It could be the perfect parable of the American dream, if it were not for the fact that the main character’s name is Ma Yun and his is an all-Chinese story. He is the founder of Alibaba, the world’s leading e-commerce site that, with a market value of 150 billion dollars, exceeds the home shopping giant Amazon and the global courier UPS in terms of production capacity, sales and distribution. And yet, if we look at his first 35 years of life (he is now 53), it would have been hard to predict that, in less than twenty years, Ma Yun – known in the West as Jack Ma – would become the third richest man in China (replaced at the head of the rankings in last two years by the real estate developer Xu Jiayin and the entertainment tycoon Wang Jianlin).
Born in 1964 into a modest family of Hangzhou, in the south east of the country, and a child of the cultural revolution, Ma took advantage of China’s slow opening to the world from a very young age, when a visit to his home town by President Nixon in 1972 opened the floodgates for tourism. At the age of 12, he worked as a tourist guide for westerners visiting the city, so as to learn English and put aside the odd renminbi. This early work experience opened the door to a new world, and would be crucial for his entire career. It was a family of Australian tourists who coined the nickname Jack Ma, and it soon became increasingly clear to him that the key to social redemption lay in education – something he had no intention of missing out on.
Never give up. Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine.
Never raise the white flag
After high school, when he failed his university entry test twice, Ma did not give up, and at his third attempt he managed to get in. This perseverance has become a hallmark of his charisma: His motto is: “Never give up. Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine.” Indeed, things didn’t get any easier once he got into university.
In 1988, as a young graduate, he started sending out his CV to the greatest number of companies possible, putting together an impressive collection of rejections. “I failed numerous times. 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…”.
I failed numerous times. I even went to KFC when it came to my city. Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted…
His first adult job, as an English teacher, was very badly paid – just 12 dollars a month – but Jack Ma was undeterred. He founded his first company, a small translation agency that allowed him to leave China for the first time and finally visit the United States – a country he had only ever heard of through the stories of his early customers. In 1995, the dawn of the internet, when the World Wide Web started to enter the homes of Americans and to revolutionise the world, Ma was in San Francisco. “I'm not a tech guy. I look at technology with the eyes of my customers, normal people's eyes.” Jack Ma had no computer experience, he was unable to write code, but he instantly understood the potential of an instrument capable of making the world a smaller, interconnected place.
“My first online search was ‘beer’, but I was surprised to find that no Chinese beers turned up in the results.” Once back at home, he decided to open a new company, this time entirely online. “When we launched China Pages in 1995, we only produced home pages for Chinese companies. However, none of the big companies wanted our services.”
Ma’s first start-up did not take off, but he didn’t give up, and four years later, in 1999, he convinced a group of people to invest in what at that time was only a vision: a large online supermarket. “I gathered 17 of my friends in my apartment and I told them all about my project for two long hours. Everyone contributed, and in the end I managed to raise around 60,000 dollars to launch Alibaba, an e-commerce platform designed to bring Chinese producers together with foreign buyers and distributors.”
Nobody at the start really thought that e-commerce could work in China: “People believed in face-to-face, in the traditional network. There's no trust system in China.” At the start, it was an uphill battle.
“Initially, the goal was to survive. For the first three years, we registered zero profits. One day I went to the restaurant and found that the bill had been paid. My benefactor had left me a message: ‘I am an Alibaba customer. I made a lot of money through your platform and I know you don’t make any, so I’ve paid your bill’.” Once again, Ma’s perseverance had got him through hard times.
“If you don't give up, you still have a chance. And, when you are small, you have to be very focused.” If there is one thing that Ma is good at, it’s staying focused on the objective. Little by little, investors started to arrive: first, Goldman Sachs, which poured 5 million dollars into the company, then the Japanese SoftBank, with an investment of 20 million dollars. “I kept telling my team: ‘we’ll make it, because we are young and we’ll never give up’.”
Ma has learned a clear lesson from his difficult beginnings: "What I’ve learned from those dark times is that you've got to make your team have value, innovation, and vision.”
A laugh increases productivity
According to Jack Ma, the team is the key to success. During his uphill struggle, the Chinese tycoon did everything he could to keep his team united – a philosophy he retained when the company expanded.
Alibaba employees are given streamer spray cans with which to have fun during their breaks, and are encouraged to get up from their desks for a spot of stretching or even to perform somersaults and handstands. “It’s is a way of making work fun, and keeps the energy levels high.”
According to Ma, there is nothing better than a good laugh to make employees more productive. To this end, every year he organizes a corporate version of the X Factor, for which he himself dresses up and sings. World famous is his performance before 16,000 employees to celebrate the company’s listing on the stock exchange, when he sang “The Lion King” disguised as a rock star, donning a long blond wig and a pierced nose.
An Alibaba employee who has been with the company since the early days told Bloomberg, “people on the outside think he’s a fool, but those who know him well know that nothing could be further from the truth”.
An interconnected future
A look at the figures is enough to confirm that the disguises hide a pellucid intelligence. In addition to being a paragon for young Chinese startuppers, over the years Jack has taken on the role of oracle: the media turn to him to understand the latest market and society trends.
“In the next 30 years, many jobs will be lost to automation”, he explained during a recent interview with CNBC. The solution, according to Ma, lies in intercepting those fields with high demand. “Job seekers must ensure they have good analytical skills”, he said. “The world is going to be all about data. I think this is just the beginning of the data period.”
What makes data the key to the future is also the fact that, according to Ma, everything will be increasingly interconnected. “Objects and technologies will be interconnected by data. That’s why it is so important to have people who can decipher information and make such a complex system work.”
A system on which Jack is ready to stake his future. Indeed, last October he announced that his company will invest 15 billion dollars in research and development – as if to say, "the future revolution is unavoidable, and we intend to do everything in our power to win”.