10 things you probably didn't know about Alibaba's Jack Ma

Glen White
- Leadership - Feb 09, 2015

Today Alibaba took its first step into the world of manufacturing by investing over half a billion dollars in Chinese smartphone company Meizu Technology. Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma may not be a household name in the industry, however that could soon change.

Fifteen years ago Ma gathered a group of friends in his one-bedroom apartment to create Alibaba – an online service that would help Chinese businesses connect with markets abroad. Today, Alibaba is the largest e-commerce service in China, a country with more than 600 million Internet users.

Following a highly successful IPO in 2014, the clout and strength of the business (and indeed its founder) has gone from strength to strength. Manufacturing Global uncovers 10 things you probably didn’t know about Jack Ma, which may help unveil the future path of the company in 2015 and beyond.

  1. Jack Ma started his career as an English teacher.
  2. Ma has always been dedicated to bringing the Internet to China and began his campaign in 1995. During a trip to the US Ma was introduced to the World Wide Web but discovered very few search results came from China – he decided to change that first with a website called China Pages and later with Alibaba.
  3. Jack Ma has always been intent on competing with Silicon Valley. “Since we were working on China Pages, I've always said our competitors are not domestic websites, but overseas websites,” Ma said during his original pitch to employees (see video below) about Alibaba in 1999. “Our competitors are not in China, but in America's Silicon Valley. We need to learn the hardworking spirit of Silicon Valley.” In order to achieve this, Ma always marketed his company as a global brand. 
  4. You will be surprised to learn that Ma is not a coder – in fact he barely ever uses technology. In one interview Ma said, “I was trained to be a high school teacher. I know nothing about technology. The only thing I can use my computer for is to send and receive email and browse.”
  5. Jack Ma enjoys performing probably due to that fact that both his parents were professional pingtan performers - a traditional form of storytelling in China.
  6. Martial arts and kung fu novels heavily influence Ma’s business strategy. He was also once quoted as saying, “I had always wished that I was born in a period of war. I could have been a general. I thought about what I could have achieved in war.”
  7. Ma is not afraid to make mistakes in fact he embraces them. Ma has repeatedly joked in recent years that he would like to write a book called Alibaba: 1001 Mistakes, and for good reason. “We expanded too fast, and then in the dot-com bubble, we had to have layoffs,” Ma said in an interview. “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.”
  8. Ma has famously said that shareholders rank at the low end of his priorities. He said in an interview that investors sometimes flee when Alibaba goes through a crisis, while customers and employees show more loyalty. He echoed that in his letter to investors in the IPO filing. “I have said on numerous occasions that we will put customers first, employees second and shareholders third. I can see that investors who hear this for the first time may find it a bit hard to understand. Let me be clear: as fiduciaries of the company, we believe that the only way for Alibaba to create long-term value for shareholders is to create sustainable value for customers. So customers must come first. Next come our employees, because in today’s knowledge economy, employees are most important in having satisfied customers. Without talented, happy, diligent and passionately committed employees, our commitment to serving customers will be empty. A company that does not have satisfied employees will not have satisfied customers, and without satisfied customers, we could not possibly have satisfied shareholders,” he said.
  9. Ma is now the richest person in China, and ranks among the 50 richest people in the world.
  10. Ma is now focused on environmental and education causes. He stepped down as CEO of Alibaba last year to focus more on environmental and education causes, though he remains active involved with the company as its executive chairman and one of its largest shareholders. Ma is particularly interested in combatting China's rampant pollution, which he says has taken the lives of multiple young people he's known. “In China, because of problems in water, air and food safety, in 10 or 20 years, we will face a lot of health problems, like increased cancer,” he said. “So that is one area where I will invest my money and time.”

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