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Jack Ma – The Magician that Conjured Alibaba

It seemed appropriate that after profiling Jeff Bezos I should take a look at Jack Ma, the Chairman and founder of China’s answer to Amazon, Alibaba.

Jack Ma (real name Ma Yun) started Alibaba in 1999 as a means to harness the power of the internet to link Chinese exporters to local and international business customers – including in the West.

Jack Ma

A charismatic leader

It is harder to say which is bigger, Jack Ma’s bank balance (his personal worth is estimated at $29.5 billion1) or his personality. He is a natural entertainer and you can’t help but be enthralled by his rags to riches tale of growing up in communist China as the son of poor musical storytellers. In his many speaking engagements, Ma inspires his audiences with his never give up attitude and boasts of being refused entrance by Harvard 10 times and rejected for dozens of jobs. Watch “How to become a Billionaire”.

Globalisation and embracing the West

Ma’s intimate understanding of how to do business in his homeland has been a competitive advantage. But perhaps greater than his knowledge of China has been Jack’s curiosity about the West; starting when he was a teenager giving foreign visitors tours of his hometown Hangzhou in exchange for English lessons.

In my blog “How to build a future-ready workforce”  I discussed the importance of cross-cultural competency. Jack Ma’s fascination with western culture has seen him build and leverage relationships with powerful people across the world and turned Alibaba into a global player.

Innovation through improvement not invention

Ma attributes his success to identifying and seizing opportunities that arise out of problems. On his very first encounter with the Internet, Ma searched on ‘beer’. When he saw that no Chinese beers turned up in his search, his instincts kicked into gear and he decided that China needed an Internet company.2

Ma has also shown that innovation is possible without personal expertise and without creating something entirely new. With no coding or computing skills to speak of, Ma adapted existing online retail concepts specifically for China by engaging staff with the technical skills and know how to carry out his vision.3

The employees who became millionaires overnight

Like other billionaire success stories, Jack has his own set of wisdoms and mantras which are chronicled in books and videos like “Jack Ma’s 10- Rules for Success”. One of his rules for success is to focus on the culture of the company.

Alibaba’s values are enshrined in something employees call the Six Vein Spirit Sword – a shout out to Jack’s favourite martial arts fiction writer. Half of an employee’s annual performance appraisal depends on how well they embody Jack’s ‘kung fu’ values.4

Camaraderie is at the heart of teamwork at Alibaba. Every employee adopts a nickname, and it is not unusual for staff to take a break during an intensive work day to swim, do handstands or play video games. During Jack Ma’s years as CEO, tens of thousands of employees and their families would also attend Alifest, a stadium sized annual employee talent show where workers would sing, dance and perform skits. Even Ma could be seen at these events in crazy wigs and costumes singing Chinese pop songs.5

But it would seem Alibaba took the saying ‘work hard, play hard’ to extremes in the early startup days. It is suggested that the first employees earned barely $50 per month and worked seven days a week, often sixteen hours a day. Reportedly Ma required employees to be on call at all times and implemented a policy that new hires were to live no more than 10 or 15 minutes from the office.6

That said, the hard work paid off for many employees when the company shares they had been given as bonuses turned them into instant millionaires after Alibaba’s IPO in 2014.7 Today, Alibaba continues to tie new employee remuneration to stock in the company as a means of linking individual pay to company performance. (Read more about the relationship between talent management and company share price in my article).

Diversity and the empowerment of underrepresented groups

While Silicon Valley remains male dominated, Jack Ma is a vocal advocate for women calling them his company’s “secret sauce.” 8 Women make up 48% of Alibaba’s workforce, around 34% of Alibaba’s high-level managers, and a third of its founding partners.

Jack Ma also promotes the importance of empowering young people – particularly with technology. He recently established a $26 million scholarship programme with the University of Newcastle; a merit based scheme favouring indigenous and disadvantaged students and emphasising global and social awareness.9

Connecting people

At Cognology our purpose is to bring people together and help them achieve great things. We understand that by harnessing technology, we can help people collaborate at work more seamlessly, productively and successfully.

In many ways, Ma’s goals are similar. Jack Ma believes that technology and the internet has no limits and has devoted his adult life to connecting people and businesses across the world to make it easier to do business anywhere.

Works Cited

  1. “Jack Ma.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
  2. Stone, Charles Clark and Madeline. “The Incredible and Inspiring Life Story of Alibaba Founder Jack Ma, One of the Richest People in China.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 02 Mar. 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
  3. Zakkour, Michael. “How Jack Ma’s ‘Crazy’ Management Style Built a Technology Empire.” Entrepreneur. 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
  4. “Magic Jack Ma and the Six Secrets behind the Success of Alibaba.” Financial Review. 21 June 2016. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
  5. RPT-The Alibaba Culture: Kung Fu Commerce with a Dash of Theatre.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 08 June 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
  6. McFarland, Matt. “This CEO Banned His First Employees from Living More than 15 Minutes from Work.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 22 Apr. 2016. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.
  7. Daily, China. “Alibaba IPO Creates Thousands of New Millionaires in China – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. 19 Sept. 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
  8. Kokalitcheva, K. (2015) “Female Executives are Alibaba’s ‘Secret Sauce’” Fortune. 20 May 2015 . Web 10 April 2017
  9. Low, Catie. “Alibaba’s Billionaire Founder Opens Australian Headquarters.” The Sydney Morning Herald. The Sydney Morning Herald, 03 Feb. 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
  10. “TIME Person of the Year 2014 Runner-Up: Jack Ma.” Time. Time. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
  11. Barboza, David. “At Alibaba, the Founder Is Squarely in Charge.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 06 Sept. 2014. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
  12. Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/38/Jack_Ma_2008.jpg