“The media industry is in flux and that's obviously difficult. With that said, it's really important that we figure out a way that media works. Even in the world of TikTok, it keeps working and keeps playing that particular role to provide a balance to the overall system. About Tech in Asia, our mission statement is to build and serve Asia's tech and startup community. It is not to go out there and write the hardest-hitting investigative journalism. It is not to go out there and make the most money possible. We think about the community that we're serving as a whole and what would be necessary in order for that community to learn grow and develop. Southeast Asia's startup community is relatively small and is relatively tight-knit, which I think is a strength for the overall community.” - Maria Li
"The public sector is incredibly important, but for me, it is a very strategic partner and it should be used as such. So, public sector-wise, if you are developing something new, Singapore's startup community is a great example. When it first was coming up 10, 15 years ago, the government was supporting with a lot of capital funding with a lot of visas, to be honest, and with a lot of different schemes to basically help develop a capital investor and startup base here that would eventually be able to sustain. So that's when public policy is being used most effectively, is when you have a clear goal to develop a particular specialty or region and you're bringing in all the necessary bits when it comes to talent, talent capital whatever it might be. So I think that is where the public sector works best. Same thing. It can also keep a finger on the scale when it comes to areas like deep tech because it may not traditionally meet what investors necessarily need, but I think the government can play an asset. It is a balancing act as opposed to one that should be really at the forefront once that momentum gets going.” - Maria Li
“When things were first starting to get fragmented, decentralized, dismantled, unbundled, I think there's a lot of excitement over that because people can finally pick and choose exactly what they want. At the same time, when Substack first came up, everybody thought it was amazing because they could follow their favorite authors without having to read the ones they didn't care about. But I also think that people have started to see the negative side of that, which is that there’s so much choice and it's really hard to discover new people and new things. It's hard to find that next amazing author because how are you going to come across them if you're operating only in your own silo? I also think that we've seen a bit of a reversion to the idea that there is still some trust in brand names and platforms where you know that they're reputable and there's that base level of understanding in terms of quality values like interest level.” - Maria Li
1. TIA’s Editorial Ethos & SE Asia’s Growing Ecosystem: Maria shares Tech in Asia's mission to be a guiding beacon in the region's tech ecosystem. She elaborates on the challenges stemming from information opacity and asymmetry inherent in the region’s young digital landscape. She also talks about the newsroom’s constant grapples with the tightrope walk between maintaining unyielding editorial integrity and ensuring sustainable growth, especially amidst the ever-evolving technological advances and the proliferation of new media channels.
2. Decoding the COO Role: Maria delves into the multifaceted nature of her position as the COO of Tech in Asia. She explains that the role is not standardized across organizations, but its essence lies in operational effectiveness and making pivotal decisions. She shares that aspiring COOs should prioritize understanding various perspectives, valuing feedback, and fostering effective team dynamics. She also stresses the value of setting aside personal ego and focusing on serving employees, clients, and stakeholders
3. Career Reflections & Learnings: Maria talks about career decisions, recounting her own journey of transitioning between geographies, roles, and industries. She emphasizes the importance of acquiring new knowledge, evaluating one's own life satisfaction, and introspecting on which decisions are merely steps in a path versus those that shape the path itself. She also shares her personal litmus test for career moves: distinguishing between decisions that can be rolled back and those that are decisively life-altering. She advocates for granting oneself the grace to pivot when a choice doesn't pan out as expected but also stresses the value of commitment when the stakes are high.
They also touched upon the digital transformation in the region and the emerging trends and the challenges related to it, the pivotal role of trust in her role as COO, the significance of audience engagement, and the balance between monetization and unbiased content.
Supported by Ringkas
Ringkas is a digital mortgage platform aiming to solve the access to financing problem for home seekers in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Ringkas currently collaborates with all major Banks in Indonesia and the largest Property Developers across more than 15 cities. Ringkas vision is to democratize home ownership and create more than 100 million homeowners. Don't just dream about owning a home. Make it a reality. Explore more at www.ringkas.co.id
(01:48) Jeremy Au: Hey Maria, really excited to have you on the show. You were a wonderful moderator at the ESG Lunch that I recently attended and you're such an incredible story and voice that I thought, Hey, this leader on the tech news scene in Southeast Asia has got to be on a podcast. So welcome aboard. Could you introduce yourself real quick?
(02:03) Maria Li: Hi, Jeremy. Thanks for having me. I have been tracking the BRAVE podcast and so it's awesome to finally be on board. So my name is Maria. I'm the Chief Operating Officer of Tech in Asia. I have been with TIA for four and a half, almost five years now. And I am actually, I'm originally American. I moved to Singapore six years ago and joined TIA shortly thereafter. So it's been quite a journey.
(02:23) Jeremy Au: So you've been a Wharton MBA, you've been an investor consultant, and also you were at Apple. So how did you transition into technology news in Southeast Asia? How was that journey?
(02:33) Maria Li: Yeah, good question. So I think the overarching theme of my career has been to basically figure out how to help local economies develop and capture a lot of the benefits and how I keep it within the local economy. So I when you look at my resume, it doesn't quite make sense, but actually I've always had a very clear thesis going into each job. So my first job out of college was to be an emerging markets consultant. I was working with Deloitte. Most of my projects were in sub Saharan Africa. These were, I was a bit more starry-eyed and naive back then. These were big institutional development projects. So I was working for like USAID, World Bank, as a consultant, helping them work on five-year micro-financing plans, five-year small holder farmer plans like transportation scene.
So these were again, to help build up a lot of the local economy so that they could access international markets, get more capital. That was the idea. And then, I honestly got a bit disillusioned with public sector. I felt like it was very slow and efficient. A lot of the dollars didn't actually go to the ultimate economic impact that they were trying to make. So I was more keen on joining the private sector, really understanding how to develop businesses and create businesses that would generate a lot of that local economic wealth, which is why I did my MBA.
And then, so with Apple, the overriding thesis was, Apple obviously is one of the biggest. They facilitate some of the biggest, like technology transfers globally, as well as capital transfers. So when Apple develops anything, they are pumping in definitely millions and billions of dollars in order to help that actually work, but they are also bringing over that engineering knowledge. And then you can see it with a lot of the different Apple suppliers and within the supply chain is that the entire industry has built up because, like a Foxconn or a Wistron, some OEM from Apple is setting up, but then they need subcontractors and component manufacturers. And then that really does create almost an economic cluster that basically can sustain, it creates a lot of jobs. It brings in additional income and it really helps individual regions and parts of the world grow and develop economically. And so, I was really interested. I joined the supply chain team in Apple because I thought that that tech and knowledge transfer was really interesting and Apple was doing a such a massively large-scale, like unparalleled to anyone. And so that was the reason I joined Apple.
So sorry, long story short, then the reason why Tech in Asia is because I moved to Singapore with Apple. I was managing a lot of our local regional Southeast Asia supply chain base for Apple. And I was actually bringing a lot of factories out of China into establishing in Vietnam. And then to me, I started questioning about how else can you accrue the same local economic benefits to wherever you're working and actually, I think the startup community does an amazing job of this, right? Not always, but generally speaking, local founders, or at least one of the founders, co founders is local and from that area. It's a lot of you're applying some global concepts of what convenience looks like with speed and disrupting certain industries, but you're doing it in a very localized way. And then, of course, when you're successful, same thing. You're generating a ton of economic benefits that's relative, that's being kept within that particular community. So, that's the main reason I got interested in startups, and I just felt like the next driver of a real genuine local economic wealth would be the startups team within Southeast Asian. So, I wanted to get involved.
(05:30) Jeremy Au: Wow. That was quite a journey. And I think you shared that you were starry-eyed and then you kind of like unstarred those eyes, I guess. But I think there's a lot of folks who are always very interested in the public sector and so forth. So could you share a little bit more about what does it mean from your thesis about what impact looks like from your
(05:45) Maria Li: Yeah. So I think the public sector is obviously incredibly important and we would be remiss to think that like, honestly, just leave it to private sector and capitalism and everything would get figured out. I think that is not true. And you've seen many cases of gross excesses and exploitation happen. So I'm still pro-public sector, but I think the public sector for me is a very strategic partner and should be used as such. So, definitely public sector wise, it's like if you are developing something new, like Singapore's startup community is a great example. When it first was coming up 10, 15 years ago, the government was supporting with a lot of capital funding with a lot of visas, to be honest, and with a lot of different schemes to basically help develop a capital investor and startup base here that would eventually be able to sustain. So that's when public policy is being used most effectively, is when you have a clear goal to develop a particular specialty or region and you're bringing in all the necessary bits when it comes to talent, talent capital whatever it might be. So I think that is where a public sector works as best. Same thing. It can also keep a finger on the scale when it comes to areas like deep tech because it may not traditionally meet what investors necessarily need, but I think government can play a asset.
So it, to me, is like a more of a balancing act as opposed to one that should be really at the forefront once that momentum gets going. So I think that and where we have started to see where I personally saw challenges in my career is maybe when the government or the public sector didn't know when to back off and also let go a little bit and then go into playing that regulatory framework support role and was like maybe two out in front where eventually like snuffs out a lot of the innovation and creativity that the private sector otherwise would have brought.
(07:21) Jeremy Au: And so there you are at Apple and then you choose to obviously be consuming technology news on a regular, I'm sure you're already reading Tech in Asia already. And then you decided to join the other side where you're producing and creating this. So I'm just curious, what was that transition like from your perspective?
(07:35) Maria Li: Yeah so truthfully, it was a bit of an accident. What happened is, I decided that I wanted to join the startup community in Southeast Asia. I didn't really know what that meant. But yes, I started reading a bunch of news. I was reading Tech in Asia amongst others. And my friend eventually was like, Hey, if you care so much, or if you're trying to get in, why don't you just join me at this conference that's happening next week?
It was a Tech in Asia conference. And so I was so cheap. I didn't even pay for a ticket. He just like slip me his wristband on day two or whatever.
(08:00) Jeremy Au: That's how you cut a cost in half.
(08:01) Maria Li: Yeah, exactly. And then but when I walked in like that, it was 2018. The event was here in Singapore. It was at Suntec. And I just remember being completely blown away by the sheer magnitude and scale of what was happening. Obviously, there were hundreds of founders at our startup factory area, we had multiple stages, I think that year I saw this global CEO of Stripe on stage ended up randomly standing next to Eduardo Saverin for a bit. And it was like a complete wow moment. I was like, wow, like I thought I wanted to get involved in startups in Southeast Asia. And now I know I do and I realized that if I didn't move quickly, I think that opportunity, maybe it wouldn't have passed, but I wanted to strike while the iron was hot. So honestly, I just eventually started tracking Tech in Asia a bit more. Eventually a job posting came up for them to lead a business unit effectively.
It was like a director role and I went in and met the team and I would say at that point, how do I say it? My intro to Tech in Asia was mostly through our event side and then our media side. I didn't realize how much of a media company it actually was by nature. And yeah, so I think that's where I honestly just didn't do enough due diligence before I joined, but no regrets.
(09:03) Jeremy Au: Okay. So what are some myths or misconceptions that you had or that other people may have about the media dynamics, especially in tech.
(09:11) Maria Li: Yeah. The first thing I would say is I started from a fundamental belief that media is a really critical institution. And I think it provides a massive amount of checks and balances, information sharing, educational support, so on and so forth. So I think media is really important and I think media done well, which is with true editorial independence, integrity, transparency, it is harder to do than you think. And I think obviously the digital media industry in general, the entire media industry has been under a ton of pressure over the last decade. There have been so many changes where everybody was going for free and trying to monetize via ads to everyone's running to paywall.
So the media industry in general is in flux and I think that's obviously difficult. But with that said, it remains critically important, which means that it's really important that we figure out a way that media works. Even in the world of TikTok like media, it keeps working and keeps playing that particular role to basically provide a balance to the overall system. So the thing that I would say about Tech in Asia is our mission statement is to build and serve Asia's tech and startup community. It is not to go out there and write the hardest hitting investigative journalism. It is not, you know what I'm saying is not to go out there and make the most money possible, but we really think about the community that we're serving as a whole and what would be necessary in order for that community to basically learn and grow and develop. I think that the main evolutions that I've seen is, because Southeast Asia startup community is relatively small and is relatively tight knit, which I think is a strength for the overall community. There's a lot of personal emotions wrapped up into it.
And so, when we're publishing, let's take this last year, as an example. There have been a lot of difficult layoffs and we don't like publishing the bad news as much as like as much as anybody else. That's not our goal, but at the same time, it is important to cover it because it gives you a true watermark as to what's happening, a benchmark as to what's happening within the industry, and to the extent possible that somebody else can learn from these mistakes or we cut costs too late or we overexpand in whatever areas that's actually valuable information for the next founder, for the next investor to take into consideration as they're making their own decision.
And so it's tough, but it's part of the education and so we view it as a critical role that we have to do it as long as it's truthful and objective and accurate. But because we're in such a small community, I can't tell you the number of texts and emails that we get after one of these from a friend who's at the company or a friend who is an investor or whatever it is being like, Hey, why don't you pull your punches? And the answer is like, we're not writing this with a malicious intent. I don't think we write this with a malicious tone, you deserve to have layoffs. Not at all, but as objectively as truthfully as possible. And the idea is to help the overall ecosystem in general, mistakes are fine. It's what you learn from those mistakes. And I think part of what we were trying to do is honestly be mini historians and document what's actually happening with our community. So yeah, so I think that's probably the biggest misconception is that we somehow revel in bad news.
I think that's definitely not true on the investigative side. Our main goal is to expose wrongdoing and to protect people that they might be hurting, with employers, employees, vendors, whatever it might be. And so, I think we take that role quite seriously and we definitely don't play favorites. We try not to play sides. We just try to present the information as is.
(12:07) Jeremy Au: I think it's a tough role to be in, right? I mean, if I think about it, I have different hats. So as a consumer I read stuff that people forward to me. I don't necessarily open up a homepage of a new site anymore. I don't open up New York Times or Wall Street Journal. It's more like people sending stuff, et cetera. And what I do notice, of course, is that when people send stuff, it's often those that is not press released unless it's it's probably going to be relevant. There's probably some level of investigativeness or depth to it. NESB fresh, right? And so there's some sort of time component. For example, layoffs is often articles that I tend to receive as a consumer. But also some of the investigative reporting that you've done has been tremendous for the ecosystem, in terms of I just didn't know. And so I read it. I'm like, Oh, this is really interesting. This is really relevant. And there are other companies that are doing this. There's like the Cairn DealStreetAsia, also are kind of like providing some of that angle. But on the other hand, I also can't imagine what it's like because I can totally imagine nobody wants to see bad news about themselves or a portfolio company, or a friend, and that must be a difficult position to be in.
How do you think is the path forward from your perspective? What's the best principles in terms of navigating such a dynamic from your perspective?
(13:10) Maria Li: Yeah, I think it's the same for basically any company You have to understand what your ultimate mission and vision is. What are you trying to achieve? And I think the reason I mentioned our mission is because like I said, our mission is very much to build and serve this overall ecosystem and community. And so we're doing it the best way we know how to. And I think if somebody else's mission was actually to publish the most investigative journalism pieces possible. You would see them taking ultimately a very different path. And no one can say whether or not that's right or wrong, but that's what their goal was. And so I think for us, at least that's just how we kind of course corrective along the way and also explains out, as we've built out our events business and our studios are where we work with commercial clients.
We do have to make tough decisions and reassure a lot of people that actually we are independent. Our editorial team does operate completely independently from our studios team. And I think in the beginning, people found that very difficult to believe. But over time, we have basically proving that out, and there have been times where we're working with one, a particular company as a client on a branded article or whatever it might be, as our editorial team is writing an investigative piece about them. We just run it as is and hope that at the end of the day, the balance with the scale shows that we have come out relatively neutral and equal across the board.
(14:19) Jeremy Au: Yeah, and I think it's really important, because I think, obviously, the importance of independence is what's the internal function that says there. But from an external perspective, I think information asymmetry is a very big problem in Southeast Asia. In the US, I think things are a little bit more transparent. I think a function of media, but also a function the maturity of the ecosystem, but also the professionalism where people have multiple stacks of intersectional community. So I think information flows. But in Southeast Asia, I'm often traveling to a new country.
(14:45) Jeremy Au: I'm sitting down. I'm like, wow, I had no idea about this. And so, I think the opacity is something that I think in my position, I'm able to see through because of where I am, but if you are a newcomer to the ecosystem, I think can be quite handicap actually. So I think what you're doing is very much needed and important.
How do you think about that? Do you feel like that information asymetry, that change is gonna get better over time? Do you think it's gonna get worse? How do you think that's happening?
(15:08) Maria Li: I'm an optimist. So yes, I definitely think it'll get better over time. And I think we've already seen in Singapore and to some extent, Indonesia. So it's a matter of time, but there are two main reasons why I believe it got better. One is, the level of coverage and reporting that happens, I think people just start to get used to it. The first time you see anything bad about your company, again, assuming it's true, come out, you have a very emotional reaction. I think at some point, you understand that from the other perspective, as long as it's like an objective accounting. So I think there's a bit of maturity at that place and that point. There's more information coming out all the time as the ecosystem matures, which kind of levels out the playing field. And then the second one is actually more on the individual front. I think individuals will start to understand the different perspectives of what happens when it comes to media and when it comes to coverage and reporting and how to work it through. So the other thing that I always tell people who are upset or just asking, media is also coverage. All PR is basically give and take, right? Today might be great news and we're happy to cover that but tomorrow might be bad news and we're also going to cover that. And so, what i'm saying is the scales of justice is hopefully going to show that ultimately at the end of the day, it's a balance and I think as people have more interactions with media and then see that it's not a " Gotcha!" kind of intention or move behind on our part, I think that trust level continues to build in the overall system.
Between the two of them, people will eventually appreciate the role that media plays and journalism plays and figure out how to work media to their own benefit but without being so personally attacked when certain things happen.
(16:32) Jeremy Au: Yeah. And you mentioned a little bit about that evolution, right? So obviously in the top of my head was like disinformation.
(16:38) Maria Li: Yeah.
(16:39) Jeremy Au: That's my pessimism side coming out. And of course, we also see the unbundling of media as well. Of course you unbundled the newspapers that used to have a technology section and I was like reading The Straits Times today and the technology section. I was like, Oh, how quaint it's like, I don't know, page 50, 60, right? So I think there's that, but now there's obviously TikTok. There's all these new media formats. There's podcasts, for example. So how are you thinking about that perspective? Do you think that leads to more transparency? Do you think that leads to more confusion? How do you see that evolving from your perspective?
(17:06) Maria Li: Yeah. We haven't landed at the final answer yet. And I think that it remains to be seen, but I would say that when things were first starting to get fragmented, decentralized, dismantled, however you want, unbundled I think there's a lot of excitement over that because it was like, Oh, cool. I can finally like pick and choose exactly what I want. I don't have to subscribe all in, but at the same time, when Substack first came up, everybody was like, Oh, this is amazing. I can follow my favorite authors without having to read the ones I don't care about. And that there is something pretty amazing about that. But I also think that people have started to see the negative side of that, which is like, you have so much choice and it's really hard to discover new people and new things because it's hard to go find that next amazing author because how are you going to come across them if you're operating only in your own silo? I also think that we've seen maybe a bit of a reversion to the idea that there is still some trust in brand names and platforms where you know that they're reputable and there's that base level of understanding in terms of quality values like interest level.
And so I think we're seeing a bit of a reversion and ultimately, at TIA, that's what our goal is. We want to build both the best, most credible brand in our space covering the digital, covering the tech and startup space, as a media platform. But then we also want to have the strongest individual journalists who also have a particular voice and people who just really love the way that they report or really love the beat that they cover or whatever it might be. So I think we're trying to cover basically both ends of that spectrum.
(18:30) Jeremy Au: So what's interesting is that you have a role of COO. What does COO mean? And then we'll go more into how exactly you navigate that. But what does COO mean? Because it's always a unique definitional role in every company. So what does that mean for you?
(18:44) Maria Li: Yeah. In truth, it probably means I deal with the escalations that nobody else wants to deal with.
(18:47) Jeremy Au: Yeah. That's the most accurate description.
(18:51) Maria Li: Yeah, basically, if it's a problem that Willis, our CEO and founder, wants to deal with, he gets to deal with it. But if he doesn't want to deal with it, then it comes to me. No, but no, Willis and I, we have a great working relationship and we have defined our roles. We do switch it and we do pretty regular check ins every few months and be like, are you good with your scope? But we always kind of divide and conquer across the company by and large, what that's meant over the last few years. Is he focused more on top line revenue, and I focus more on bottom line profitability?
When it comes to definitely operational stuff, with finance, legal, HR, and a lot of our office costs, a lot of that falls under my purview. So it's one way we divide and conquer. And then the other way that we do it is also by business lines and business units. So Willis is more of the product guy. He was the first writer for Tech in Asia. So he's very tight with the editorial team. He took more focus on our tech stack and our editorial side, whereas I oversee a lot more of our studios, commercial clients and events. So that's the other way we divide. So it's a bit matrix, but again, what it basically means is the buck stops with one of us and sometimes me, if it's boring operational stuff.
(19:48) Jeremy Au: Yeah, got it. And how does one get the COO role? Cause some of them is like, I want to be COO because I like this stuff. And I'm like, oh, that's good. But I don't see as a JD, you know, it's not like a, it's not like a, LinkedIn jobs. People are looking for leads or associates or consultants, but not a COO role. How does one kind of think about that?
(20:05) Maria Li: Yeah. So I never recruited for the CEO role. I was recruited as like a business. Strategy director and what actually happened was on my very first day, I went in, it was like a 9 a. m. meeting with the former CEO and Willis. And they basically informed me that the former COO was resigning. And would I be interested in stepping up? And at that point, I'm an American here. I'm on an EP. My EP had already cleared, like I'd already basically gone all in on TIA. And I figure, in for a penny and for a pound, right? Like I've already, I'm already committed to tech and Asia.
So who cares what the role is? I might as well just figure it out. So I agree. I never recruited for this role and I never really thought about what it meant prior to it, but I would say for anybody who is interested in becoming a COO role, I think what it takes, it's more, it's not a skill set, right? Because like you said, it's defined incredibly differently at every single company. Cause it really does end up being a bit of a negotiation and conversation with the other members of the C level team to see how you carve out all the different responsibilities. So, skillset wise is I think this ability to just honestly get shit done and be able to move quickly and make the right decisions for the business.
Maybe not in all general terms. And so I think if someone is coming up within the company and be like, you know what, maybe I want to eventually become a COO, I think the best way to distinguish yourself is to figure out how to get things done and I don't care necessarily what the challenges are, or all the different ways in which the timeline is laid or like all the external factors that are validly and completely out of your control, but you have still figure out a way to pull together success, or you still figure out a way to pull together project, or you've made it a very difficult decision to cut a particular project. You understand how to actually deliver outcomes because I think that's ultimately the most important part about a COO. And so, like I said, I deal with a lot of escalations nobody else wants to deal with, but I figure out a way, basically to make it work. I will not say I'm right 100% of the time, like no way. But I can process information. I can learn. I'm talking to people. I'm presenting my justification as to why certain things, like why I'm making a particular decision to the way that if no one's happy, that's fine. But at least they can respect how I got. And I actually think that's really critical. It's not about do you know finance super well? But it's really like, can you make operational decisions and these big strategic macro decisions for the company in a way that I think is relatively well accepted and well respected by the people you're working with.
(22:15) Jeremy Au: So getting stuff done but also makes you popular and unpopular. So how does one balance that from your perspective?
(22:21) Maria Li: I definitely don't sweat the popularity contest. And so I think this does have to do with a bit with culture as well. We've built a culture where people genuinely like working at Tech in Asia because cause the way that we think, the way that we define our own success is also how we define our employee success, which is like, are you fair, logical, and effective, you know what saying? And so I tell employees as well, like not all the time to not sweat. It's okay if you ruffle a few feathers or hurt their egos, as long as you're not malicious about it, but you do it logically, you do it with the right intention in mind right?
We hope that everybody at Tech in Asia is working with the overall right for our mission and doing with the right things in mind. And then the personal stuff, I understand it can feel really bad in the moment, but for the right person, they will understand ultimately that having your feelings hurt versus making the right decision for the business, it's actually like the most important thing. And so we try to bring that mindset and mentality for the rest of our team and hope that they judge us accordingly as well.
(23:16) Jeremy Au: Yeah. When you think about that, are there any other attributes that you think are really important for a COO, like advice that you have for them to exhibit or for them to develop before they step into that role?
(23:26) Maria Li: Some things that I learned on the job, to be honest is, the main one is about leadership. It's really not about you. Nobody cares about you. So like in movies, you get to see the leader being the really, like the inspirational one or like the hardcore one. There's a certain trope I think but I think in reality, nobody cares about you. They only care about themselves, to be honest. And then, so I think the most important thing was actually shifting that lens of like, I do feel like in the first few months, I was like, Oh man, what do people think about me as a COO?
And then at some point it was like, nobody's gives a shit about me. It's all about how am I serving the employees? How am I serving our clients or shareholders? So I think that lens focus, that lens shift actually was helpful because it removed a lot of the ego out of the role, which enables you to make much better decisions.
So I think there is a lot of letting go of any perceptions of self, your own ego, and really focusing again, on the outcome. And as long as you're You are focused, laser focused on the outcome and you're like leading your team to do so. That also really helps. And then, of course, with that comes a bunch of being able to understand genuinely understand different perspectives, and really being able to take in other people's feedback, listen, making sure that you understand all points of views before making a particular critical decision. Again, the switch from like IC to manager to, to leader slash executive is as an IC, if you're just doing really well on your own.
And you're the smart one in the room, you're going to shine as an IC, right? Like, that's fine. As a manager, you learn to start to corral. And so basically, I think with each step forward, technically up the ladder, you actually have to take a step back and hear more different opinions and perspectives in order to be more effective at your job. So nobody cares, again. If you're the smartest person in the room as a leader, like, that's great, but you're not going to have that many people following you. I think the main thing is to figure out, how do you balance everybody else's perspective, make sure you're listening and then you're like distilling it into a path forward.
(25:15) Jeremy Au: On that note, have there been a personal story or time that you were brave?
(25:19) Maria Li: Yeah, sure. So I think twice really I did two things in the same time. So basically I have taken two massive pay cuts in my life. first time was when I moved from Apple headquarters to Apple Singapore. I took around a 40% pay cut. They localized me and Silicon Valley's salaries are obviously higher. And then, again, when I joined, went from Apple to Tech in Asia, I took another 40% pay cut. So basically I'm making less money or about the same as when I first did as a 22 year old fresh undergrad. But the reason I mentioned is not because I care about money, but I think what was valuable about those two decisions and the reason those two decisions were the bravest decision I made because those were when I allowed myself to stop defining success for my life and my career based on what I thought society wanted and basically define it on my turn.
When I moved to Singapore, I really wanted to live and work in Asia. I felt like Asia was the future. I'm also Chinese American and I was spending a lot of time in Chinese factories with Apple. So like I was spending a lot of time and working a lot in Asia anyways, but I really wanted to make that full switch and so it was unconventional, but it helped me live out like a truer version of what I thought my career should be or like where I wanted my life to go. And again, same thing with Tech and Asia. So I took that other pay cut, but it allowed me, I mean, I didn't know when I, when I made the decision, but allowed me to basically be at the center of a lot of the tech and startup community here and see a growth and also facilitate and foster a lot of the growth. So it was brave in that I was breaking out from what I thought people expected of me versus like what I actually wanted to do. And obviously, you know, when you take that, like that much, many pay cuts, you also realize that money is really not that important. And that was also like pretty freeing for me. I was like, you know what? There's a certain amount of money, of course, in which I need to live in order to get by. But above and beyond that money doesn't bring me happiness, but finding like that real passion and purpose at work and working with people that I love does.
And I'm going to orient the rest of my life and my career decisions towards that. So I think those, those are brave in that I was charting out my own path.
(27:09) Jeremy Au: Yeah. When you made those decisions, what parameters were you weighing? So one is obviously, job scope is one change. The other one is pay cut. That was geography. But what are the parameters were you in the back of your mind?
(27:20) Maria Li: I think slightly different for, for each one. Moving to Asia was like was basically like quality of life, San Francisco, actually, like at that time, this was back in 2016, you could actually already see it was going downhill. And then my quality of life, I was either commuting three to four hours a day from the city down to Cupertino or I was on a flight from San Francisco over to Shenzhen or Shanghai or to one of our factories so like The, there was just like a lot of, and then cost of living in San Francisco is obviously incredibly high. And and so we were like, this just isn't the life I wanted.
I do like my job. I love my job. I thought I was really happy with it, but like everything around it, it was all in service to my job. And there was like no balance there. And so for me, actually moving to Asia was more a bit of quality of life, but it's also a vote in the future. And so it was like, let me explore what other models for my life and what those would look like. So there was more of an exploration thing. And then with Tech in Asia, I guess, same thing. I'd only ever worked in brand name companies, Deloitte and Apple at that point. But I had spent my life and career, in pursuit of this idea of small businesses generate a vast amount of value and wealth to the local economy. And so I think same thing, it was just like being able to have, I was balancing for impact in that situation. I was kind of feeling stymied by the big corporate and you know, like the bureaucracy that happens internally and really wanted to feel like I could make a bigger impact, bigger contribution to my organization. So on that one, it was a bit more like autonomy, freedom, independence.
(28:46) Jeremy Au: I think one interesting thing that people often think about is just Hey, you know, it's scary to change roles and change geography. And you've done both, which is really quite tremendous. And it also had to do to pay cuts as well, which doesn't make it easier. I had another friend, he was like, Oh, I moved from Europe to a Southeast Asian country by the same pay for high title. And I was like, yeah, I mean, the geography jump is a bit of a risk, but still, it was a pretty nice, sweet gig that he managed to land. So I think from your perspective, any advice you have for folks who are thinking through those life changes?
(29:15) Maria Li: Yeah. I think the first thing I would say is... almost no decision's irreversible. I think people do think about things or some of these big decisions. I get it is scary, but as quite binary as in, if I do this, I can never come back. And actually I don't think that's true. And that's maybe the first mental thinking that I would remove from them, it's like, you can always reverse something, almost always. And so it's not that bad. And that kind of lowers the pressure of each decision. I think people do tend to put in a lot of weight onto onto these decisions, which is why you see people almost paralyzed and they're like, well, I've been thinking about starting a startup like five years, six years and I just still haven't done it because I'm worried about this. And so the first thing is like, yeah, and then in general also to have a bias towards action, which is actually, if you never try, you don't know and, and to really just give it a shot. And then again. You can always reverse it, so it's not that big of a deal at the end of the day. And then the last one, no, the last few, sorry, I have so many thoughts on this one. Yeah, no, I think about this all the time.
And then, so bias to action, no decisions irreversible. Obviously having a decent amount of confidence in yourself. And it's just like, do you trust that you are smart and logical and you'll figure it out as you go? Cause there's nobody, no decision where everything is perfectly mapped out and exactly all the pros and cons of option A versus B. But you just have to be able to have a lot more faith and confidence in your own ability to navigate whatever comes and so I think that it's just people get wrapped up in their own heads about what certain things should look like, how certain decisions should be made, and I think the most freeing thing, like I said, is to just basically be like, you know what, I'm just going to give it a go.
This is like the bias action that most startups like to see. Just give it a shot. It's not a failure. It's only a failure if you don't learn something from your mistakes. But as long as you're learning from your mistakes, then I would not ever define anything as failure. And if anything else, there's a massive amount of lessons learned along the way which I think only serves to make you better in the long run.
(31:01) Jeremy Au: I'm so curious. What were some of the lessons that you learned from your perspective?
(31:04) Maria Li: In all my moves, is it? Wow I definitely don't know as much as I think I do.
(31:08) Jeremy Au: Ooh.
(31:09) Maria Li: So humility and humbleness is always good. It's true. I can't tell you the number of times where Tech in Asia is a really good example. I had worked in Apple, like I thought I knew all this stuff. And when I joined TIA, was doing quite poorly. We had a bunch of self inflicted wounds. You can go back into the archives for that. And so I took over a relatively struggling business, to be honest. And so, I'm just like, here and I'm going to help save the company and whatever. And the humility lessons, like time after, after day, week after week was amazing. Cause TIA had such rich resources, such amazing people already. And it was really just a matter of leveraging the ability. So humility for sure. Probably the biggest one. Checking your ego is one.
But then, also, I think a lot of things got reaffirmed, which is, I now have even more confidence in myself that I can navigate whatever's coming forward, and that there's almost nothing I wouldn't say like unfixable, but that you cannot somehow influence to be slightly better than where you originally found it.
(32:00) Jeremy Au: Amazing. On that note any parting words of advice that you have for folks?
(32:03) Maria Li: Mostly that, I ask everyone to really think about what they want for themselves and for their own lives and to structure and plan according to that, not against what society thinks or what your friend from unique things or what your parents think or your in laws think. I think this is where I see most people get lost or they feel like they're on a certain path and they just cannot possibly reverse out of it. So when I think about my personal journey, I have actually did this little presentation internally for the company.
I showed my salary progression. It was like, do, do, do, do. And then it's like, dip, dip, dip. But then I showed him like my job satisfaction and how it's gone through the roof. And so being able to make those decisions to orient everything around what I define as success and happiness has served me immensely well. I actually asked for the entire team is like when we're talking about career progression, when you're talking about job happiness, I want you to first identify what are the markers of happiness for you. What does success look like for you. And if it is making the most money possible, that is a valid answer. We can help you go on, get on that path. It might not be in tech media, to be honest, but that's okay. But I think that's the very first, so you have to know yourself, be very, very self aware about what your particular triggers and success metrics and what your goals are in order for anybody else to basically be able to come in and actually help you, to help you reach it. And for you to reach it, help yourself to reach those goals.
(33:18) Jeremy Au: Amazing. On that note, I'd love to summarize the three big takeaways I got from this. First of all, thank you so much about sharing Tech in Asia's mission and also values. I thought it was fascinating because I too also feel that Southeast Asia is a young ecosystem, and so there's a lot of information, opacity, and even asymmetry. I thought it was very wonderful actually to hear about how those tensions actually also translate to decisions that the team has to think about in terms of editorial independence, but also in terms of keeping the organization growing in the face of all these technological change and these new media channels. So I think it was a fascinating behind the scenes look about that newsroom and company.
Secondly, thanks for sharing about the COO role. I think we talk about how nobody knows what exactly it means, but also we also know what is meant to be done, which is about getting stuff done. I thought that was a very good exploration about what are the key attributes about what's needed to succeed in the role but also I think how to go about looking for that role. And I think the trust is needed for the role to succeed.
Lastly, thanks so much for sharing actually your own advice about thinking through career decisions. You've definitely made a lot of decisions in terms of changing your geography, in terms of your role, in terms of industry. I think it was very nice of you to share your own reflections about what advice you would give others but also what were the lessons that you learned in terms of the knowledge you had to gain, the life satisfaction and, your thoughts about what's reversible versus what's actually decisive. So on that note, thank you so much, Maria, for sharing your perspective.
(34:37) Maria Li: Thanks, Jeremy. Thanks for having me. This was such a fun conversation.