One has to wonder, who is Jack Ma, billionaire entrepreneur from China? Who is this guy who says Americans are too slow? He questions our legislators; he says, “In America, if they try to build a road, the decision process may take two or three years. In China, the decision is made, then, let’s make it happen!” “People love to debate,” he says; does he suggest that America’s politicians are unduly concerned about all the wrong things? Jack Ma says “Being number one is the mission, not the goal. Always think about the mission. It’s the mission that drives you. It’s not the number one that drives you.”
When one of the world’s billionaires talks about growing up in China, we reel in amazement. Jack Ma grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution. At the age of 12, he rode forty minutes on his bicycle every morning, “rain or snow”, to a place in Hangzhou’s West Lake district, where tourists congregated. He worked pro bono as a guide, and practiced his English. He learned from the tourists, and from his teachers; the guide work, he says, gave him an edge at being “more globalized” than most Chinese.
In high school Ma hoped to become a high school English teacher. At the university, he became chairman of the city’s Students Federation. On graduation he applied for many jobs; he recalls being turned down for a position as secretary to the general manager of a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Jack Ma didn’t learn about the internet until a visit to the US as an adult on a trade delegation in 1995. He recalls, “A friend showed me the internet for the first time.” They looked up the word “beer”; they noticed there was no data about China. They decided to launch a website, and registered the name “China Pages”. He knew little of personal computers then, never having touched a keyboard. He called himself a “blind man riding the back of a blind tiger.” He borrowed $2000 to set up the company.
Now 46, Jack Ma is the founder of Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce website. It has made him a billionaire and changed the way that the Chinese do business. He gives credit to ideas he learned from Americans, and in America. In an interview with Diane Sawyer last week, he said, “I think it is the American dreams that make America different; today, Chinese people have the dreams.” Alibaba brings in some $700 million in annual revenue from its websites and in business-to-business trading with the online auction site, Taobao.com. In the interview with ABC television, Sawyer mentioned the issue of censorship of the internet in China. His reply, “The Internet has the censorship; maybe 5, maybe 6, or 7 percent; but 90 percent [uncensored] is good. Make use of that. And influence people; improve the society.”
Here is another quote from the billionaire, Ma:
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.
Speaking on the Charlie Rose Show, on September 22, 2010, Mr. Ma made the point that in his ventures the shareholder is the last of the important groups to consider. The customers are the ones who pay him, and the employees are the ones who stick with him; but shareholders come and go.
Of all the imparted wisdom of Jack Ma, the words that may mean the most are these: “I don’t give up. I say to myself, the job I am doing is helping millions.” Once again, “Being number one is the mission, not the goal; always think about the mission. It’s the mission that drives you. It’s not the number one that drives you.”