Jack Ma

Eight lessons for a successful career (and life) from Jack Ma at Alibaba’s Gateway ‘17

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2017, 10:28am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2017, 10:35am

Jack Ma is known for the business savvy that catapulted the company he founded to worldwide fame – and made him the richest person in Asia.

But both his rags-to-riches life story and the insights he gleaned from his experiences make for interesting reading as well.

In an interview with talk show host Charlie Rose and a keynote speech on separate days at Alibaba’s Gateway ‘17 event in Detroit in June, Ma shared some secrets of his success and lessons for a happy life and career. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

1. Run a company? Hire women

Hiring as many women as possible is Alibaba’s “secret sauce”, Ma said, because women care for other people more than men do.

“Women are going to be very powerful in the 21st century. Because last century, people compared muscle; this century, people compare wisdom.”

2. Follow this career plan

Ma has your career all planned out.

You benefit from a mentor when you’re starting out, he says – join a good company in your 20s, and find a good boss to learn how to do business. Then branch out and do something on your own in your 30s.

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“When you’re 40, please do something you’re strong and good at,” he continued. “When you’re 50, please spend time on the young people, giving them chances while you’re still strong.”

And as you approach retirement, “better spend time with your grandchildren on the beaches”.

3. Being rejected is not always bad

Being shorter and less handsome than his cousin cost Ma a job as a waiter decades ago at the first four-star hotel in his home city of Hangzhou.

“My cousin and I waited for 2.5 hours during a very hot summer in order to apply for a job being a hotel waiter,” he said in his keynote speech.

“After an interview, my cousin was accepted, I was rejected – reason is he was taller and more handsome.”

Today, Ma’s cousin still works in the hotel ... “and I changed my life”.

4. Hire people who are smarter than you

Ma was a teacher before he went into business, and has never forgotten one thing from that life – that a teacher always wants his students to be more successful than they are.

That goes for hiring as well. He said: “When I hire people, I always want to hire those people who are smarter than I am.”

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That’s why he gives colleagues this bit of advice: “When they hire people, there’s one judge. Look at the young man.

“If you think he will be your boss – be my boss – in five years, hire him.”

5. Do what you have to do to get started. And big things could come

Taobao’s beginnings could not be any more humble – or comical.

Ma shed light on the early days of the online marketplace, saying that when it launched in 2003, he and his staff went home to each look for four things to list for sale.

“Everybody couldn’t find four things at home we could sell because we were too poor. So we gathered 21 products, we listed on the website, we waited for three days, nobody came to buy,” he recalled.

The next week, they started to buy and sell the products among themselves. And the next week, when people finally started listing items, they found ready buyers – Ma and his team.

“For almost 30 days, everything people sold, we bought them. So we have a whole house of rubbish we bought online, trying to make sure that those guys who are able to sell say, ‘Oh wow, this thing really can sell things’.”

6. Don’t believe you’ve made it

A simple bit of advice – stay paranoid: “When Netscape was so good, we never thought it would disappear. Yahoo was good, we never thought it’d be like today.

“So don’t believe you’ll be good all the time. Be paranoid.”

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7. Make your fancy ideas reality

Ma recounted how he spent two hours explaining his idea for an internet business to 24 friends in his apartment, and how 23 of them told him to forget it.

“Only one person said, ‘Jack, if you want to try it, just try it. If something goes wrong, just come back.’”

Ma slept on the idea, and upon waking, decided he still wanted to pursue that dream: “Most people have fancy ideas in the evening, but when they wake up in the morning, they go back to do the same job. We have to do something different.”

8. Endure hardship to reap rewards

Ma ended his interview with some words for people starting businesses: “As entrepreneurs, today is very difficult. Tomorrow is even more difficult.

“But the day after tomorrow is very beautiful. Most people die tomorrow evening.

“You have to work hard, you have to learn, you have to rely on your team.”

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