Alibaba’s successful IPO in New York brings back memories of interviewing founder Jack Ma in his hometown Hangzhou in 2006 long before his name was universally recognized – but well after he had saved Alibaba from failing in 2001.
I learned a lot about Ma as an entrepreneur during that first interview. One of Ma’s more memorable quotes resonates today: ”When I am myself, I am happy, and have a good result.” Certainly true!
I also recall Ma telling me how he learned to think independently, at an early age. In 1985, he was invited by an Australian family he had become friends with in Hangzhou to spend a month in Australia with them on a summer vacation. It was an eye-opening experience. “Before I left China, I was educated that China was the richest, happiest country in the world. So when I arrived Australia, I thought, oh my god, everything is different from what I was told. Since then,” Ma told me, ”I started to think differently.”
Another unforgettable insight came from Ma’s comments on the importance of persistence, of following his dream of creating an e-commerce company that would create 1 million jobs, change China’s social and economic environment, and make it the largest Internet market in the world. “Never give up. Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine,” Ma said.
That made me reflect on Alibaba’s often challenging startup journey. Alibaba almost failed when it over-expanded during the dotcom boom a decade ago, and as Ma put it, “made 1,001 mistakes.” Silicon Dragon goes into detail of how Alibaba went from losing money in 2001 to making $ 1 in profit in 2002, and improving each year, leading up to a listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2007 (subsequent delisting in 2012 and successful NYSE IPO this month).
What helped to save the company from going under was a bold move by Ma to bring in former GE manager Savio Kwan (see Silicon Dragon video with Kwan). Kwan established a management development program that weeded out nonperformers and rewarded the best sales producers. At the same time, Alibaba turned a profit by retreating from its online strategy to also offer an offline catalog of Chinese suppliers with goods to trade.
Wrapping up our first interview for my book Silicon Dragon, Ma said, “I want to change history, do something important in my life, and influence individuals like we have with millions of small businesses on Alibaba. Then they love and respect you because you made their life important.”