It’s natural, when considering Alibaba and Amazon, to compare the men fronting them. In doing so, we find two paths which both cross over and diverge.
Amazon’s Bezos graduated summa cum laude from Princeton with degrees in computer science and electrical engineering. And despite a few false starts, he found success in finance before going on to create Amazon.
Jack Ma’s academic record isn’t quite as impressive. He explained at Davos how he “failed a key primary school test two times, failed the middle school test three times, failed the college entrance exam two times”. He was rejected for most of the jobs he applied for out of college. Notably he was the only one of 24 applicants turned down by KFC in his hometown.
And he applied 10 times to Harvard Business School, where Zuckerberg and Gates had studied, but was rejected on every occasion.
Despite failure and rejection, he forged ahead. This fighting spirit is a consistent thread throughout Ma’s career. In 1999, shortly after the founding of Alibaba, he told a gathering of employees: “We will make it because we are young and we never, never give up.”
Ma also has public persona as a fighter. The recent Alibaba-produced short film Gong Shou Dao features Ma as an action hero and pays tribute to martial arts – something he holds dear.
“He’s created a really good culture, but it’s not about him,” says Humphrey Ho, who is managing director of Chinese digital agency Hylink’s first international office in Los Angeles. “He fights for his people and his people are encouraged to fight as well, especially for vendors.”
While Amazon is relentless in its customer-centric approach, for Alibaba it is “customers first, employees second and shareholders third” – or at least that’s what Ma told CNBC on the day of the company’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014.
To Ma, his customers include the small businesses that rely on Alibaba’s products, especially Taobao and Tmall. As he told a Stanford University graduate class: “I knew that we didn’t have the right DNA to become a consumer company. Small businesses know more about the needs of their customers.”
Ma’s ability to hire and keep people gives the lie to a smart, long-term approach to management. His approach aims to ensure that the right people are in the right jobs – which could explain the longer tenures of Alibaba employees.
“The first thing you notice is that people have been at Alibaba a long time,” notes Ho. “There’s usually a lot of turnover in the tech industry, but that’s not the case with Alibaba compared to other big tech conglomerates in China.”
Ma tends to make others the stars of the show but, occasionally, bigger stages call. From interviews with Barack Obama to well-received appearances at Davos, Ma shows a deft touch. “He’s a very good communicator and the staff he hires as a result are really good communicators,” says Ho.
Alibaba’s annual shopping event Singles Day is another example of Ma’s positive fighting spirit. In the 24 hours of the yearly event, Ma is frequently seen cheering on the Alibaba team, including the developers that churn out promotions at a dizzying pace.
“If it is three in the morning, you appreciate your founder coming down to be with the team,” says Ho. “It’s inspirational and very cool.”
It would be foolish to depict Alibaba as being a completely different beast to Amazon. But in a sector which prioritizes maximization of profits, it is striking that Ma may well be remembered as much for his struggle for the greater good as he will for his staggering achievements in commerce.
You can read the rest of this article in the May issue of The Drum magazine which, following on from April’s Amazon issue, is devoted entirely to eastern internet giant Alibaba. In it we explore how Alibaba is shaking up retail, spearheading a move away from cash, and its involvement in China’s social credit system.