Jack Ma’s story is one worth studying. How does a man born with little means, horrible math skills, and minimal technical knowledge build a 50 billion dollar company with 50,000 employees and 400 millions users? What steps did he take from being an English teacher to e-commerce empire builder?

Author, Duncan Clark, answers these questions by telling Jack’s story in Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built. After reading the book, we had to distill key takeaways any leader can apply to their career — ranging from teacher to titan.

1. Develop One Valuable Skill That Set You Apart From Everybody

Jack Ma distinguished himself early by learning one important skill: speaking English.

He was quoted as saying: “English helps me a lot. It makes me understand the world better, helps me to meet the best CEO’s and leaders in the world, and makes me understand the distance between China and the world.”

When Jack was 14, he would wake up before dawn and bicycle for forty minutes to the Hangzhou Hotel to greet foreign tourists.

He stated: “Every morning from five o’clock I would read English in front of the hotel.  A lot of foreign visitors came from the USA, from Europe. I’d give them a free tour of West Lake, and they taught me English. For nine years! And I practiced my English every morning, no matter if it snowed or rained.”

Learning English was the one skill that set him apart which eventually lead him to the U.S. years later — on that trip, he first discovered the internet. Regardless of whether or not Jack went on to build an empire, he would always be able to add value in his hometown of Hangzhou.

2. Embrace Your Shortcomings

On paper, Jack Ma should not have ascended to one of China’s most successful businessmen. No Ivy League education, little connections, and minimal mathematical proficiency were just a few of the setbacks. Yet, Jack embraced these setbacks, acknowledged them, and wears them as badges of honor.

Here’s how Jack embraces his shortcomings:

Jack brags: “I don’t have a rich or powerful father, not even a powerful Uncle.” He goes on: “Even today, I still don’t understand what coding is all about, I still don’t understand the technology behind the Internet.”

When asked by a reporter, “Who is his favorite role model?” He replies: “Forrest Gump.”

Duncan writes about Ma: “Jack has made a career out of being underestimated: ‘I am a very simple guy, I am not smart. Everyone thinks that Jack Ma is a very smart guy. I might have a smart face but I’ve got very stupid brains.”

Jack’s Zhejiang-born billionaire friend Guo Guangchang has called Jack an “alien” but only before dismissing himself as “just a normal guy….no one is as smart as Jack Ma.”

Jack brags that he applied to Harvard 10 times and got rejected every time. He might as well wear a lapel, proud that of 24 people who applied at KFC, only 1 did not get the job: him.

Watch the video below to see him share the story:

Jack Ma never worked at KFC, but he did end up buying a piece of it. He also never was accepted into Harvard, but he does end speak there on many occasions.  

3. Never Give Up, It’s Never too Late to Start

Jack started two failed businesses before Alibaba: Hope Translation and China Pages. There was also a time when he worked for the government in Beijing. In 1999 he started Alibaba after a period where he felt he was “too late” to be an internet pioneer. After early traction as a company focusing on Business to Business, their goal was to help thousands of Chinese factories find an outlet overseas for their goods. Their progress was good…then the bubble crashed.

Duncan writes: “BusinessWeek ran an article in April 2001 titled “Alibaba’s Magic Carpet Is Losing Altitude,” which concluded that the “former professor will have to work hard to ensure his company doesn’t flunk out.” The company had initiated a restructuring that it hoped would turn things around, but in the years following the dot-com crash, Alibaba was resigned to a very uncertain future. Jack even floated the prospect of quitting, so he could return to teaching before he turned forty.

In his darker moments, he took to comparing his struggles to those of the revolutionary Mao Zedong after the Long March, even calling for a “rectification movement” to set Alibaba on a new course: “Once many well known managers in America came to Alibaba to be vice presidents. Each of them had their own opinions…It was like a zoo at the time. Some were good at talking while other were quiet. Therefore, we think the most important purpose of the rectification movement is to decide a shared purpose of Alibaba, and determine our value.”

This was when they decided to pivot.

Duncan writes: “Two years later Jack recalled the scene as he invited a half dozen, hand-picked employees to his office. Our COO, CFO, the vice president of HR, and I were all there. We talked to them one by one: ‘The company has decided to send you to do a project, but you are required to leave your home, and you must not tell your parents or your boyfriend or girlfriend. Do you agree?’” Holed up in the small apartment, the team got to work.”

Another good story about Jack never giving up revolves around his approach to taking the gaokao meaning “high test” which is seen as one of the most challenging in the world. Jack took the gaokao and received a 1/120 in math. He was crushed. He took it a second time and improved with a 19/120. Diligent studying and formula memorization yielded an 89/120 which earned him admittance in the local university: the Hangzhou Teachers College.

4. Create a Clear, Lengthy, Purposeful Vision and Promote Your Values

Jack’s vision for Alibaba is to survive for 102 years. Below is a video showing his talk to his newly founded team and many of the challenges they will face and overcome.

In addition to his inspiring vision, Jack set’s a clear set of values for his company. He branded the sum of value into what he calls the Six Vein Spirit Sword. These values focus on building up one’s own internal strengths in order to defeat any opponent.

The Six Veins:

  • Customers First
  • Teamwork
  • Embrace Change
  • Integrity
  • Passion
  • Commitment

Jack holds these values with very serious regard.

5. Develop Personal Mantras and Heart Felt Stories

Jack has a set of beliefs as stated above. In order to reiterate those values, Jack has a long list of mantras and stories that reinforce those values. Below are some favorites:

“Believe in your dream and believe in yourself.”

“Learn from others the tactics and the skills, but don’t change your dream.”

“If there are nine rabbits on the ground, if you want to catch one, just focus on one. Change your tactics, but don’t change the rabbit.”

“Customers first, employees second, and shareholders third.”

‘Today is brutal, tomorrow is more brutal, but the day after tomorrow is beautiful. However, the majority of people will die tomorrow night.”

“Work happily but live seriously.”

“eBay may be a shark in the ocean, but I am a crocodile in the Yangtze River. If we fight in the ocean, we lose, but if we fight in the river, we win.”

6. Have An Obsessive Focus on the Customer, Not Revenue or Share Price

After the IPO, Alibaba went through major growing pains. The stock price was falling and pressure was mounting. Alibaba CEO, David Wei (Ma was the president) in turn thought he would receive a lot of pressure from Jack. He’s quoted as saying “Jack never picked up the phone or came to see me about the share price. Never once. He never talked about profit growth.” There was one occasion where Wei felt the wrath of Ma. Wei continued: “The only time he ever called me after midnight was when our team changed the website a little bit. He was shouting, the only time he ever at me. I had never heard him so angry. ‘Are you crazy?’” Jack did not yet at him for the stock price, instead he was irate that Wei and team moved a long-standing discussion forum set up for traders to chat with one another. Jack demanded it be moved back the next day.

David pushed back saying the space was valuable for advertisers. Jack responded: “We are a B2B marketplace. Nobody comes to trade every day. We are more important a community than our marketplace. The same for Taoboa; nobody comes to shop every day. If you downgrade this forum you are focusing too much on profits. Switch it back to a non-revenue generating entry point to the business community.”

Jack Ma is one of the most inspirational and influential entrepreneurs today. His story is a remarkable one and a story we can all learn from as leaders.

About WideAngle: WideAngle is software for your performance reviews powered by your 1 on 1 meetings.

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