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Garena's secret sauce: its people

The Internet and mobile platform company is always on the lookout for new and innovative ways to manage its employees, says its founder.

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Founder Forrest Li says Garena's most valued assets are its employees, on whom it relies to share immediate and up-to-date market intel on the latest disruptive trends, and to get ahead of them.

GARENA - the Singapore-based Internet and mobile platform company said to be valued at some US$3.75 billion, making it South-east Asia's largest unicorn - has revealed its secret sauce for success: its people.

Founder, chairman and group CEO Forrest Li tells The Business Times in an interview that Garena's most valued assets are its employees, on whom it relies to share immediate and up-to-date market intel on the latest disruptive trends, and to get ahead of them.

The 39-year-old, Tianjin-born entrepreneur says: "Being in a highly diverse region, a business requires deep local insights for it to be successful. We look for people who aren't afraid to tackle new challenges, strive for excellence, and yet remain humble."

Mr Li shares that the company - a first-time winner of the E50 Awards - invests strongly in talent recruitment and retention initiatives.

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"This is to ensure we are bringing on board the right talents. We are continually on the lookout for new and innovative ways to manage our most valued asset, which is our people."

An example of such an initiative is Garena's Management Associate Programme, which Mr Li describes as a rigorous two-year, rotation strategy to develop the company's "leaders of tomorrow" within its business.

Mr Li says: "We're looking as far down the line as 10 or 20 years from now."

Mr Li, who named himself Forrest after Tom Hanks' Oscar-winning character in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, reveals that Garena also runs "structured teach-ins" to share skills and to ensure that its existing team are regularly upskilled.

The company, sited in Fusionopolis, now has about 5,000 employees across tech development, business development, marketing, as well as local country operations.

Last year, Garena enrolled 10 management associates (MAs) into its MA programme. The size of intake varies year-on-year, depending on the quality of candidates. Every year, the company receives over 800 applications, up to 2 per cent of whom are accepted.

Lucas Jiang, vice-president of Garena's people team, tells BT: "We consider every candidate from a holistic point of view: what they would bring to the business, the developmental opportunities we can offer to them, and if they are the right cultural fit for Garena."

He shares that the MA programme was launched as Garena realised there was a huge talent shortage in the region, and hence a critical need to groom young talent who can take on key leadership roles within the organisation in the industry in the next 5-10 years.

LEADERS OF TOMORROW

Mr Jiang points to the programme as providing a strong framework for succession planning, and a pipeline for mid-level management roles for the company. "Forrest and the management team believe that this helps young regional talent develop a wealth of invaluable in-market experience, which will eventually allow Garena's 'alumni' to contribute back to the industry and the country in the future."

He adds that Garena has been heartened to see that most of its MAs have graduated from the programme and have progressed to lead their own teams today - in line with the programme's objective of grooming leaders of tomorrow.

Mr Jiang says that being a young company founded only seven years ago, Garena is regularly developing and refining its learning and development (L&D) programmes to meet the rapidly-evolving needs of the Internet industry. "Forrest believes that the best inspiration and learnings do not necessarily come from sitting at one's desk. It is important to continually broaden one's horizons through peer-to-peer learning and reading, and to think creatively and critically out-of-the-box."

Garena's L&D programmes can be broadly categorised into four types. The first is feedback and coaching, which involves a series of dialogues and conversations with senior management or direct managers throughout the year.

The second is structured management and leadership development, which focuses on transferable soft skills and development needs at different stages of the employee's career, whether he is on the Fundamentals Track or First-time Managers Track.

Thirdly, Garena offers functional training, such as producer training for its digital content business, e-commerce training for its mobile marketplace Shopee business, and tech training for software engineers who work at the company's labs.

The fourth is informal sharing, which includes "dessert for thought" lunchtime talks where Garena employees share their ideas and experience, and "learning through reading" where employees are encouraged to provide a list of industry-related articles every fortnight.

Garena, which in March raised a US$170 million Series D funding round (taking total known funding to date to US$172 million), has businesses in digital content, payments and e-commerce across South-east Asia and Taiwan. Founder Mr Li says: "All three of our businesses are very important to us, and each helps the other. We believe in a future where tech serves as an enabler, linking and empowering people in a highly diverse region, truly connecting the dots. We will always work towards that goal."

Asked how Garena is disrupting traditional businesses, he replies that Garena sees itself as more of an enabler than a disruptor. "We seek to build new platforms that can empower businesses and bolster the local startup ecosystem."

An example is Garena's e-commerce platform, Shopee, where the majority of its online retailers are small and medium enterprises or individuals starting their own business for the first time. Mr Li, who holds a MBA from Stanford University, points out: "We also have a programme built around this. Named Shopee University, it aims to equip them (the merchants) with the essential skills and expertise to create sustainable digital retail businesses."

Another example is Garena's online payments solution AirPay, which some 130,000 retailers in South-east Asia are using. Many of them, according to Mr Li, are "mom-and-pop" retailers within the local communities, who are setting up online payment facilities for the very first time. He notes: "Given that so much of South-east Asia's commerce takes place within an informal economy, it is exciting to help facilitate the inclusion of these small but dynamic businesses into the digital market."

Mr Li, who previously worked at Motorola, US materials manufacturing firm Corning and MTV Networks, adds: "These are just two instances where our tech is plugging market gaps by providing new solutions to build the consumer ecosystem in this region."

STARTUP GAME STRONG

Asked if Garena can still be considered a startup, he does not give an easy answer. Instead, he says: "We hope to always retain the spirit we had when we first founded Garena back in 2009 - a culture of agility, adaptability and a 'can do' attitude to solving problems."

Mr Li says that this spirit has enabled Garena to grow the business rapidly in South-east Asia and Taiwan, a region with huge consumer potential. "We are also fortunate to have attracted an international base of investors who support our strategy of highly-localised expansion."

Investors of Garena include Malaysia's Khazanah Nasional, Singapore's National Research Foundation and Tokyo's Mistletoe.

Mr Li, today a Singapore citizen, has a piece of advice for fellow entrepreneurs. "We would encourage other startups to be clear about their vision for the business, and focus on being revenue-generating and scalable for long-term sustainability."

He says that being the largest Internet and mobile platform company in the region, Garena also aims to support startups in the ecosystem by offering its experience and capital as they "undergo a similar journey".

The unicorn startup is now believed to be seeking a US initial public offering in two to three years, with possibly a secondary listing in South-east Asia.

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