The story of Jack Ma: From an English teacher to China’s richest man
Never give up. Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine — Jack Ma
This is the mindset that Jack Ma has forged during his long career as a teacher, mentor and entrepreneur.
10th September 1964 marks the birth date of Jack MA Yun. He is the co-founder and executive chair of a multinational technology conglomerate, the Alibaba Group. Though he is one of China’s richest men as of January 2019 with a net worth of $39.1 billion, and also one of the wealthiest people in the world, his initial beginnings were nothing as such.
If we are to sum up his entire childhood and adulthood in one word, it would be Failure.
Let’s have a look at those failures:
- He failed primary school test twice
- He failed middle school test thrice
- He failed the college entrance exam twice
- After graduation, he was rejected for the most jobs he had applied for
- He applied for Harvard ten times and was rejected every single time.
That’s not it, he was the only applicant among 5 who was rejected from the police force and also the only one rejected among the 24 applicants for the post of a KFC manager.
Learning from failures
Yet, all those rejections and failures did not stop him. He used those as his stepping stones and kept moving forward in his life. He graduated with B.A. in English and later became a lecturer in English and International Trade at Hangzhou Dianzi University. And then, in the year 1995, he arrived at U.S. as a translator.
It was in the U.S that he became aware of ‘the internet’. Searching for beer online, he was shocked to know that there were no Chinese representatives. In fact, he could not find general information about China. And that was the moment he saw the business opportunities of the internet and decided to launch a website connecting Chinese people. The website was named “Chinese Pages” and was dedicated to making webpages for Chinese companies.
Although China Page was working well, it still had its struggles. With hopes of getting better funding, Ma partnered with a government body. He gave the government majority control over his company in that process which unfortunately led to him leaving the company as all his control over it was stifled by the government body.
“Be in love with the governments, but do not marry them”, Ma advised young entrepreneurs later in his life.
Undeterred by his failure with the China Page, Ma tried his hand at internet based business ventures again in 1999. He gathered a group of investors and shared his idea of Alibaba. Its goal was to ease international trade for small and medium ventures based in China. The name Alibaba was chosen because it came at the beginning of the alphabet, “Whatever you talk about, Alibaba is always on the top” Ma said.
According to an interview he gave in 2006 with CNN’s Talk Asia program, Ma was in a San Francisco coffee shop when he came up with the name. He asked the waitress whether it was something she was familiar with.
“I said, ‘What do you know about Alibaba?’ and she said ‘Open Sesame.’ And I said, ‘Yes, this is the name!’” he told the interviewer.
Jack Ma says that his company’s success was an accident, “Alibaba might as well be known as ‘one thousand and one mistakes’”
Once Alibaba was formed, Ma tried to raise its funds in Silicon Valley. He failed yet again. He received criticism of his unprofitable business model and had to go back to China empty handed.
Did that stop him from reaching his goal?
He just kept going.
Sharks vs. Crocodiles
In the year 2002, there was an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus in southern China, which resulted in people considering online shopping instead of going out.
It was also the same year when eBay had bought EachNet and was drawing China’s individual customers in the auction market. Ma became alarmed that eBay might pose a threat to them in the future. So in the year 2003, Ma and his team cleverly launched an online auction site called “Taobao.com”.
This site charged zero commission to its customers and its sole aim was to take on the e-commerce giant eBay. However, that decision was straining Alibaba’s finance. To cover it up, Ma and his team started offering peripheral value offered support services for a small fee. Eventually, unable to stand against the commission-free taobao.com, eBay withdrew from China.
Talking about that period, Ma later said, “If eBay are the sharks in the ocean, we are the crocodiles in the Yangtze River”.
Taobao was the first successful subsidiary of Alibaba after which Alipay, a third-party mobile and online payment platform, was launched.
And that was just the beginning.
His accomplishments kept growing as the years passed. A glimpse of those accomplishments include:
- In September 2004, he was nominated as “Young Global Leader” by World Economic Forum
- In 2008, he was chosen among the “30 World’s Best CEO’s” by Businessweek
- In 2014, he was selected among the “Top 10 Business Leaders of the Year”
- In 2017, Fortune ranked Ma second on its World’s 50 Greatest Leaders list
In September 2014, Alibaba raised over $25 billion in an initial public offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange. After raising over $25 billion, Alibaba became one of the most valuable technology companies in the world. In the US financial history, Alibaba became the largest initial public offering company.
In the year 2019, Ma stepped down from being the CEO to an executive chairman of Alibaba Group.
It wasn’t just the hard work and determination but also his personality and his optimism that brought him to his current position.
He was a demanding leader who would set a goal and then triple it. When everyone argued that it was impossible, Ma would convince them that it, in fact, was possible and that they could find a way to make it possible. It was his speaking style that worked its charm on everyone. He made sure that his message reached everyone by making it easy to remember and agree with.
Jack Ma’s mantra and Alibaba’s philosophy that brought them immense success was “Customers first, employees second and shareholders third.”
Despite his childhood and much of adulthood being defined by failure and rejection, Jack Ma turned the tables of fate with his commitment to his one goal- “using internet to favour the Chinese market”.
The Six Veins of Alibaba’s Spirit Sword are “teamwork, embrace change, customer first, integrity, passion, and commitment.”
The story of Jack Ma is full of inspiration and life lessons to all of us.
If he could change the course of his life with perseverance and hard work, what makes you think you are any different?
Originally published at https://revolutionary-entrepreneur.com on April 28, 2019.