Jack MA (MA Yun is his real name.) is the founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group that operates C2C online retail platform Taobao, and B2C platform Tmall. It also operates Alipay, which reliably processes 60 million transactions per day, a critical building block in a society that prefers to deal in cash and generally distrusts financial institutions.
Born in Hangzhou on October 15, 1964, the year of the Dragon, to traditional musicians, Ma is now the richest man in Mainland China.
China Daily provided an overview of a long and wide-ranging interview Ma provided during the World Economic Summit in Davos. Some excerpts won’t surprise you; others just might.
Anyone of Jack Ma’s success has to have a lot of grit and determination. Everyone fails sometimes – often most of the time. In fact, Ma applied for admission to Harvard University in the US on ten occasions and was turned down each time. In fact, he failed his first three attempts at the college entrance exam and was rejected for the first 30 or so jobs he applied for.
Ma naturally thinks big so he knew from the beginning that he wanted to be a global businessman. And that meant learning English. But that is a hard challenge indeed. Mandarin and English share nothing in common and the use of tones in Chinese adds tremendous complexity to the way you shape your mouth, place your tongue, etc.
He studied English in school, of course. But he knew that wasn’t enough. So for nine years he would rise each day and give free tours to foreigners in English. (He must be rather convincing as well since this is sometimes a scam at many Chinese tourist spots. Little is truly free in China.)
Ma first came to the US in 1995 (Eleven years after the first Macintosh was introduced by Apple.) and got the idea for Alibaba after he queried “beer” in a search engine and found not a single Chinese product.
For any online retailer, however, the biggest hurdle is building the financial trust of the consumer. And I have no doubt that financially skeptical China was one of the biggest challenges in the world. Ma did it, however, through Alipay, Alibaba’s inhouse payment system, remaining independent of the traditional financial system.
When asked about his all-important relationship with the government, which many skeptics assume to be cozy, Ma said he had never taken any money from the government and that he follows the creed, “Be in love with the government, but don’t marry them.”
Of no surprise to any executive of a US public company Ma admits he is under more pressure following his record-breaking US IPO. Some of that pressure is self-induced, however, as he has publicly claimed that in ten years Alibaba will be larger than Walmart worldwide.
His favorite movie is Forrest Gump, who he considers simple and resilient, not dim-witted. He also worries that the young of China may lose hope and that one way to prevent that is through cinema and books. He notes that the heroes in most Chinese movies die in the end; the opposite of the plots typically found in American movies. That, Ma believes, prevents young Chinese from dreaming of being heroes and accepting mediocrity.
It’s an insightful perspective that is really just another facet of the cultural collectivism that holds individual dreams back and impedes the drive for personal success. Inequity is also a barrier. At some point the gap is simply too large and people give up hope.
Lastly, Ma believes that the practice of Taichi, an Eastern philosophy of calming and maintaining balance, can be applied to business. Business, like life, is all about perspective and context.
It’s an interesting point as he seems to be one of the few to have found balance between Chinese cultural tradition and high tech entrepreneurialism. Watch out if others follow his lead.
The first reviewer on Amazon had this to say about Understanding China:
“I’m only partway through the book, but I had to jump on and say, “Read this!”
Having done business and gone on personal journeys through the Asia Pacific region, I wish I’d read a book like this first…”
Note: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.
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