached out to me to thank me for it.”
Despite employees’ claims of disappointing payouts, unclear overtime pay, the yelling, overnight stays at the office, and the culture of fear perpetuated throughout Razer, sources interviewed by Kotaku maintain they owe the success of their careers in gaming to the hardware company. Breaking into the games industry, many said, meant compromising on what they considered fair or equitable working conditions at Razer. Before sharing gruelling stories about working in the toxic culture defined by Tan, former employees expressed deep-seated anxiety that talking negatively about Razer would betray a lack of gratitude for the company that got them their start. Then, it all came out like a waterfall.
“I think the culture of the company was influencing people like me to overlook problems in the moment,” said one former employee, adding that that culture came “from the top.” Speaking from high positions at well-regarded game companies, several sources say they’re still in contact, treating each other as “war buddies.”
“I definitely had a lot of good opportunities at Razer, in the end it was positive, but there were a lot of challenges,” said a second former employee. “I likened working at Razer to Stockholm Syndrome. You bonded with the people you worked with—there’s nowhere else I’ve been at where you bonded like that— but we all bonded over fear of what management was going to do with us. The reason for the bonding was survival.”
“There was a camaraderie that was formed because of all the things people went through together,” said another former employee. “Camaraderie or commiseration—who knows.”
During the course of reporting on this article, after Kotaku reached out to Tan for an interview, and shared former Razer employees’ stories of his temper tantrums and tyrades, Tan posted a picture on his Instagram of a beautifully golden order of fish and chips at Gordon Ramsay’s London outpost, Bread Kitchen. Ramsay, who has referred to himself as a “crazy fucking psycho,” has a well-televised, career-defining anger problem that he has regularly taken out on his kitchen staff. (“If anyone even bruised a chive I came down on them like a ton of bricks,” he has said.)
Reflecting on Ramsay over the $45 fried haddock, Tan wrote in his Instagram post, “Am reminded that I’m told I’m generally chill but when it comes to work, design and attention to detail, I can pretty much become way worse than Gordon Ramsay.” He continued, “Sometimes, I can get a little intense/extreme on this front and rage if I feel things can be done better.” Even in his heartfelt confessions, Tan proved dedicated to the brand. “#ShotonRazerPhone2,” the post concluded.