Sometimes all it takes is a simple question, like, "Why aren't gaming chairs a lot cheaper?" to get the ball rolling.
Meet Ian Ang and Alaric Choo, the two brains behind Singapore-based gaming accessory company Secretlab. The gamers-turned-designers are closing in on their first year as startup entrepreneurs and are ready to launch two new chairs in this niche, but rapidly growing market.
"Although gamers are our primary target audience, we aren't just specifically targeting them. Secretlab chairs are meant for whoever sits long hours in front of the computer," says Ang, Secretlab's co-founder and director of business development.
"If we just look at Singapore alone, more than half of the resident workforce are PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians). This puts an estimated 1.5 million of the total available market, so if we're to be conservative and say we manage to convert 10 percent of these people over the next few years -- that would mean an obtainable market of 150,000."
With a population of just 5.5 million, Singapore isn't the biggest market in the world -- but it is a good start for the duo, who are already hoping to expand their business across Australasia.
The Omega cometh
The company's first gaming chair, the Secretlab Throne, was released in March earlier this year, and soon it will unveil two new models, an upgraded version of the Throne, the V2, and the Omega, a chair that hides its gaming pedigree with a slightly more office-friendly look.
"We had low expectations initially. We knew we had a product that was going to work, we thought the buildup for demand would be slow. But when we launched, it was very explosive," said Choo, co-founder and director of creative development.
The Omega gives you the ability to adjust almost everything, from the height and position of the arm rests to the recline angle. You can even sleep in the chair if you wish. Generously foam-padded, the Omega is designed to be a premium machine for gaming for long hours.
Normally, you would expect to pay an arm and a leg for chairs of this caliber, but it's not the case with Secretlab. The founders came into the business with the idea of affordable high-quality gaming chairs, and the company delivers on this. The Omega will have an opening price of $469 ($340, £220 and AU$465 converted), while the Throne V2 will debut at S$399 ($290, £190 and AU$395).
Compared with rivals, such as chairs from the more renowned DX Racer brand, a similar chair with the same features as the Omega or Throne V2 would cost twice as much in Singapore. The cheapest DX Racer costs the same as the Omega while lacking some of its features. However, even with cheaper chairs, the company isn't worrying about turning a profit -- it's already in the black from the sales of its first chair, the Throne, which sold for S$349 ($255, £165 and AU$345).
"We have broken even and have been profitable since the first month of launch -- we were put in a very fortunate setting with great mentors, backers, media contacts," said Ang. "I'm expecting us to double our current monthly sales count in three months time, but honestly speaking, it's difficult to give a confident projection because with our new lines and expansion it's going to be quite an overhaul."
If that sounds impressive, this'll blow your hair back: neither founder has any experience in designing furniture. Ang was doing business development at local custom laptop maker AftershockPC while Choo was a sociology graduate who did paintwork for PCs.
They met at AftershockPC and, disappointed in what the market was offering -- what they considered to be unjustifiably expensive products -- they decided to make a gaming chair.
"A lot of times brands tend to incorporate flashy stuff, which might not necessarily justify the jump in price, sometimes by $200 to $300," said Choo. "We incorporated these improvements at a marginal price. This is kinda like the Xiaomi philosophy."
Xiaomi, China's number one smartphone maker,seemingly out of nowhere, by selling quality products at rock bottom prices and marketing them almost entirely by online buzz and word of mouth via social media. By emulating this strategy, Secretlab is hoping this will put the company on the seat to success.
Its first chair, the Throne, was made with the help of an industrial designer consultant, who has since left, though he also worked on the newer chairs. That said, both founders had plenty of input into the design process, spending six months working on the design and prototyping process, trying out competitors' chairs before finally settling on how they wanted their chair to look and perform.
"All of us have always been involved in the design process. We are definitely familiar with the process at this point," added Ang. "For future lines and designs we'll definitely need to engage an industrial designer again -- but not just for an ID actually, we recognize the need to hire talented people in other aspects such as operations and marketing as well and it's on our priority list."
Planning for the future
Looking ahead, the Secretlab founders are looking at the rest of Southeast Asia as the next stepping stone in their expansion. The company had originally intended to sell its products regionally, but demand from Singapore became much stronger than projected, so the founders decided to concentrate on the island nation. Within a few weeks of the launch of the new models, Secretlab is planning to sell its chairs to customers in Southeast Asia again.
While the founders do want to eventually tackle bigger markets, such as the US, Secretlab says it will be daunting. It's not ready yet, but, Australia is probably next on the list after Southeast Asia, though Secretlab will need to figure out how to crack the market Down Under.
"There's a high barrier to entry for Australia. Taxes and the likes are ridiculously high. It's something we'd love to do," said Choo.