5 Unusual Statements that Reveal how Alibaba Founder Jack Ma Thinks

Leadership Expert Series Logo in green with worldmap and compassThis post is part of the Expert Series investigating how high-quality collaboration helps leaders to build success when faced with complex change. Business leaders, experts and role models selected by Hanneke Siebelink explain how they did it and share valuable lessons they learned along the way. You can find previous LeadershipWatch Series articles here.

What is your first thought when you hear the name Jack Ma? The king of e- and mobile commerce? The richest man in China? Here’s what my Chinese teacher told me when I asked her: ‘Ma Yun (his Chinese name) has shown us that it’s possible to make a fortune based on new technologies and smart thinking, rather than on real estate and bribes. He is very symbolic in China. A source of inspiration. Did you know he used to be a language teacher?’

How did the founder and chairman of the Alibaba Group (Alibaba’s recent IPO was the largest in world history) build his success, and that of the countless people using Alibaba’s trading platforms? What lessons does he want to share?

Let’s take a look at 5 unusual statements Jack Ma made at Davos 2015, when he was interviewed by Charlie Rose. 5 Unusual statements that reveal how Jack Ma thinks:

1) I think crazy is good

’When I first appeared in Time Magazine, they called me Crazy Jack. I think crazy is good. We are crazy but we are not stupid! We know what we are doing.’

Jack Ma founded his business 15 years ago, when he discovered internet during a trip to the US, typed his very first search word (‘beer’) and was surprised to see that not a single Chinese beer turned up in the results. He came up with the name Alibaba while sitting in a San Francisco coffee shop. (‘I asked the waitress: ‘Do you know about Alibaba?’ She said: ‘Open Sesame!’ I said: ‘Good!’) Crazy? Probably. Open-minded and eager to learn? You bet.

2) I think we should get used to being rejected

Jack Ma knows a thing or two about not succeeding, and still staying the course. He received countless rejections – from the universities where he wanted to study, from the companies where he wanted to work – before being hired as a teacher (the job he held before he founded Alibaba).

In his own words: ‘I was rejected 30 times when I applied for jobs.’ I tried to be a policeman. They said: No, you are not good. When KFC came to Hangzhou, my city, 24 people went for the job. 23 were accepted. I was the only one who wasn’t. And I applied for Harvard 10 times. 10 times I was rejected. And then I told myself: One day I shall go there and teach (…) I think we should get used to failing and being rejected. We are not that good.’

Jack Ma understands that the fear of failure can have a crippling effect on business. His personal recipe when confronted with rejection? ‘Improve yourself, don’t complain and never give up.’ (Read more here on what you can do to improve resilience in your company.)

3) How to make our customers succeed, that is our philosophy

When we developed Alipay (the online payment service of the Alibaba Group), everybody told me: ‘This is the most stupid idea you ever had.‘ But I don’t care if an idea is stupid or not. As long as people use it. Now we have 800 million people using Alipay (…) How to make our customers succeed, that is our philosophy. ‘

To Jack Ma, the important question is not: ‘How can we get our customers to buy what we make?’ But rather: ‘What are the unmet needs of our customer that we can satisfy?’ Delight the customer, his motto is, and the company will flourish. This total customer focus has served Alibaba well. Alipay, for its part, is shaking up China’s entire financial sector. Find intriguing details here.

4) One secret of our success is that we have a lot of women

Jack Ma, out of the blue and with fire in his eyes: ‘One of the secrets of Alibaba’s success is that we have a lot of women. 47 percent of our employees are women. 33 percent of management are women, and 24 percent of senior management are women. We have a woman CEO, CFO, Chief People Officer… If you want to win in the 21st century, you have to make sure that you empower people . Then you will be successful. I find that women think about the others more than they think about themselves.’

Per the New York Times, women still make up only 16 percent of directors at Fortune 500 companies, 4 percent of chief executives at Standard & Poor’s 500 companies and 10 percent of chief financial officers at S&P 500 companies.

5) The most important thing is trust

Jack Ma: ‘In e-commerce, the most important thing is trust. These past 15 years, when we built Alibaba, everything we did was trying to build trust. Today in China, and in the world, people do not trust one another, everybody thinks: ‘This guy is cheating.’ But how can you do anything online when there is no trust?’

‘Let me tell you how we created Alipay. It was a big decision. The first 3 to 4 years, Alibaba was just a market place for information. No bank wanted to help, convinced that online trade would never work in China. So I didn’t know what to do. Launching a financial payment system would be against financial laws (because you need a license). But if I didn’t do it e-commerce would go nowhere. Then I went to Davos, and listened to a leadership discussion. ‘Leadership is about responsibility and trust’, I heard. That’s when I called my friends and colleagues in my apartment. I said: ‘Do it. Now. Immediately. If something goes wrong, if somebody is sent to prison, Jack Ma will go to prison. Because it is important for China and the world to build a trust system.’

Building trust is crucial, and often underestimated. Recent events prove that it requires continuous attention, even by leaders like Jack Ma.

What do you think about Jack Ma and Alibaba? Share your views below!

Jack Ma was born right before the cultural revolution – a period he vividly remembers. He built the Alibaba Group, in his words, ‘without a rich father, a powerful uncle, 1 dollar from the banks’ and changed a lot of people’s lives in the process. Alibaba went public in September 2014. The company’s $150-billion IPO was the largest offering for a US-listed company in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. You can read Jack Ma’s inspiring life story here. And watch the full Davos 2015 interview with Jack Ma here.

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Photo: e27singapore/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Hanneke_actief2Hanneke Siebelink is Research Partner and Writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books. Her current research focuses on how leaders build successful organizations by increasing the quality and effectiveness of collaboration across companies, business units, functions, teams, and cultures. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.

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