An enigma called Ma

His is the classic story of grass to grace. If you met Jack Ma on a busy street, his diminutive stature might make you feel like extending some benevolence to him. His physique belies his means. He used to be a struggling English teacher in China. His early life did not show any signs of a prodigy in the making. At an early age, his desire to learn English made him ride his bike for 45 minutes each morning to go to a nearby hotel and converse with foreigners. He would guide them around the city for free in order to practice and perfect his English. He failed the entrance examination to the Hangzhou Normal University twice. He was to later graduate from there in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in English. His salary after graduation was about $20/month.

At a low point in his life, he was rejected for employment at a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in China. His attempts at self-employment saw him starting a translation outfit in China to serve the increasing traffic of enterprise between China and America. In 1995, he had the privilege of visiting America for the first time. It was his defining moment. Encountering the internet for the first time, he became fixated on this contraption with such enamouring allure that he made up his mind to explore all the possibilities inherent in it. The only snag however was that as an English teacher, he was not very comfortable with figures and the whole gamut of engineering and designs. But his mind was made up.

On his return to China, he first started building websites for Chinese companies with the help of friends in the US. According to him, “the day we got connected to the Web, I invited friends and TV people over to my house… we waited three and a half hours and got half a page…. We drank, watched TV and played cards, waiting. But I was so proud. I proved to my house guests that the Internet existed.” He also started the China Yellow Pages. Unfortunately, that venture was a flop. But he was undeterred. In 1999, he started, a China-based business-to-business marketplace site which he started with 17 friends. Today that site currently serves more than 79 million members from more than 240 countries and territories.

By 2012, the online transaction volume on the site was in excess of $163billion. The Ali Baba group had also become a conglomerate with nine major subsidiaries. One of the subsidiaries actually forced eBay to shut down its operations in China in 2006! Jack Ma resigned from his position as CEO of Ali Baba in 2013 and became its Executive Chairman.

Listed as BABA, Alibaba’s shares opened up for trading on the New York Stock Exchange on September 19, 2014. Currently valued at over $230billion, the company was out to raise $22billion. Investor demand pushed it to $25billion, making it the highest ever on the NYSE! Initially offered at $68/share, it opened to trading at $92.70, over 36% higher than the offering price. It finished out the first day of trading at $93.89, setting a record on the exchange! Most IPOs open at about 15% higher than the offering price!

If you think all this would get into his head, you have another think coming. Jack Ma does not cut the picture of a superstar. In fact he sees himself as just another ordinary, in his own words, “stupid” guy who, 15 years ago, was no different from the everyday ordinary working class Chinese.

Unchanged by his humongous wealth, he draws inspiration from the character of Forest Gump in a film by that title which Jack Ma never tires of watching. According to him, he is inspired by the story of how the ordinary, sometimes foppish Forest Gump overcame several adversities to become stupendously wealthy.

In July 2015, ahead of the IPO, Ma told his employees, many of who would have become very wealthy because of their ownership of shares. “We’ve worked so hard, but not for the sake of turning into a bunch of ‘tuhao’” (a Chinese term meaning ‘uncouth, newly rich person’). Instead, he implored them to use the proceeds of the IPO to do good and enable more businesses to make money.

Speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative’s 10th annual meeting in New York on the 23rd September 2015, a few days after the record-breaking IPO that saw him as China’s wealthiest man and 70th richest man in the world, Jack Ma shares the secrets of his success:

Think ahead. “We got successful today not because we did a great job today—we had a dream 15 years ago,”

Money isn’t happiness—it’s responsibility. “When I graduated, I earned $20 a month, which was fantastic. When you have one million dollars, you’re a lucky person. When you have 10 million dollars, you’ve got trouble, a lot of headaches. When you have more than one billion dollars, or a hundred million dollars, that’s a responsibility you have—it’s the trust of people on you, because people believe you can spend money better than the others.”

Expect the unexpected. Quoting a line from his favourite film he said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”

You don’t need connections to achieve success. “We don’t have a rich father or a powerful uncle. We only have the customers that support us.”

To change the world, invest in youth. “The secret here is helping those who want to be successful. Help young people. Help small guys. Because small guys will be big. Young people will have the seeds you bury in their minds and when they grow up they will change the world.”

Moving from a humble beginning in a one-room apartment in Hangzhou, China to the dizzying peak of the financial marketplace, he should know!

Remember, the sky is not your limit, God is!