Q&A with a PAIB

05/29/2022

Stephen Li CPA, Director, Public Markets Portfolio Management at Prosus, a global Internet group and technology investor, on China’s evolving consumer Internet sector and its potential future



What are the three biggest lessons in your career so far?

I have been working in rapidly evolving sectors where one can only keep up with the pace through continuously acquiring new knowledge. I am particularly inspired by the book The 100-Year Life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew J Scott. To live a long life that is fulfiling, we should not stick to one expertise for life. Another important lesson is to learn to embrace uncertainty. “Learn” is the keyword here, because by nature we do not like things that are unexpected. Lastly, author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek inspires me with his quote, “Leadership is not a rank or a position, it is a choice.” The mentors in my life demonstrated what it means to lead by example, which is something I want to be better at every day.

What do you like most about specializing in consumer Internet?

China’s consumer Internet industry has been growing at a rapid pace. When I worked as a consultant, the model of inbound cross-border e-commerce was just emerging, with only a handful of Chinese cities as pilot cities. Now, over 100 cities and regions can now facilitate it. In another example, five years ago or so, people were talking about the e-commerce market reaching an “end-game,” with consumers only shopping between the two big platforms, Alibaba and JD.com. Fast-forward to today, a third player, Pinduoduo, has established its foothold through the viral effect of social connections. We also see that live streaming has become an increasingly important channel for brands. I am excited to be in this continuously evolving industry.

In what ways has your CPA qualification helped you in your career?

Accounting has been part of my life since I was a kid, as my father is the co-founder of a small local firm. Since starting my career as an auditor at one of the Big Four, I have not regretted becoming a CPA. Reading financial statements has been an integral part of my job, even after I left audit. The experience of drafting a set of accounts end-to-end allows me to understand a company inside-out from a financial perspective.

What challenges do you face in your role?

One big challenge is giving an accurate interpretation of the market. Data is one facet. We are living in a world where data is not scarce. One could access a huge volume of information from simple desktop research. Interpretation is another facet. It is interesting to see how diversely different news outlets cover the same event. My CPA training taught me to always go to the data source and verify. Cultural and language differences add to the challenge. But I think what gives homegrown accountants in Hong Kong an edge is that we are trained in a culturally diverse environment.


How do you view the future of consumer Internet platforms?

I am very optimistic about the development of the consumer Internet sector as a whole. Not long ago, a mobile phone was a luxury product for many, but there are now around one billion smartphone users in China. When I was working in a start-up in Hangzhou, we spent much time discussing what would be the next mobile-like device and how we would interact with it. Many people including my parents now do not type up messages, but send them through voice recognition. We also make purchases through facial recognition. Technological innovations like these have shaped and will continue shaping our lives.