Jack Ma made history last year when his company, Alibaba, went public with an IPO of $25 billion – the largest in the world. The man that made it happen is as much of a success story as his company: once turned down for a job as a server at KFC he is now the richest man in China, and he has a lot to say on the subjects of leadership, success, and the future of ecommerce.
The most striking thing about Jack Ma’s interview at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos earlier this month was the entrepreneur’s humility, he spent a good deal of his time talking about the many failures that eventually lead him to Alibaba.
The company made zero revenue in its first three years of business. When he started out Jack Ma employed 18 people and they worked from his apartment, now they employ 30,000 people and have 100 million buyers visit their site everyday. But, ever humble, Jack Ma characterises this growth as going from being “better than people thought” to “not as good as people think.” When you view your billion-dollar fortune not as your money, but as “the trust society gives to you” then you’d better stay humble.
Humility seems to be Jack Ma’s leadership style, but it conceals a steely ambition, however much he protests that he and his wife never expected to be rich, you don’t just stumble onto a $25 billion IPO. But Ma credits his success with rejection – we have to get used to rejection, he says, because “we’re not that good.” Harsh? Maybe. But certainly pragmatic. You may have read recently about Ma’s refusal to give his employees the traditional Chinese New Year gift of hongbao (red envelopes filled with money) because the company’s year has been “lacking in accomplishments.” It seems that Jack Ma did not see Alibaba’s IPO as an exceptional accomplishment for the company, but rather “the accumulated work of 15 years.”
However Ma softened this blow with a philosophical line in a letter to his employees: “We have the same problems that any large company has. We have the same difficulties that any young company has. The gap between what the world expects from us and our own ability is quite large… We may never be able to change how some people see us, but we can change ourselves.” This is characteristic of Ma who says that leadership, above all, is about responsibility. As a leader of 30,000 employees Ma is responsible for their work, and as a leader in the ecommerce industry they have a responsibility to their customers. According to another interview with the entrepreneur, a leader should be able to endure more than their employees, this means a higher endurance and acceptance for failure.
Ma’s advice on leadership is worth listening to, but then so is his advice on everything else, “The world has a lot of opportunity,” he said at Davos, “how you see the world gives you the opportunity.” Ma also promotes a very balanced view of ambition and competition, no doubt influenced by his profound interest in t’ai chi. When talking about his perceived rivalry with eBay he denies having any ill will towards the company, but rather dismisses their ecommerce battles as “business,” and business “is about fun.” He has said in other interviews that competition is similar to Chess in that there can always be another round, so companies should never fight: “A real businessman or entrepreneur has no enemies. Once he understands this, the sky’s the limit.”1 When taking on larger companies T’ai chi also influences his business strategy: “You are heavy, I am small. You cannot jump, I can.”
One of the secrets of Alibaba’s success, according to Ma, is the amount of women who work there; 47% of the company is women, management is 33% women and senior management is 24% women. As anyone will tell you companies perform better when there is diversity at all levels of management, and Alibaba certainly performs well. As Ma said at Davos, “Women think about others more than they think about themselves,” which often means their business strategy is unique and often more encompassing than their male counterparts.
Despite being a leader in the ecommerce industry Ma said at Davos that he hopes that in fifteen years people forget about the word “ecommerce” because it will be as natural to them as electricity. He is passionate about the opportunities Alibaba gives to small companies and merchants by enabling them to do business online, and is very conscious of the immense trust that has been placed in him by these retailers. In his interview at Davos, Ma recounts the times that he has received tokens from his customers, once a customer even picked up his cheque in a restaurant because they knew that he wasn’t making any money at that time. And it is clear that Jack Ma in turn feels a responsibility and affection for his customers, and the businesses for whom he provides a platform. When describing ecommerce transactions to Charlie Rose in this interview he asks “how can you do things online unless you trust?”
But responsibility doesn’t seem to perturb Ma, who optimistically quips that in ten years Alibaba could be bigger than Walmart. He also looks favourable on China’s decline in growth, rightfully pointing out that China is the second largest economy in the world and if they were to sustain their 9% growth the people of China would “never see the blue sky.” In other words, such growth is unsustainable and rightly so. There may be a decline in growth in China but there is certainly no decline in quality.
Ultimately, Jack Ma would like to teach one day. He is very passionate about young people, they are the future and they are the ones who will provide solutions and answers to the problems and questions that we have today, much like Jack Ma is doing right now. Time once dubbed him “crazy Jack” and it’s a title Ma does not shy away from: at Alibaba “we are crazy, but we’re not stupid.” I don’t think that at this point anyone could disagree.
Feature Image: Courtesy of Alibaba Group