6 Lessons from Jack Ma, Founder of Alibaba, on Succeeding Against All Odds and Becoming Crazy Rich Along the Way

money

On September 18, 2014, Alibaba — the largest online retailer in China — IPOed at $68 per share. One day later, it jumped to $92.70. The whole company is currently worth $217 billion; it is worth more than even Amazon.com!

If you have the tiniest seed of curiosity, you would wanna know about the man behind the Chinese internet giant, who is now worth almost $22 billion. For that story, you would have to go back 38 years …

1. Chase After Your Curiosity

When I was 12 years old, I got interested in learning English. I rode my bike for 40 minutes every morning, rain or snow, for eight years to a hotel near the city of Hangzhou’s West Lake district, about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai. China was opening up, and a lot of foreign tourists went there. I showed them around as a free guide and practiced my English. Those eight years deeply changed me. I started to become more globalized than most Chinese. What I learned from my teachers and books was different from what the foreign visitors told us.

Everyone has interests. But few people take action to pursue the interests. How many people will ride their bikes for 40 minutes (each way), no matter the weather condition, just to learn?

Not many.

How many people can accept a world that is different from the one they know?

Again, not many.

And that is why he can create a company not many people can create.

2. Screw Perfection

I flunked my exam for university two times before I was accepted by what was considered my city’s worst university, Hangzhou Teachers University. I was studying to be a high school English teacher. In my university, I was elected student chairman and later became chairman of the city’s Students Federation.

When I graduated, I was the only one of 500 students assigned to teach at a university. My pay was 100 to 120 renminbi, which is like $12 to $15 per month. I always had a dream that when I finished my five years, I would join a business–a hotel or whatever. I just wanted to go do something. In 1992, the business environment started improving. I applied for a lot of jobs, but nobody wanted me! I was turned down for secretary to the general manager of a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Being a successful entrepreneur does not require you to have a really high IQ. It doesn’t need you to do well in school. It doesn’t even need you to be a good, lil worker-bee.

It only requires guts and dedication.

Did you know that he quitted his steady teaching job, and gave up the “iron rice bowl” to create his own opportunity? He tried hustling on the streets and that didn’t work out too well. But he kept going, learning new things, opening new businesses, and eventually succeeding massively with Alibaba.

3. Be Willing to Try (and Fail)

Then, in 1995, I went to Seattle as an interpreter for a trade delegation. A friend showed me the Internet there for the first time. We searched the word beer on Yahoo and discovered that there was no data about China. We decided to launch a website and registered the name China Pages.

I borrowed $2,000 to set up the company. I knew nothing about personal computers or e-mails. I had never touched a keyboard before that. That’s why I call myself “blind man riding on the back of a blind tiger.”

85% of people wanna write a book. But only a sliver of them actually write one. Why? Because it is easy to talk the talk, but it is much harder to walk the walk.

Jack Ma puts his money where his mouth is. Back in 1995, it wasn’t easy to set up a website. There was no such thing as WordPress. You needed to learn how to program. There was no such thing as HostGator. You needed money for the servers.

Without knowing much about the internet (other than how awesome it is) …

Without know anything about computers or technology …

He jumped right in.

People called him “Crazy Jack Ma” because his ideas seemed … well, crazy. And now, he’s crazy rich.

4. Lead and Share Your Dream

My dream was to set up my own e-commerce company. In 1999, I gathered 18 people in my apartment and spoke to them for two hours about my vision. Everyone put their money on the table, and that got us $60,000 to start Alibaba. I wanted to have a global company, so I chose a global name. Alibaba is easy to spell, and people everywhere associate that with “Open, Sesame,” the command that Ali Baba used to open doors to hidden treasures in One Thousand and One Nights.

He started Alibaba in his dingy apartment. He attracted people who believed in him. But how do you get people to sacrifice their life without a lotta pay? How do you get people to continue when morale is low?

You instill a vision within them. Share your dream. Show them what the future can be.

That is what he did. That is why he and his early employees worked their butt off to get it off the ground.  

By 2002, Alibaba  made $1 in profit. After a decade, it is a multi-billion dollar company.

He said, “We got successful today — not because we did a great job today. We had a dream 15 years ago.”

5. Continually Innovate

I call Alibaba “1,001 mistakes.” We expanded too fast, and then in the dot-com bubble, we had to have layoffs. By 2002, we had only enough cash to survive for 18 months. We had a lot of free members using our site, and we didn’t know how we’d make money. So we developed a product for China exporters to meet U.S. buyers online. This model saved us. By the end of 2002, we made $1 in profits. Each year we improved. Today, Alibaba is very profitable.

Few people get things right on the first time. Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s success with Google is not ordinary. Mark Zuckerberg’s explosive growth with Facebook is an anomaly. That is why their stories spark so much interest.

Working hard and long is booooooring. Get rich quick is hot!

More likely than not, you’ll earn your wealth by making mistakes, learning from them, and improving every year.

Alibaba was hemorrhaging money in the early days. If it kept on doing what it did, it probably would have landed among the casualties of ambitious internet failures.

It realized what it was doing wrong and pivoted to something else that brought in cash consistently.

6. Learn from Your Mistakes and Don’t Quit What You Believe In

The lessons I learned from the dark days at Alibaba are that you’ve got to make your team have value, innovation, and vision. Also, if you don’t give up, you still have a chance. And, when you are small, you have to be very focused and rely on your brain, not your strength.

Bottom line: It doesn’t matter what you do. You can start an online retailer, a brick-and-mortar shop, or a service from your own apartment. As long as you believe in what you do and continually evolve your business based on the market’s feedback, you can make it through the abyss of failure and arrive at the promise land of success.

He believes that “80% of the people in China can be successful.” If that’s true, that means 95% of the people in the US and other first-world countries can be successful.

If you wanna know more about Jack Ma, check out this fantastic article from Inc.

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Comments

  1. Jack Ma’s the man, and with a head the size of a small moon it’s no surprise.

    His 1999 speech is great, but you can see that no one in the room believes him.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Up9-C4_8dVo

    Still he manages to instill a vision. I wonder how?

    • Alex Ding says:

      Thanks for the link, pal!

      You instill a vision by being passionate and by surrounding yourself with those who are willing to believe. Most won’t believe, but the few that does can help you change the world.

  2. Holy cow man what a great article. I’m amazed that there’s always so much humility behind every success story.

    You really hit the nail on the head with this one man.

    Dude I was excited to read this from the moment you posted it. I couldn’t wait to get finished with my obligations so that I could hear what you had to say.

    Great work on this beautiful post. I really enjoyed it.

    Thanks for sharing,

    D/C

  3. WOW!

    Jack Ma lives an exciting life! And he got the balls of an Elephant to pull something like Alibaba from nothing into something!

    It also reminds me how everyone else is so closed minded. To think that and believe that there is only one way to live your life. This man was dedicated and wanted to succeed! Sure he had some issues but thats life in then end he kept his eye on the goal and accomplished it!

    Great Post Alex!

    • Alex Ding says:

      Hey Jose,

      I like how you write “something like Alibaba from nothing into something.”

      Some people say it is hard to get rich if you don’t have money. But that is bull. I’m gonna write about post about “alchemy” — turning lead into gold one day and how anyone can do that.

      • Alex,
        I believe that takes more than money to accomplish what Jack Ma had accomplished with Alibaba! He was dedicated to his dream and building something that the whole world can use!

        I remember coming across Alibaba back a few years back! Its a great way to do business and buy product to sell here in the states! These guys have everything!

  4. Great piece man, you just have to fucking do it. So many people, including almost all of my friends talk themselves out of things before they even get started.

Trackbacks

  1. […] At the age of 12, Jack Ma started learning English by himself. He biked for 40 minutes every morning to a hotel near his city to give tourists free guide in exchange for teaching him English. (source) […]

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