Who is Jack Ma? The story of Alibaba's founder

Jack Ma, the now-retired founder of Alibaba

The natural inclination, when considering the upward arcs of Alibaba and Amazon, is to compare the men who founded them. In doing so, there unfolds a tale of two paths which converge and cross perceptually, yet diverge consistently.

Amazon’s Bezos graduated summa cum laude from Princeton with degrees in computer science and electrical engineering. And despite a few false starts early in his career, he had found success in finance before going on to create Amazon.

Jack Ma’s academic record isn’t quite as impressive. He explained at Davos three years ago how he “failed a key primary school test two times, failed the middle school test three times, failed the college entrance exam two times”. Even when he graduated, he was rejected for most of the jobs he applied for out of college. Most notably he was the only one of 24 applicants turned down by KFC in his hometown of Hangzhou.

And he applied 10 times to Harvard Business School, where tech titans Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates had studied, but was rejected on every occasion.

Despite all the failure and all the rejection he forged ahead, never giving up. Indeed his fighting spirit is a consistent thread throughout Ma’s career.

It’s obvious that he fought (and continues to fight) for the company he founded in 1999. He told a gathering of employees early on: “We will make it because we are young and we never, never give up.”

Ma’s public persona is as a fighter as well. A recent movie from Alibaba’s film studio division titled 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. I’ve always operated as a partner, vendor or client and Alibaba fights for us.”

While Amazon is relentless in its customercentric 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. Putting shareholders third didn’t necessarily make him friends on Wall Street, but one of the differences between him and his Seattle counterparts lies in what a customer means.

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: “Alibaba is not a company for consumers. We know that small businesses need customers. 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. We had to empower our power sellers and SMEs to support their customers. We hope small businesses can use technology to challenge the large enterprises.”

Internally, Ma’s ability to hire and keep people is part of an ethos that leans on Chinese proverbs, one being: “If you suspect people, don’t use suspicious people.” It’s a roundabout way of saying that the right people should be in the right jobs – and not necessarily the smartest person, 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’s penchant is to make others the stars of the show but, oftentimes, the big stages call – and he never disappoints. From interviews with former US president Barack Obama to well-received appearances at the World Economic Forum in 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.

“If you speak two languages you can communicate with at least the Western part of the English-speaking world and your executives there, and you can express ideas very similar to your Chinese executives, your Chinese leadership, your board, your shareholders back home. That puts him at a significant advantage over his competitors who are also trying to globalize.”

Alibaba’s annual shopping event Singles Day, which dwarfs the US Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined and raked in more than $25bn worth of sales last year, 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.”

Another area where Ma fights is in philanthropy. Long an advocate for stewardship, especially around natural resources, he set up a philanthropic trust in 2014. Of particular interest is support for his hometown and education for children in China.

For example, late last year the Jack Ma Foundation gave a first-of-its-kind contribution to the First Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang University (donations to public hospitals used to be outlawed) in Hangzhou, home of Alibaba Group’s headquarters.

Additionally, earlier this year Ma called on other leaders and entrepreneurs to help support his plan to provide solutions for China’s “left-behind children” – a reference to the growing number of young people left in rural communities while their parents go to urban centers to find work. It is estimated that 60 million children in China fit this category and Ma encouraged 80 entrepreneurs to help establish boarding schools to improve education standards.

“Many pupils have to climb mountains or take a boat to go to school,” Ma told the South China Morning Post (a news outlet owned by Alibaba). “In my opinion, these kids should not be commuting between home and school every day. They should go to a boarding school.”

It would be foolish to depict Alibaba as being a completely different beast to Amazon – they will both, after all, always strive to achieve greater market share. But in a sector where the maximization of profits and the pacification of shareholders is almost a given, it is striking that Ma may well be remembered as much for his philanthropic efforts and struggle for the greater good as he will for his staggering achievements in the world of e-commerce.

This feature first appeared in The Drum's May issue, which focused on Alibaba.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.