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With a net worth of $7.1B, China-born Forrest Li is the seventh richest man (update: ranked the richest as of September 2021) in Singapore, he is the Chairman & CEO of Sea Limited. Co-founded by Forrest Li, Gang Ye and David Chen, Sea Limited is the holding company for Shopee, SeaMoney and Garena.
Originated from Tianjin, Li revealed that he wasn’t the most hardworking student but spent time playing games at cybercafe instead. After earning an engineering degree from Shanghai Jiaotong University, Li worked at Motorola and Corning in China.
Unwilling to settle for corporate careers, Li took a $120,000 bank loan to pursue an MBA at Stanford University. When he attended his then girlfriend (now wife) graduation ceremony in 2005, Steve Jobs was delivering the famous commencement speech.
“Stay hungry, stay foolish” were the four words ingrained in Li’s mind, and inspired him to chase his dream.
After completing his MBA, Li followed his wife to Singapore but he was saddled with loans and only made enough money to rent a room in Braddell. Li worked at MTV Network before starting his first business, GG Game, which develops single-player gaming products.
The venture was short-lived, but Li’s angel investors didn’t give up on him and pump in another $1 million funding, earning him another chance to redeem himself.
Li started anew with Garena in 2009, and promptly assembled his A-Team – CTO Gang Ye and COO David Chen, both China-born too. Short for Global Arena, it is a leading online games developer and publisher with a global footprint across more than 130 markets.
Their big break came in 2010 when they secured a distribution license in Southeast Asia with US game developer Riot Games. Securing game titles like League of Legends helped Garena turn profitable within the next two years, and also gained the attention of Tencent.
Not content with just distribution, Garena has developed Free Fire, which became the most downloaded mobile game in the world in 2019. Moving from computer gaming to the mobile platform, and localizing games to appeal to specific markets, are crucial to Garena’s success.
Not settled with gaming business, Garena established SeaMoney in 2014, a digital payments and financial services provider in Southeast Asia.
In 2015, Li decided to launch e-commerce platform Shopee after his daughter said she missed Taobao, Alibaba’s online shopping mall. Despite being a latecomer, Shopee has quickly caught up with Alibaba-backed incumbents in the region, namely Lazada and Tokopedia.
Shopee has grown fast due to its aggressive marketing campaigns, mobile-first strategy, and not charging merchants sales commissions. While its gaming business has been profitable, Shopee has yet to turn a profit and it is accumulating significant losses for years.
Li believed that growing market share and the scale of the marketplace is their utmost priority instead of making money first.
For such a business with such a high growth rate, you do need to invest upfront, otherwise you are not going to make it. Scale matters so much for e-commerce.
Shopee could instantly become profitable if we cut down on sales and marketing expenses, and increased commission rates of merchants.
Shopee has since grown to be among the top two most-used e-commerce apps in Southeast Asia in 2019, based on monthly active users. It is also the most visited e-commerce website in Southeast Asia, pulling away from the rest. Shopee’s revenue in 2020 stood at US$1.78 billion, up 116% year on year.
In 2017, Garena rebranded as Sea Limited after it secured US$550 million funding. The name draws inspiration from their operating region of Southeast Asia, and also the very ocean that connects the countries.
In October that year, Sea debuted a US$884 million IPO on the NYSE, becoming the first Singapore-based tech unicorn to go public in the United States. The IPO valued the company at US$4.58 billion, making it Southeast Asia’s most valuable tech company.
With Sea Limited being labelled as a Southeast Asia mash-up of Tencent and Alibaba, Li’s rags-to-riches achievements have been extraordinary.