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SWITCH 2021: Sea’s Forrest Li shares 3 tips on building a company, sees tech as crucial need

Sea Limited

He clinched the top spot as Singapore’s richest this year, with a net worth of US$23 billion (S$31 billion).

Sea founder, Chairman, and group CEO Forrest Li took the stage today (Nov 9) to give his keynote address at the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (SWITCH) 2021.

Sea is touted as Southeast Asia’s most valuable company and has been deepening its foray in fintech beyond gaming and e-commerce. Its key businesses include online games developer Garena, e-commerce platform Shopee, and digital payments and financial services firm SeaMoney.

The billionaire, decked in his black suit and white shirt, stood humbly on the centre of the stage with a virtual background.

Image Credit: SWITCH 2021

Forrest gave participants an insight into his train of thought, his views on the post-pandemic world, and valuable lessons learned from Sea over the past 12 years of operations.

“From day one at Sea, our deep belief has always been that technology holds the greatest potential to improve people’s lives. These beliefs drive everything we do.”

“This is seen at Shopee, where we want to connect and empower consumers. At SeaMoney, we bring financial assistance to those who lack access to them. Over at Garena, we strive to delight our players with high quality, affordable entertainment.”

Three lessons to build a successful startup

Forrest shared three lessons learned from Sea in the past 12 years of running the company, which he hoped can “spark ideas for the next generation of tech companies”.

The first lesson is to make it the mission to serve users, he said.

“That’s our first core value at Sea. At Sea we serve our users, by this we mean that we are relentlessly customer-centric. We are always asking what will be the most important to users, what can we do that will most improve their lives.”

The second lesson is that customers need to see that the businesses truly want to help them. “It creates a loyalty that money cannot buy,” he said.

He gave an example of one of Garena’s most popular games, Free Fire. 

“When it started to take off, some said it would make more sense to charge people to play. We chose not to. Today, Free Fire is a very successful game. It generates revenue from optional enhancements to the game experience while remaining completely free to all users to play,” said Forrest.

Image Credit: Free Fire

“We focus first on bringing joy to players of all backgrounds and when we stayed true to that, success followed.”

Forrest also advised companies to seek out communities that are traditionally underserved, “This allows us to make an impact on their lives. This is why we invest so much in bringing our services to these people.”

The third lesson would be to have the courage to enter new markets.

“I have come to realize that the combination of two things is needed to do this well – Confidence in what you know and the humility to work on what you do know.”

He noted that many companies tend to think about all the differences between the new market and the one they are already in when considering an expansion. This can cause some young companies to lack confidence and eventually decide against expanding at all.

“One thing we have discovered at Sea is that the markets often have more in common than we expect and assume. By focusing on the similarities, it can give you the confidence you need to venture into a new place,” he said.

Our post-pandemic future

Forrest believes that across the world, technology will be the key to recovering from the pandemic.

“In a post-pandemic world. I think we need to double down on using technology to improve lives everywhere. The question now is, what happens from here? Does the trend begin to recede as countries come out of lockdown, or does it continue?”

“I believe it will continue. The pandemic has only accelerated a digital transformation, which was already on its way.”

The pandemic has sped up the pace of innovation, perhaps “five years faster than we should have otherwise”. “So us emerging from the pandemic does not change the direction of the transformation. At most, it may only affect its pace,” said Forrest.

Forrest Li SWITCH 2021
Image Credit: SWITCH 2021

Forrest backed his view with a survey done by Sea in collaboration with the World Economic Forum which polled 80,000 people across Southeast Asia.

The respondents were asked what were the three most likely things to happen in a post-pandemic world, and one of the top answers was the greater use of digital tools and technologies. 

“It is not surprising that during the pandemic, more communities than ever began to go online. For many, this was out of a shared need to survive as physical movements became much more limited,” Forrest said.

Even now, the group’s research shows that both consumers and businesses, especially small, individually owned businesses are hungry for products and services that will help them digitalise further.

The research ties with real programmes run by the company. For instance, the group partnered with internet centres in Malaysia to offer free e-commerce training to rural entrepreneurs.

Image Credit: Getty Images

“In just the three months since launching the programme, more than 1,600 rural sellers have come forward for training to help bring their businesses online. This shows a strong appetite among them to digitalise and get connected to more consumers.”

“In other words, digitalisation is a trend that lends itself to acceleration.”

“The more people see what the internet has to offer them, the more they want it and the reason is not just technology advancement alone. It is because it helps to improve their lives and livelihoods.”

As the digital transformation continues, Forrest stressed that we must not create a wider gap between those who have access to technology and those who don’t. “We must help those who lack digital fluency to gain it. So they are not left behind.”

Startups should use tech as a force for good

Forrest hopes that entrepreneurs can use technology as a force to build inclusivity and asks them to endeavor to use it that way.

“As we pursue opportunities, we kept asking ourselves whether we are continuing to serve our communities. This is a key check list that has spurred our growth. So to me, using technology to do good in the world should not only be a corporate social responsibility project, but a goal that can guide an entire company’s business,” Forrest said.

Image Credit: Getty Images

“If we spend effort thinking first about what will really help people and improve their lives, there will be no problem getting users on board. If your mission is first and foremost to serve your community, success will follow to the next generation of tech companies out there.” 

“Let’s use technology to create a better world for generations to come. It has every potential to do so. We just need to harness it in the right way.”

Singapore well-placed to be in centre of opportunities

The digital age is the future, and Forrest believes that a country like Singapore is “particularly well-placed to be at the centre of many opportunities”.

“Singapore has limitations of being a small city-state in one corner of the globe with a small domestic market, but with more and more of work and activities going online, such physical boundaries are no longer as important.”

He added that Sea is proud to be a Singaporean company, “because this place has always been an environment that allowed us to thrive”.

Sea’s achievements today are not just thanks to a conducive environment, but the success also comes from the government’s open efforts to connect communities, enable consumers, and empower small businesses.

Image Credit: Airswift

“It is not often that you find a place that is as supportive of innovation and innovators like Singapore. What is crucial is not for only one part of the innovation ecosystem to be strong. But for all of parts of it to be strong.” 

He noted that economic agencies like ESG and their efforts to bring the industry together to get leaders to share their expertise and support young entrepreneurs at events such as the SWITCH conference is one way that helps to “open doors” and “create new opportunities” for companies.

A strong talent pool is also crucial for a startup ecosystem to thrive, and Singapore’s “high calibre educational system” creates a deep and skilled local talent pool for companies to hire from. “It was this talent pool that enabled us to build a strong team when Sea needed to grow.”

The humble billionaire attributed the formation of Sea to the Singapore ecosystem too.

“In fact, that is how Sea came to be. It was in Singapore that I met my co-founders without whom I would probably never have built a company.”

“Thank you, Singapore. Today Sea is able to serve a global market because we have such a strong home base, and because of all the advantages we were given here when we were just starting out.”


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Featured Image Credit: Guru Gamer, Sea

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