The key ingredient of success is ... failure

By junior reporter Henry Lui

Alibaba founder Jack Ma outlines his HK$1 billion fund for entrepreneurs in Hong Kong, and explains why being weird helps make a business great

By junior reporter Henry Lui |

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Jack Ma says "talented people are usually a bit weird."

Jack Ma Yun really isn't your typical billionaire.

Ma grew up in a very modest family and was not academically talented. Though he did manage to complete his higher education at Hangzhou Normal University, he didn't have much luck job-wise. He made attempts to join the army, the police force, and even KFC - none of which worked out.

Wearing a navy blue sweater, the unassuming man made his way to the stage at Taikoo Place to tumultuous applause.

Seven thousand people, ranging from political heavyweights and business maestros to ordinary school students including me, gathered in the exhibition hall on Monday to hear what one of Asia's richest men had to say.

"My opinions may not be correct," he declared. "Take them as suggestions."

The 50-year-old is the founder and chairman of the e-commerce giant, Alibaba Group. Since its founding in 1999, Alibaba and its subsidiaries, such as Taobao and Alipay, have attracted more than 500 million registered users.

Though Ma gained celebrity status in China long ago, he was virtually unknown to the Western world. This all changed when Alibaba made its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange last year. It officially became the world's largest IPO at US$25 billion.

He came to Hong Kong to announce his HK$1 billion fund for young entrepreneurs in the city.

"From my conversations with Hong Kong students, I realised that they were all very knowledgeable," he said.

Ma said the problems Hongkongers encounter are the same as everywhere else, and the chances of creating a lucrative business are just as slim no matter what country you're in. "People often complain that we don't have any opportunities here [in Hong Kong], but that's not true," said Ma. "Everyone has the same opportunities at hand, it's just a matter of whether or not you're able to see them."

A tactful, smart business person has to jump on the right opportunities at the right time. "When the wind comes, even pigs will fly. But when the wind goes, the pigs are also the ones that fall first," he said with a chuckle. It's important to know how to "fly" once you've seized an opportunity.

Ma had been involved in other business ventures before Alibaba. Back in 1995, he tried to launch a translation company, which didn't work out very well. Soon after, he started China Yellow Pages, which also performed well below expectations.

"If you gave me the chance to start again, I wouldn't," said the billionaire.

He advised Hongkongers to learn to accept failure and address their own faults. "There are many ways to succeed, but only a few ways to fail," said Ma. "That is why you have to study the stories of those who have failed, not those who have succeeded." Successful people don't have a problem with looking at their own faults; you need to evaluate your own weaknesses to fine-tune your tactics for the future. Failure is just another learning experience.

In addition to the ability to criticise oneself, Ma identified team work as another key factor in building a stable company. "You need a strong team … a team that is willing to openly criticise one another in an objective manner." Entrepreneurship is not for a single individual to undertake.

When it comes to selecting team members, he reminded budding entrepreneurs to never overlook the ones that are a bit "odd". "All the talented people are usually a bit weird," he said. He also said that people who are less able academically tend to become the most effective entrepreneurs, as they're always forced to come up with new ideas.

And for those who have no intention of starting a business themselves, Ma suggested an alternative. "Go and find yourself a good boss … like Alibaba!"

Henry Lui of Sha Tin College won the Best Workshop Report at the 2014 Young Post Junior Reporter Awards