A pioneer of the Internet in China, Jack Ma created his first startup, China Pages, in 1995, barely a year after China was connected to the Internet. But this English teacher by training, self-taught in the Web, also proved to be an outstanding manager in the way he held the reins of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant he founded, for fifteen years.
A lot has been written about Jack Ma’s management style. In this post, we will simply focus on three characteristics: audacity, the primacy of effort and a vision that goes beyond profit.
1. Jack Ma’s audacity
Several key facts in Jack Ma’s career testify to his audacity; but a reasoned audacity, knowing how to give way to strategic retreats when necessary.
It took audacity in 1995’s China to launch a start-up, while Internet was still in its infancy in that country. Jack Ma’s first start-up was China Pages, an online business directory.
As in China nothing can be done without the government and the Communist Party agreeing, at least tacitly, Jack Ma courageously took his pilgrim’s staff and tried to convince the local officials of the Hangzhou city. But as the wonderful documentary Crocodile in the Yangtze shows, the reception was rather cool, as mentalities were not yet ready.
A few years later, when the market had begun to be educated, Hangzhou Telecom launched a competing company, with all the resources at the disposal of a big company. Jack Ma decided to retreat, realizing that the battle was too unequal. He ended China Pages to take a job in a government-owned company.
But in 1999, Jack Ma realized that the political constraints were not allowing him to launch the projects he wanted to. He realized that he was at risk of missing out on the rise of the Internet. So he decided to launch a new start-up with 18 friends and colleagues, Alibaba. The ambition was nothing less than to cut down the giants of Silicon Valley.
This ambition culminated in Alibaba’s epic battle with eBay, from 2003 to 2007. Due to a better understanding of the dynamics of e-commerce in China, Jack Ma made the right choices with his auction site Taobao, including making it free for users. So when eBay CEO Meg Whitman invited Jack Ma to the U.S. to discuss a partnership, Jack Ma had the audacity to decline. This time, he was confident that David could defeat Goliath. Thanks to determined strategic moves, such as the entry of Yahoo! into Alibaba’s capital, Ma succeeded in knocking eBay off its feet, leading eBay to withdraw completely from China in 2007.
So we can see that Jack Ma has proved bold in his career without being a hothead, which allowed him to achieve the high goals he set for himself.
2. Privacy of effort
Another dimension of management seen by Jack Ma is the role of effort. Creating an e-commerce giant worth $257 billion as of 2021 has not been a walk in the park. As soon as Alibaba was launched, Jack Ma promised toil, tears and sweat to his employees, as can be seen in this excerpt from Crocodile in the Yangtze:
It’s not surprising, then, that Jack Ma has spoken out several times in favor of the so-called 9-9-6 work rhythm in force at many Chinese high-tech companies, i.e. from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week.
“I personally think that 996 is a huge blessing. How do you achieve the success you want without paying extra effort and time?”Jack Ma endorses China’s controversial 12 hours a day, 6 days a week work culture, CNN Business
3. A vision that goes beyond profit
Like many billionaires, Jack Ma has been willing to put his wealth at work for causes beyond business. He created the Jack Ma Foundation, which supports entrepreneurship, education, medical research, the environment and women’s leadership, among others.
Like other companies, the Alibaba Group has drawn up a mission statement that guides its actions. It’s about making it easy to do business anywhere. And that’s actually what Alibaba’s various offerings make possible, whether you think of its e-commerce platform, its cloud computing offerings, its financial services (Alipay), etc.
But in the case of Jack Ma, one might think that the motivations are deeper. Let me enter the realm of conjecture here, which you can of course question.
As a young boy in the 1980s, Jack Ma saw China open up to the world thanks to the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping. He wanted to do his part in this opening, especially by learning English, befriending an Australian mate, David Morley, and then becoming an English teacher. Jack Ma did not want China to be left behind. He often tells this story about his trip to the United States in 1995, when he discovered the Internet. He was very surprised, when he searched the word “beer”, to find information about beers from all over the world, but none about Chinese beers. That’s what inspired him to create China Pages.
Later, in his fight against eBay, he did not want an American giant to conquer the nascent market of Consumer-to-Consumer e-commerce in China. So there is a form of patriotism in Jack Ma’s career. But this patriotism is not a vengeful or nationalistic desire to contribute to the success of China as a nation. Rather, it seems to be a desire for the Chinese as a people to benefit from globalization. For example, here is what Jack Ma said on the occasion of Alibaba Group’s Nasdaq listing on September 19, 2014
“To be honest, most thought we were just up to raise money. But we’re hoping to represent China’s economy, its small and medium enterprises and the country’s future.”What did Jack Ma do to succeed and where did he failed?
So we can see that Jack Ma’s management style, far from just being the application of simple techniques, is rooted in founding principles. It is in this kind of principles that management made in China draws its source, as we will continue to see in the next articles of this blog.
A graduate of HEC Paris and CentraleSupélec, Jérôme Delacroix began his career at management and organizational consulting giant Accenture, before turning to marketing, writing and entrepreneurship.
Jérôme has been to China more than 12 times and is learning Mandarin Chinese. He hosts a YouTube channel dedicated to the Internet in China.