Cutting Edge forum

From scrappy shophouse entrepreneur to CEO of Internet giant Sea

His firm boasts e-commerce player Shopee and has applied for a digital banking licence

SPH Brightcove Video
From a small shophouse office on Maxwell Road, founder Forrest Li grew internet consumer firm Sea into a gaming, e-commerce and even digital finance giant that is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Mr Forrest Li, founder of NYSE-listed Singapore company Sea, with Straits Times associate editor Vikram Khanna during the Cutting Edge virtual forum last Thursday.
Mr Forrest Li, founder of NYSE-listed Singapore company Sea, with Straits Times associate editor Vikram Khanna during the Cutting Edge virtual forum last Thursday. ST PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN

Entrepreneur Forrest Li started small - his first office was a pokey shophouse space in Maxwell Road - but he has transformed his Internet start-up into a gaming, e-commerce and digital finance giant now listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Mr Li, 42, outlined his improbable journey from founder of a scrappy start-up to chief executive of Sea, one of South-east Asia's most well-known tech names, at a virtual forum organised by The Straits Times and The Business Times, and sponsored by GuocoLand. It is the fourth in the Cutting Edge series.

Sea reported a total adjusted revenue of about US$900 million (S$1.2 billion) in the first quarter, a 58 per cent jump year on year. Total gross profit rose 424 per cent to about US$207 million.

Mr Li told panel moderator and Straits Times associate editor Vikram Khanna that he was inspired by the famous commencement address by Apple founder Steve Jobs when he told the audience at Stanford University to "stay hungry, stay foolish".

"The spirit of that speech is, you should do what you're really passionate about in your life," said Mr Li, who was present at that event.

"Don't really think about a lot of practical reasons. Just follow your heart, and eventually we will be at the destination.

"I think that plays a very important role in why I decided to jump out of the corporate world and to turn myself into an entrepreneur. I remember during those days, I re-watched the speech, probably, like two, three times a day for months, to accumulate the courage to be an entrepreneur."

He founded Sea in 2009 as a game publisher called Garena. Its e-commerce platform Shopee is now one of the fastest-growing regional players and operates across South-east Asia and Taiwan.

Mr Li is also a member of the board of directors of the Singapore Economic Development Board and serves as an independent non-executive director at Shangri-La Asia.

"We actually didn't have an easy start," Mr Li said, noting that it was right after the global financial crisis, and they had trouble raising capital.

"Basically, nobody was really looking at South-east Asia as a promising investment opportunity. It was different from today. We pretty much just used our own money, and some money from our family and friends. That's how we got started."

Those lowly beginnings have embedded themselves in the company's core principles, which include humility.

"Staying humble is the core (of our five principles). It's only if you're able to stay humble that you can serve, run, adapt and commit."

Sea also grew from Mr Li's personal love of gaming. The company started by working with other game developers and partners to take their games to the region before finally developing Free Fire, which became the most downloaded mobile game in the world last year.

Mr Li traced this success to two factors - moving away from computer gaming to the mobile platform and ensuring games have local components to appeal to specific markets.

"(South-east Asia) is a very fragmented market. People speak different languages, have different traditions and preferences. So over the years, we have developed that sense of sensitivity to the subtle differences across the market in terms of the users' preferences," he said.

From gaming, Mr Li went into e-commerce with Shopee, which has proven to be vital during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We always believe that digital transformation is on the way, so we are preparing ourselves for the future," he said.

"And suddenly the future comes in a very dramatic way, which means a lot of people have to rely on us and we become important for them to still enjoy entertainment through games while buying essentials, simply because offline retail is not available."

His platform has also changed the fortunes of small and medium-sized enterprises across the region, helping them digitalise and expand their outreach. He even has a Shopee University initiative, which trains retailers to go online.

Mr Li noted that traditionally, sellers have to pay an upfront investment to rent a shopfront, renovate it and ensure the location is right for customer traffic, which is still limited to the area.

But an online shop cuts those upfront costs, and every shopper on the platform is a potential customer.

When these businesses grow, they hire more people for roles such as customer service and in warehouses, which creates job opportunities.

Shopee is also an incubator for entrepreneurs, Mr Li said, as anyone from housewives to students can start selling products and create income for themselves.

Creating such ripples to benefit others explains Mr Li's first name, which he chose after watching the movie Forrest Gump.

"He's not always the smartest person, or the strongest one physically among his peers, but he has a very good heart," he said.

"Because of his persistence and his courage, he lived a very successful and very meaningful life... by helping a lot of other people."

Having conquered entertainment and online retail, Mr Li's next frontier is the digital finance space. Sea has applied for a digital banking licence here.

"Our corporate mission is to better the lives of consumers and small businesses through technology," he said.

His challenge is to hire the best minds across the region to take advantage of opportunities.

And his advice to fellow entrepreneurs is to remain patient and persistent. He said: "Success is just several actual miles away from a failure. And it's all about if you can keep doing and keep going until you reach the destination. And don't give up too early."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2020, with the headline From scrappy shophouse entrepreneur to CEO of Internet giant Sea. Subscribe