Jack Ma Steps Down From Alibaba: Leadership and Life Lessons We Can Learn From His Career

Delton Rhodes
Sep 10 · 7 min read

On September 10, 2019, at the age of 55, Jack Ma stepped down from Alibaba. Today, the e-commerce platform is valued at $460 billion. Ma has a net worth of $38.4 billion. The story of his success and journey along the way, though, is possibly even more valuable for those that aspire to take a startup from nothing to one of the biggest companies in the world. Even if your goals are smaller, there are many important takeaways from Jack Ma’s life.

“Don’t Give Up” Is More Than A Cliché

In many cases, “don’t give up” is a cliché without any actionable value. For Ma, however, it played a significant role in shaping his life’s path. As Ma recalls,

“There’s an examination for young people to go to university. I failed it three times. I failed a lot. So I applied to 30 different jobs and got rejected. I went for a job with the police; they said, ‘You’re no good.’ I even went to KFC when it came to my city. Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted.”

He was also rejected from Harvard 10 times. With all of these failures, there are a few lessons that can be learned. First, not getting into a certain school or not getting a certain job isn’t the end of the world. It can actually help you learn more about yourself and gain knowledge about the process that it takes to become successful. It’s possible that you will ultimately be successful at reaching this goal, even if it takes a few tries. For Ma, this wasn’t true. This brings us to the next lesson. Failure to achieve in life through what is considered the “normal path” might lead you to take a road less traveled by, which could be a much better option in the long-run.

Ma’s numerous rejections sent him on an unorthodox career path that eventually led to success.

Patience Is A Virtue

When Ma first started building websites in the middle of the 1990s, the internet was still very young. There was a lot of interest in what the internet could be. A staggering amount of capital was going into startups building basic webpages during the dotcom bubble. Although these positives helped companies at the time, technical challenges were quite different than what companies face today. According to Ma,

“The day we got connected to the Web, I invited friends and TV people over to my house, and on a very slow dial-up connection. We waited three and a half hours and got half a page. We drank, watched TV and played cards, waiting. But I was so proud. I proved the Internet existed.”

Flashforward to 2019 and the internet has become a permanent fixture of our daily lives. Back then, many doubters thought it was just a fad. In contrast, Ma had a vision of the possibilities that it could bring to the world. More importantly, he had the patience to continue working on Alibaba despite the challenges at the time. What can we learn from this today? Even with rapid technological development, emerging technologies require time and effort to come to fruition. AI, IoT, and blockchain provide a few examples of this in 2019. The most successful startups that are building the technologies and businesses of tomorrow often have to work through the unknowns and maintain an optimistic attitude when the future looks bleak.

Alibaba was born out of the days of dial-up internet.

Don’t Let Humble Beginnings Limit Your Imagination

In 1999, Ma started Alibaba from his apartment in Hangzhou, China with 18 friends. Working in such a small space might be discouraging for some people, but Ma and the founding team made it work. In January 2000, the company raised $20 million from SoftBank. Ma said that the conversation with SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son was quite simple.

“We didn’t talk about revenues. We didn’t even talk about a business model. We just talked about a shared vision. Both of us make quick decisions.”

The biggest takeaway from this story is that you can “make it” even if you start out as a small company with limited resources. Yes, the vast majority of startups fail. If your team is talented and willing to make sacrifices, however, it is possible to succeed. For small business owners and workers, the message is the same. Don’t let excuses and negative thinking become your downfall. Keep your sights set on the big-picture goals while working on the day-to-day tasks that it takes to get there.

In 1999, Jack Ma and the 18 founders of Alibaba started out in his cramped apartment in Hangzhou, China.

Learn From Competitors But Don’t Copy

Looking at competitors for inspiration is a common strategy for most companies. The problem is that this often leads to outright copying an existing product, which means that your product doesn’t offer any real solution that the market doesn’t already have. Throughout his career at Alibaba, Ma focused on the launch of unique platforms and applications that were typically considered to be at the forefront of e-commerce. He believes,

“You should learn from your competitor, but never copy. Copy and you die.”

Over the years, Alibaba has shown its ability to continuously offer new services to the market that utilize new strategies and solutions either through starting companies or through investments. Taobao, Alipay, Tmall, Alibaba Cloud, and Ant Financial are just a few of the successful organizations that reflect a commitment to a proactive approach rather than a reactive approach to what competitors are doing. No matter what you want to do in life, this can be a good model to follow. If you are a writer, for example, it’s beneficial to know what other people are writing about and what makes them successful. However, trying to copy their style completely usually doesn't work out for the best. Being yourself and having your own ideas, style, etc. are what will make you stand out in any competitive field.

While always innovative, Alibaba businesses have become more diverse across different industries over the years.

Knowing When To Step Down Is A Valuable Skill

Too many times, people say something along the lines of, “If I had that much money, I would just relax.” The amount may vary for each person that says this, but they are likely missing the point of why stepping down is a valuable skill. As an entrepreneur who has built one of the biggest companies on the planet, Ma could have easily retired many years ago. At this level, it’s not money that determines when a leader steps down from a company.

Many people who are in a similar position to Ma are unwilling to call it quits due to their need to have a permanent feeling of power and influence. While it’s good to have a “don’t give up” mentality when starting your career, it’s arguably even more important to know when it’s time for the next generation of leaders to run an organization. Ma has expressed so much optimism for future generations throughout his career,

“Help young people. Help small guys. Because small guys will be big. Young people will have the seeds you bury in their minds, and when they grow up, they will change the world.”

Stepping down can be difficult, especially for those at the top of their respective fields. In sports, we often see players who don’t want to retire late in their careers, which means they might risk injury to their bodies. For the most part, there is a limited window for when athletes can be true stars in their respective sports. Conversely, in business, it’s possible to contribute to a company much later in life. We see this with Warren Buffett, who turned 89 in August. For each person, the correct age or stage in life to step down is different.

Jack Ma planned to leave Alibaba on the day of his 55th birthday and did so. Going through with a plan like this is much easier said than done for most driven leaders. What’s even better is that Ma knows this isn’t the end of his contributions to Alibaba or the world. He will be around to serve as a mentor for Alibaba managers. Ma also wants to contribute to education-themed philanthropy, returning to his origins as an aspiring teacher.

Jack Ma shows us that stepping down from a powerful role doesn’t have to be something to dread about. Whatever comes next is simply a new, equally important chapter in life.

The Green Light

An independent, Medium-only publication about business, technology, and the global economy

Delton Rhodes

Written by

Writing and reading about tech, business, remote work, and the future of society

The Green Light

An independent, Medium-only publication about business, technology, and the global economy

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