Jack Ma is the founder of China’s largest Internet company and ecommerce marketplace: Alibaba. His personal history and his unique leadership style have garnered him respect all over the world, and made him a global celebrity as well as a highly successful businessman.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ma was not born into privilege. Instead, his uniquely innovative, enterprising, and persistent attitude were the key to his monumental success. Today, he’s the second wealthiest person in China, with a net worth estimated at $22.7 Billion USD.
The persistence of Jack Ma
In the numerous interviews and talks given by Ma, his most regular recurring theme is an emphasis on persistence, and the impact it has had on his own life. To him, success did not come easily. He failed his college entrance exam twice before securing a spot at university, after which he had enormous difficulty in finding work. As a young college graduate, Ma was famously turned down for over 30 different jobs, including one at KFC. Eventually, he secured a position as an English teacher, earning just $12 USD per month.
On a visit to the US in 1995, Ma learned about the Internet, and was surprised to find that China was virtually unrepresented. Not only was there no noticeable Chinese presence on the web, there wasn’t even any significant amount of content about China, or its products. Seeing an opportunity, he launched one of the very first Chinese business websites, which was effectively a directory of Chinese businesses and products. While he was met with some success, it wasn’t his big break, and he eventually left and secured a government job.
In 1999 he was ready to try again, and founded Alibaba with the financial support of 17 of his personal friends. Initially seeking investment in Silicon Valley, Ma was again frustrated by rejection and heavily criticised for his proposed business model. Eventually, however, he succeeded in securing a $5 million dollar investment from Goldman Sachs, and $20 million dollars from Softbank. With that, Jack Ma and Alibaba were ready to begin taking on the world.
Originally, Alibaba was focused on helping Chinese SMEs get involved in international trade, but Ma is not one to pursue only a single idea at a time. When his new business still hadn’t turned a profit in 2003, he launched Taobao.com, with the ambitious goal of challenging Ebay in China.
Unlike its competitors, Taobao operated as a commission-free marketplace, which put Alibaba under considerable financial strain. It relied on peripheral services to generate revenue, which made it very competitive, but also far less reliably profitable. This calculated risk, however, paid off in a big way. Taobao grew rapidly, and pushed Ebay out of China entirely just 5 years later, after refusing to be bought out by the auction giant, and garnering a $1 billion dollar investment from Yahoo.
Seeing and taking advantage of opportunities like this has defined Jack Ma’s success. Besides Taobao, he also founded a variety of other ventures under the Alibaba umbrella, including Alipay, Aliexpress, Tmall, and others. By identifying and pursuing business opportunities related to his original goal of facilitating the global success of Chinese SMEs, he built a massive multifaceted enterprise. Today, Alibaba is estimated to be worth over $200 billion dollars.
Ma’s big picture approach
Unlike many of the world’s wealthiest and most successful people, Jack Ma isn’t laser-focused on achieving business success and building wealth for its own sake. He talks extensively about balancing life and work, and is acutely aware of the enormous weight of responsibility that highly successful business owners bear.
Ma once famously stated that he was happier as a low-wage teacher in Hangzhou, than as one of the most powerful businesspeople on earth. His humble, yet highly energetic approach to leadership have defined his career, and marked him as a unique figure among the world’s multi-billionaires.
Unlike extremely hands-on leaders like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, Ma encourages business owners to make themselves replaceable, and to avoid making their operations dependent on them. This helps businesses to prevent complications due to bottlenecking, and gives individuals along the chain of command more freedom to make use of their particular skills and knowledge.
Ma approaches leadership from an inspirational angle, focusing on defining general goals and a greater unifying vision for his employees. Uniting his team under that vision, and enabling them to do the work of realising it as efficiently as possible are what he sees as his primary function. His personal drive and determination to succeed in the face of adversity, along with his ability to bring out the best in his team, are what gave him the potential to dominate commerce on China’s Internet. His unique approach serves as a singular example to business owners all over the world.