12 tips from Alibaba founder Jack Ma on how to lead your business

As the founder and executive chair of China’s largest tech company, Alibaba Group’s Jack Ma knows a thing or two about leadership.

Turns out he’s an incredible speaker too.

During his keynote at Gateway ’17, a Sept. 25 event in Toronto organized by Alibaba to showcase the company’s services for businesses interested in selling their products to China, Ma shared so many nuggets of wisdom I wound up writing down nearly all of them – and used only a tiny fraction in my 1500-word feature about the company’s message to Canadian businesses.

I figure those of you who weren’t there deserve to hear his words of wisdom about other business-related subjects too.

On mistakes:

“Every day we make mistakes. Every day we are rejected. I think being rejected, being refused by people, is very natural. Why should people help you? You have to prove yourself… The thing I feel most thankful for is all of the mistakes, all the refusal I got. Because without that, there would never be Alibaba.”

On success:

“Do not study success stories… People love to see success stories. But most success stories succeed because of their mistakes. I encourage all young people, entrepreneurs, to learn from the mistakes.”

“(And) learning from mistakes does not mean you avoid mistakes. You learn the attitude towards these mistakes, and never give up fighting.”

On complaints:

“As entrepreneurs, we never complain. When people complain… that is your opportunity.”

On role models:

“When I was young, I complained a lot: ‘Microsoft took away my job!’ ‘Oracle took away my job!’ … Later I realized we should not learn from Bill Gates, we should not learn from Larry Ellison, we should learn from the grandmother next door. How can she make her business so good by opening a dumpling shop? Because when you compare yourself to Bill Gates or [Larry Ellison], you’re frustrated. But when you compare yourself to the person next door, you learn how to do business – by focusing on details.”

On starting out:

“I remember when we launched Taobao [the company’s signature platform], we thought we were going to have a big business in one month. But for the first five days nobody come here even shopping. So the seven employees doing calls in my apartment started buying [the merchandise] ourselves.”

“The first month, whenever somebody came to sell, no matter what he sold, we’d buy it. That would tell the seller – ‘Whoa! This thing can really sell.’ So more people came to sell. We bought a whole house of garbage, things that have no use. But at least we built up [our customers’] trust.”

On the difference between IT and digital transformation:

“The difference between last century and this century – the difference between IT and DT – is that IT is about empowering yourself. DT is about empowering others. When you are helping others, you are helping yourself.”

On the impact of artificial intelligence:

“A lot of jobs will be taken away because of artificial intelligence… Don’t worry about that… We invented trains and cars and electricity, and at the time we all worried about [the impact of] these cars and trains and electricity.”

[He then mentioned the U.K.’s Locomotive Acts, a series of 19th century speed limits aimed at preventing cars from outrunning a horse.]

On the next technological revolution:

“Every technology revolution takes 50 years. The first 20 years is about developing the technology. The next 30 years is about implementing the technology. Electricity was not invented in America – it was invented in Europe. But America made it big. Cars were not invented in the U.S. But U.S… built their country on the wheels.

“So… the past 20 years was about Internet companies – Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, Alibaba. But these companies might not be as necessary… in the next 10 to 20 years, if they do not continue to be innovative… So who will be the next wave? The companies and countries that make full use of… the Internet as infrastructure.”

On the perils of money:

“A lot of companies don’t make mistakes when they don’t have money. When they have money, they start to make mistakes. Fancy offices, great graduates from Harvard and Yale… if you are a tractor, these guys are like a 747 engine. When a 747 engine is put in the tractor, poor tractor is going to go nowhere.”

On building a good team:

“A good team… [is good] not because they listen to you, but because they can comprehend the things you are not good at… One reason lots of American Internet companies that go to China are not successful is they send people there not to make customers happy, they send people that make boss happy. Do not hire the people who make you happy. Hire the people who believe your dream, and make the customer happy.”

On trade:

“Trade is not buying things. Trade is appreciation of the culture of the other side.”

On what lies ahead:

“Don’t get used to success. Get used to failure.”

“Today’s difficult. Tomorrow’s more difficult. The day after tomorrow is beautiful. Most people die tomorrow evening.”

Editor’s note: Some quotes have been edited for grammar and clarity.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of ITBusiness.ca turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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