Forrest Li : “Singapore’s Steve Jobs” shoots for the stars

Forrest Li was there when Apple founder Steve Jobs delivered his famous Stanford graduation speech. The experience inspired him to aim for big things – and he is achieving them.

The coronavirus crisis has overwhelmed many companies, but it has proved a boon to others – none more so than Singapore-based Sea, whose three main businesses – ecommerce, online gaming and digital payments – have been thriving, says Forbes. Co-founder Forrest Li boasts he can’t “see the ceiling”. Investors clearly agree. Sea’s New York-listed shares have more than tripled this year (they’re up more than 1,000% since early 2019), making Sea the most valuable public company in Singapore, valued at about $69bn. Nobody, least of all Li, seems to mind that the outfit is still loss-making. At 42, he reckons he’s only just begun tapping southeast Asia’s “digital future”.

Life is like a box of chocolates

Born in China and educated in the US, Li has drawn inspiration from both countries. He set out to adapt two of the most valuable business models from China – online games from Tencent and e-commerce from Alibaba – for the southeast Asian market. Yet culturally Li has always leant stateside and he identifies with the character Tom Hanks played in the movie Forrest Gump. Gump is “not always the smartest person, or the strongest one physically, among his peers, but he has a very good heart”, Li told The Straits Times. “Because of his persistence and his courage, he lived a very successful and very meaningful life… by helping a lot of other people.” 

Li was raised in the Chinese port city of Tianjin by parents who spent their entire careers at state-owned companies. While growing up, he “used to spend most nights playing video-games at an internet café”, notes Entrepreneur – a habit he continued, partly to escape the dullness of his first career as a recruiter in Shanghai for Western companies. After four years of that, Li realised he wanted to do something different with his life. The first step was getting accepted into Stanford for an MBA – where he encountered a second formative American role model: Steve Jobs. 

Li was present when Jobs delivered his famous “stay hungry, stay foolish” Stanford graduation speech in 2005 – and he made it his life motto, says Bloomberg. Moving back to Singapore, he launched a gaming firm, which bombed. Undeterred, he started a second, Garena, with two colleagues, in 2009. With Asia still reeling from the global financial crisis, the timing wasn’t great, says Forbes. But Li got two big breaks. In 2010, he began distributing games for the US maker, Riot Games; meanwhile, Tencent took a 40% stake, giving the firm “a big cash infusion”. 

By 2017, when Li launched the renamed Sea on the New York Stock Exchange, the firm had already branched into digital payments and e-commerce with its Shopee platform. But the blockbuster product that put a rocket under shares was a video-game: Free Fire, which Bloomberg dubbed “the Fortnite of Singapore”. It has more than 350 million users and is Sea’s most potent international bridgehead. 

His move into banking and football

Li’s supporters claim we ain’t seen nothing yet. Earlier this year, Sea applied for a digital retail-banking licence in Singapore – a likely “game-changer” given the wealth of deposits in the region’s most important financial centre, says Forbes. An avid football fan, Li also has big plans for the Singaporean game, recently acquiring a local club, Lion City Sailors. “There’s lots of room for improvement” – the national team is currently ranked number 157 in the world by governing body Fifa. But that’s just the way Li likes things. 

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