Davos WEF
Davos WEF

Jack Ma explains the difference between Alibaba and Amazon: 'Amazon is more like an empire'

Alibaba's Jack Ma: Today technology can empower small businesses
Alibaba's Jack Ma: Today technology can empower small businesses

Executive chairman Jack Ma says there's a problem with people calling e-commerce platform Alibaba the "Amazon of China."

"The difference between Amazon and us, is Amazon is more like an empire — everything they control themselves, buy and sell," Ma said. "Our philosophy is that we want to be an ecosystem. Our philosophy is to empower others to sell, empower others to service, making sure the other people are more powerful than us. With our technology, our innovation, our partners — 10 million small business sellers — they can compete with Microsoft and IBM. Our philosophy is, using internet technology we can make every company become Amazon.

To hire people to deliver for us, we need 5 million people, to deliver the things we sold. How can we hire 5 million people? The only way we can do it is to empower the service companies, the logistics companies. Make sure they are efficient. Making sure that they make the money. Making sure they can hire more people.

Ma spoke with CNBC anchor and New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin from Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum.

Jack Ma, Chairman of Alibaba Group.
VCG | Getty Images

Ma has made headlines in recent weeks for his meeting with President-elect Donald Trump, where he discussed Alibaba's U.S. expansion.

In particular, Ma and Trump discussed Alibaba's ambitions to support 1 million jobs by making it easier for small businesses to join the platform.

Exactly how those jobs would be created is unclear — the company only had 36,446 full-time employees, almost all in China, as of March 31, according to SEC filings.

"I cannot imagine I can manage 1 million people," Ma said, noting that Alibaba is now about 45,000 people.

But the company does create job opportunities mainly through millions of third-party sellers.

By contrast, Amazon had about 230,800 employees as of the end of 2015, though it, too, creates other jobs through its sellers, contractors and supporting services. (Strictly speaking, Amazon does not control all aspects of the commerce that happens on its platform. Thousands of independent vendors conduct their own business through it.)

When asked if he or Amazon's Jeff Bezos have the "right" strategy, Ma said he hopes both are right. Ma said that people have called him "stupid" and "crazy" for deviating from models like that of Amazon and eBay.

"The world can never have one model," Ma said. "If the world has only one correct model, the world is too boring. The people who use the model should believe in the model. I believe in what I do."

The Chinese e-commerce platform would enter the U.S. at a time where Trump has vowed to impose heavy tariffs on Chinese trade. But Ma said that he believes there should never be a trade war between China and the U.S., even if it means destroying Alibaba's business model.

Ma said he got several requests to meet the president-elect, and he finally gave in to a meeting thanks to an email from a friend. Ma said the meeting with Trump went better than he expected, based on what he had read.

"In America there is freedom of speech, so of course he can say whatever he wants," Ma said, adding: "We did not debate on China-U.S. trade, or manipulation. We did not debate. Actually we agreed on something — small business."