Power Players

Alibaba billionaire Jack Ma: Almost 'everybody can be successful if you really try hard'

Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma at the China Global Philanthropy Institute and the Joint Philanthropy Education Initiative at Diaoyutai State Guest House on November 12, 2015 in Beijing, China.
China News Service | Visual China Group | Getty Images

Jack Ma grew up in Hangzhou, China where, after college, he applied for and was rejected from 30 jobs, before becoming an English teacher. Then, after he was introduced to the internet on a trip to the United States in 1995, he went on to found Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba with no technical or business skills, he says. Today, Ma is worth $35 billion and the company he founded has a market capitalization of over $396 billion.

"I think everybody can be successful if you really try hard," Ma said at the Viva Tech conference in Paris in May.

He thinks that because he lived it. Ma started Alibaba in his apartment in 1999 with no money and a small team that used their underdog status as motivation.

"[O]ne of the things we wanted to prove: If Jack Ma and his team can be successful, 80% of the people in the world, they can be successful...."

I started Alibaba Group in 1999 in my apartment. The founders said that if Jack Ma and his team can be successful, so can 80% of the people in the world.

Here are three of Ma's keys to success in business that don't require any special knowledge, money or connections.

Thinking differently is your power

"If everybody agrees, then there is no opportunity," Ma said in Paris.

"If people criticize you, you have to think. And I spent most of my time thinking about the future, I spend a most of time listen to the complaints. Because people like me, we don't have money, we don't have technology, we don't have strong relationship, the only thing we compete with the others is that how we see the future."

Seeing a future others couldn't gave Ma a competitive edge when he started Alibaba. When he was first introduced to the internet during a trip to Seattle in 1995, he searched the term "China." There was "no data about China," Ma told Charlie Rose in 2015.

"So I talked to my friend: Why not I make something about China? So we made a small very ugly looking page called China," Ma told Rose. It was the genesis for setting up Alibaba, which started as an "e-marketplace for information," Ma said.

"If I believe the future like this way and those people that way, of course, we are different. And when we believe that is the future, we start to do it."

When everybody else believe it you have no chance. When only few people believe it, you believe it, you prove it, that's your chance," Ma said in Paris.

Be like Forrest Gump: Never give up

Ma was rejected a lot in his life.

"I failed at key primary school test two times and I failed like three times for the middle schools," Ma told Rose. "I applied for Harvard — 10 times rejected," Ma told Rose. But eventually, Ma attended and graduated from the Hangzhou Teacher's Institute with a major in English language education.

Ma was also rejected for a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken (24 people applied and all but Ma got the job), as a cop and for a gig as a waiter at a four star hotel in Hangzhou (his cousin got the job).

Even after launching Alibaba, he faced rejection. In 2001, Ma tried to raise $5 million in venture capitalist funding from investors in the United States and was rejected. But Ma persisted, and in 2005 Yahoo bought a majority stake in Alibaba. In 2014, Alibaba issued a record-breaking $25 billion IPO.

The key, Ma says, is to not let rejection keep you down for long.

"Of course, you are not happy when people say 'no.' Have a good sleep, wake up, try it again," Ma said in Paris.

Ma told Charlie Rose he's inspired by Forrest Gump in that respect: "I love Forrest Gump," Ma said. "Simple — never give up."

Use what skills you have

"I know nothing about technology, I know nothing about marketing, I know nothing about [the legal] stuff," Ma said in Paris. "I only know about people."

Spend time on your customers, on your people, on your teams. Don't spend time on your competitors or investors.

So Ma used that. He had learned how to inspire and empower people in his first job, when he was an English teacher, and he translated that into inspiring and encouraging his team.

Of particular note, Ma focused his energy on the people he was serving and who were building his company, the foundation of his business. He did not get overly concerned with keeping investors happy, noting that investors can be fickle — "when you in trouble, they run so fast."

"Spending time on your customers. Spend time on your people, on your own team," Ma said. "Don't spend time on your investors. Don't spend time on your competitors. When you look at the people, you want to serve. When you look at the people you work together, if they are happy, you will win. That's the very simple."

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