Don't miss Forrest for the trees


Don't miss Forrest for the trees

Sea's founder Forrest Li prioritises big-picture thinking and adaptability during a year of uncertainty.
7 -min read
Listen to this article
Sea's founder Forrest Li prioritises big-picture thinking and adaptability during a year of uncertainty.
7 -min read
Listen to this article

THE consumer Internet world is on a roller coaster ride with the Covid-19 pandemic. But Forrest Li, founder, chairman and chief executive of homegrown Sea, is embracing the uncertainty. After all, the 43-year-old's entrepreneurial journey has been all about taking risks to capture new territory in South-east Asia's young digital economy.

Sea started out with Garena, a video game distributor which Mr Li founded in 2009. Five years ago, it made a high-stakes bet on e-commerce by setting up Shopee, now one of the hottest platforms in South-east Asia and Taiwan.

The New York-listed firm is now increasingly focused on fintech, with its digital financial services unit SeaMoney and an ongoing bid for a full digibank licence in Singapore. With his vision that brought Sea to the forefront of the Internet economy, Mr Li has been named Businessman of the Year for 2019/2020 in the Singapore Business Awards.

To Mr Li, a critical part of his job is to encourage a "day one mentality" of curiosity and experimentation within Sea. "One of my job's very important parts is to constantly remind the entire organisation (of) what really matters to us… We always believe that we can do more in the future and that we are still at the very beginning of the journey. We encourage people to try things without certainty and we tolerate some failure," he says.

Reflecting on how 2020 has been a "challenging" year, Mr Li notes that Sea is now in an opportune position to drive digital adoption in South-east Asia. He believes that the same values that have helped Sea thrive thus far - adaptability and openness - will help it come out of Covid-19 on top.

"I think this has become a key thing that differentiates ourselves as an organisation, compared to our peers who are competitors. In a very unplanned situation, whoever adapts better and embraces change… will do better," he says.

And as an entrepreneur, his personal vision is also to inspire the next generation of South-east Asian tech founders.


With the volatility of a global pandemic, Sea has had to rapidly adapt its strategy across all three verticals - e-commerce, gaming and fintech. This has been tough with the new realities of remote working.

"I would say, from the whole company's perspective, we faced a lot of organisational challenges… The way people interact with each other, work with each other, is completely different. Pre-pandemic, we always encouraged people to travel around, because we have many markets in the region, and beyond South-east Asia as well," Mr Li notes.

But with travel restrictions, this organic process has been "constrained", he says. In addition, it is harder to integrate the hundreds of new hires that Sea takes on every month. Sea has over 3,000 employees in Singapore alone.

Despite the difficulties, Mr Li says that he is "pleased" with how Shopee, SeaMoney and Garena have all risen to the challenge.

For instance, Shopee turned into an essential service overnight, after Singapore implemented the circuit breaker measures. This then became a "stress test" for the e-commerce business, as it dealt with an influx of first-time users, Mr Li notes.

The team had to adapt rapidly and even "go back to basics" to onboard this new base. Even details often taken for granted, such as the user experience in registering an account, had to be simplified. The Shopee team also worked on optimising its search engine for Chinese language users in Singapore, who are often of the older generation, Mr Li shares.

"We cannot just assume that our customers are very tech-savvy, very mobile phone-native. This requires us to make our product more intuitive, and (we) really made it much easier and more convenient for anyone to use," he says.

With the shift to e-commerce, SeaMoney also saw a "surge in usage" for its mobile wallet ShopeePay, Mr Li notes. In Indonesia, Shopee recorded over 185 million orders in the first quarter of 2020 alone, translating to over 2 million orders daily. Over 40 per cent of gross orders there were paid using Sea's mobile wallet services in April.

While building a payments business may not seem as attractive as e-commerce or gaming, Mr Li thinks that it is important for Sea to continue to invest resources in this business.

"I think that (payments) play a very critical role in the entire digital economy. As the industry leader, and the market leader specifically in South-east Asia, we feel the responsibility and obligation to contribute to that development," he says.

As with Shopee and SeaMoney, Garena has also had to amp up its speed of development to keep up with consumer needs. During lockdowns, gaming became more than just about entertainment, it was also about meeting individuals' core social needs, such as a desire for quality interaction, Mr Li muses.

"This required us to accelerate our development pace, because when people play longer, they consume the game content faster. So you have to keep offering new content to them. That's why our development team is also working very hard," he says.

Figuring out the backend logistics has been another core area of focus.

"We need to get prepared for the surge in terms of server demand (and) capacity; when there are more people playing, we need to ensure that everyone can have a very smooth gaming experience," he says.

Without the pandemic, Sea would probably have made all of these inroads, but it could have taken a longer time. "Everything is just accelerated and our product and technology development capabilities are enhanced," Mr Li says. In the grand scheme of things, this bodes well for the region's economy.

Beyond building up Sea's business, Mr Li feels a bigger sense of purpose in helping to digitalise South-east Asia.

He believes that Sea can spur greater interconnectivity between countries here, to the benefit of small businesses and the everyman.

For instance, Mr Li envisions a future where a small merchant in Indonesia can easily tap Shopee to sell not just to domestic customers, but even to Singapore or the Philippines. With the rise of mobile wallets, he also hopes that carrying multiple currencies across South-east Asia could become a thing of the past. "At the end of the day, in digital businesses, there are no borders. Hopefully, as an organisation, we can play a more important role to bring the region together, to make South-east Asia more connected. That will eventually benefit Singapore and every market in the South-east Asian economy," he says.

On a more personal level, Mr Li takes a great interest in the entrepreneurial scene. In February, he was appointed as a board member of Singapore's Economic Development Board. Mr Li had previously served on the Singapore Committee on the Future Economy from 2016 to 2017. He hopes to contribute more.

"I would love to find other ways to use my own experience as an entrepreneur, and pass (it on) to the younger generations. Eventually, we need an ecosystem here," he says.


Given the humble beginnings of Sea, Mr Li has many experiences to share. For instance, he recounts that he had to take a giant leap of faith in starting Shopee back in 2015.

People questioned why he would venture into a risky sector when the gaming business was already doing well. "A lot of people say, why do you do this? Why do you bother yourself? If you look (at it) on paper, the failure rate could be super high."

He adds with a laugh: "And on top of that, people say, actually you're a gaming company doing e-commerce. The failure rate could be even higher."

But Mr Li followed his conviction, and he believes that more entrepreneurs are set to rise in the region.

Ultimately, Mr Li says that he will be happy if Sea makes its mark on the global map as a South-east Asian company. But he adds: "I will be happier if there are 10 from the region."


BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to