Jack Ma struggled a lot in his younger life. He took his entrance exams thrice before succeeding for admission. For a while he worked as a teacher, and a tour guide with very little pay. Today he is a multi-billionaire and founder of Alibaba – China’s biggest e-commerce company.
He is also one of China’s most loved entrepreneurs. He has given talks worldwide, to inspire anyone thinking of starting a business to get off their comfort zone and just do it. In one of his talks, he talks of how together with his founding team, none of them thought the company would be as big as it is today. If anything, they thought the 19-year old company would achieve its current status in 50 years.
Leading the team of 18 founders, Jack Ma confesses to his lack of prowess in technology and all its processes back then, and even today. The company whose business relies heavily on technology and the internet has pushed widely to embrace technology. This message has also been reiterated by Jack in several conferences advising young people and small businesses to accept technology and imagine what it would achieve for their businesses.
He didn’t have his way most times. He got denied an admission into Harvard despite applying 10 times. He got rejected by his three preferred local universities in China. Eventually he settled for an institute in his city to complete his professorial studies.
When visiting the United States in 1994, he came to learn of the new phenomena that everyone was talking about: The Internet. It fascinated him, and it was just the very early days of this technology. He knew that he would want to be involved, and undertook so many researches to find out how it could be brought to China, and what it would mean.
In 1999, he brought 18 people together and they contributed $50k towards founding Alibaba. This was the only way he could afford to finance the capital required to start the company.
Jack Ma’s Business Philosophy
In building China’s biggest internet company, Jack has drawn a lot of lessons. It was never an easy ride. Even as he built the business one block and one sale at a time, he has insisted that he could never have done it without building trust between his company and the customers.
The now retired CEO continues to repeat the importance of building trust as a component of the relationship between customers and companies. Startups and small businesses need only trust from their customers to survive. It is the biggest component in business transactions.
Seeing that Jack Ma has become a revelation to what entrepreneurs with belief and desire to solve problems can do, we thought it important to list what he advises startups and entrepreneurs to do to make their startups successful.
1) Find opportunity in complaints
Jack is not a big fan of people who like to complain all they time. No wonder he advises entrepreneurs to find opportunities where people are complaining. When people complain, the express their needs. By addressing these needs they can move from complaints to being happy by solutions provided.
A keen entrepreneur who listens carefully will be able to see the biggest complaints. They will be able to know the places that are pain points for people around them and turn them into businesses.
2) Unite people with a common goal
Jack Ma’s 18 co-founders with whom they started Alibaba Group would never have joined him in this venture had he not communicated his vision to them.
He united them on a common goal – to build the biggest ecommerce company in China and make it easy for businesses and suppliers to transact.
Instead of hiring people and giving them jobs to just enable them to pay their bills, Jack advises that it is important for entrepreneurs to communicate the vision of the company clearly to the people who work in the company.
Together, let them be brought into one by the desire to bring change. Let them believe in the company’s mission and vision. If they believe, then the customers believe. If all parties believe in the company’s mission, the business will self-market, and inspire its own growth.
One thing that Alibaba Group never stopped doing is to innovate even as the company grew. When they saw issues with the service they asked questions on how to make it better. They wanted to make the whole service better.
Jack’s advice to entrepreneurs is that even before they launch their products, it is important to know what they will be doing differently. It is also critical to understand that if they are just opening a business without thinking of how it becomes better, then they are not solving any problem. They are not innovating.
4) There is only one business model – helping others
If your startup is not helping other people, then there is no point of having it. According to the $40 billion net worth founder, for entrepreneurs and small businesses, the money is in helping others.
Does your product address a dire need that needs a solution? Does it make other people’s lives happier? Does it elevate their businesses?
A case in point is the Alibaba Group which handles over 100 million sales a day helping small business owners in China to sell their products abroad, and even supply to big-time businesses in other countries.
The small-time traders have always thanked Jack Ma for enabling them open up their markets to the world.
5) Funding is a problem but it should not stop you
When he was thinking of Alibaba, he didn’t have any money. All banks refused to lend him money.
He pitched hundreds of investors in China, and none of them believed in his idea enough to invest in it.
In fact, they all were dismayed at the thought of an internet company that helps small businesses export their products to various sellers and buyers around the world. It did not make sense for them.
Jack had to figure a way out so that the company could start. He assembled 18 interested parties who had believed in his idea and convinced them to put in $50k including his own money into the business. They all gave something.
When all the legitimate lending channels had failed to help him with the capital, he still found a way out by leveraging some people who he didn’t even know.
For every entrepreneur sitting at home on an idea because of lack of funds; Jack Ma doesn’t like you.
For everyone out there grinding it out to build the business even when lending channels and investors have let you down, keep working. It will pay off.
Additionally, the billionaire insists that the funding problem is even bigger for big companies. They need more money, and they get more issues in securing lending.
6) Sharing is the future
Many years ago, technology benefited all those who had information.
Many years later, thanks to the internet, everyone has information and those who don’t can access it in a minute by searching online.
Since both sides now the information, Jack suggests that the future is all about sharing the information you have with one another.
The internet era is here to stay, but sharing economies are sprouting and succeeding every day. The people with the right information are sharing it online, and amongst each other. As these economies rise, entrepreneurs can take forefront seats to build thriving economies from sharing knowledge.
As you share more, your company gets known more, and so does your product.
As other people share more about your company to others, the more the user numbers and revenues scale.
Jack believes that information technology which has existed since the beginning of the computer era is going to be replaced by the sharing technology.
“We are leaving the era: I have the information and you don’t. And stepping into the era: you have the information and I don’t, I don’t need the information. The new era is sharing, its responsibility, its passion for the future. Now all of us are equal because we all start on the same starting line”.
7) Passion is a better motivator
What made Alibaba as big as it is today is the passion with which Ma and his group of co-founders had for the future of the internet in China.
The early days were very hard, and so were the days that followed. However, passion for the goal and the problem they set out to solve enabled them to withstand the difficult days.
“We are where we are today because we woke up early, we got off late, we did not sleep like a log, and we had much shorter holidays. We struggled day and night and picked ourselves up from disappointments and frustrations.”
8) Giving up is the real failure
While so many ideas are launched every other day around the world, very few of them even last for more than 6 months.
Jack believes that to give up is the real definition of failure.
Bad days will come and so will the good days. Sometimes bad days are more.
However, provided your product is solving a problem, the bad days are almost over. But do they ever really end?
The good days just become better, and more. The bad days will become fewer as time passes.
However, to be resilient and to persevere the bad days is the true test of entrepreneurship.
9) Avoid aggressive competition
Competition doesn’t have to be a war. Your competitors should not be your enemies.
Instead, leverage their existence to find loopholes that if eliminated will become your win putting your product higher.
“Competition is similar to playing a board of chess. If you lose, we can always have another round. Both players should never fight.”
10) Create the job you want
Jack Ma advises entrepreneurs to create a company that they would love to work for.
Everyone has their idea of a big company. The ideal dream of a job and what that looks like entirely.
Instead of complaining about how a job is bad, he advises young people to go out and build companies that even they would love. Such companies, he insists, self-market and make customers and employees the biggest ambassadors.
11) Make the changes in the company while the sun is shining
Just when you and your team think it has been a good ride this year, is when you should avoid falling into the comfort zone the most. Jack’s philosophy is that you have to implement tweaks and changes when customers are happy, when employees are happy, because the effects will be felt very minimally, and slowly. But they should be positive effects.
“My philosophy is repair the roof while it is still sunshine. When the company is good, change the company. When the company is in trouble, be careful, don’t move. If the storm comes, you don’t go up and repair the roof – you’ll be destroyed. Every time when I feel something good, when my team says ‘wow we’ve had a wonderful year’ – I know that’s the signal we have to change. That will make you totally different. At a small company, you can never have a wonderful day to enjoy for long.”
12) Be a visionary leader
According to Jack Ma, it is not in the place of the founder or entrepreneur to be the best at the technical skills required in the company. In fact, he shouldn’t even bother.
What he should be however is the visionary leader.
- He should have more foresight than anyone else in the company. When something is going to trend, he should be able to see it first. When there is going to be a new technology, he should be able to identify what that will be and how it will affect the company. He should be able to forecast to a near perfectionism. Just like an animal, the instincts of great leader and founder must be unbeatable.
- He should also have more grit and tenacity. He has to have the capacity to endure the most pain, and to be strong for everyone else. He should be the most resilient in the team in order to inspire confidence during the tough tides when the business is going through rough periods of time.
- He should have the most endurance when faced with failure. The employees can give up if they realise their founder has given up. Even when faced with failure, the entrepreneur has to withstand the effects of this shift in moods. Their ability to stand through this tough period determines whether the team stands or falls, and whether the business can get back up or it dies.
13) Hire people who are smarter than you
Alibaba has always made it a point to hire a smarter person than their previous hire. They do not benchmark the smartness based on how intelligent the founder is or how much amount of technical know how he possesses. In fact, it is possible that by the time a few initial hires were made by the Alibaba Group, the founding team were no longer the smartest in the company.
They now employ over 56k people and Jack says that hiring the smartest people was key in their growth especially in the initial days.
Startups can borrow from this strategy. In order to drive growth, smart ideas are required. If growth is going to be exponential, the hires are as important as the existence of the company in the future.
14) Money and politics is an explosive
He urges entrepreneurs not to mix politics and money.
“When money meets political power, it is similar to a match meeting an explosive – waiting to go off.”
We have seen this before. When Trump took over as President of the US, Travis Kalanick, former CEO of Uber was one of the entrepreneurs who accepted to collaborate with Trump as an advisor. However, the Uber customers would have none of that. Slowly, people started deleting the Uber app and installing other apps instead.
Eventually, Travis leant that he couldn’t jeopardize the company because a little recognition in the political scene. He left the advisory board and apologized for having accepted the offer in the first place.
Elon Musk as well faced the same circumstances, and eventually left the Trump advisory board because he felt his advice was not being to good use.
These are the most recent instances of mixing money and power. It jeopardizes business for startups and Jack believes mixing the two is a bad idea.
5 Best Jack Ma Quotes for Successful Startups
- The mission was never to be the success.
“It doesn’t matter if I failed. At least I passed the concept on to others. Even if I don’t succeed, someone will succeed.”
- Startups and the competition
“You should learn from your competitor, but never copy. Copy and you die.”
- On his lack of technical know-how with technology
“Intelligent people need a fool to lead them. When the team’s all a bunch of scientists, it is best to have a peasant lead the way. His way of thinking is different. It’s easier to win if you have people seeing things from different perspectives.”
- On working more
“If we go to work at 8 am and go home at 5 pm, this is not a high-tech company and Alibaba will never be successful. If we have that kind of 8-to-5 spirit, then we should just go and do something else.”
- On positivity
“I try to make myself happy because I know that if I’m not happy, my colleagues are not happy and my shareholders are not happy and my customers are not happy.”
The former executive chairman of the Alibaba Group was the first mainland Chinese entrepreneur to appear on the Forbes cover. In 2018, as of the writing of this article, his net worth is $40 billion. He has now retired from actively running Alibaba and undertakes other roles around the world.
However, his lessons are giving. His conferences are immersive and full of his own stories. While he gives talks around the world, there will definitely be more to this. For now, these strategies and pieces of advice should help the startups and entrepreneurs of the future to figure a way forward for their companies and how to run them to leverage growth.