Why Alibaba's Jack Ma is a maverick hero

The biography of Jack Ma, the founder of billion-dollar ecommerce empire Alibaba, has all the ingredients of a blockbuster film - from a kidnapping to a Las Vegas casino.

by Benita Matofska
Last Updated: 01 Jul 2016

Enthralling from the outset, Duncan Clark's biography of Alibaba boss Jack Ma takes us on a blockbuster-style adventure into the mind, and heart, of China's greatest entrepreneur. If you want to know what makes a successful founder, this is definitely the book to read, though it won't be what you expect. From a kidnapping in California, to an escape from a Vegas hotel room and an obsession with Forrest Gump, Ma is definitely the maverick hero.

Ma describes his company as 'one thousand and one mistakes'. 'We didn't have any money, we didn't have any technology, we didn't have a plan.' Yet from paying your electricity bill to finding employment, everything in China has been built by Ma.

The success of the book is due to Clark's access to Ma, Alibaba and his knowledge of China. A former employee of Morgan Stanley and previous adviser to Alibaba, he lifts the lid on Ma's exploits. The core of 'Jack Magic' is the 'shrimp' - small business. 'American B2B sites are whales, but 85% of fish are shrimp sized.'

Ma's strategy focuses on the 'Iron Triangle' of ecommerce, logistics and finance. Through his platform Taobao, he offers a choice of goods from mosquitoes to bottled farts. Through logistics, he gets the goods where they need to be. Without low-cost delivery, Alibaba would not be what it is. Through financial subsidiary Alipay, payment is worry free - this e-wallet handles $3-4tn per year, triple that of PayPal.

Clark transports the reader back to 1964, the year of Jack's birth when private enterprise in China was dead. Mao's homeland was an improbable place to spawn the man credited with bringing capitalism to China. The child of a factory worker and photographer, Ma was taunted by his classmates for his parents' love of Pingtan (folk performances) and was, as a result, at risk of persecution during Mao's Cultural Revolution.

But it was Nixon's visit to Ma's hometown of Hangzhou that led to his lifelong passion for the English language. In 1979, when foreign tourists arrived, Ma would ride his bicycle to the Hangzhou Hotel to greet them and learn English. In 1994, thanks to his linguistic acumen, Ma landed a government agency job to sort out a highway dispute with an American company. On arrival in the US, he discovered that the company didn't exist and was locked in a beach house for refusing a bribe, then taken to Vegas and kept in a hotel room above a casino. Trust 'Crazy Jack' to escape and win $600 on slot machines. On that same trip, Ma was introduced to his first computer and logged onto the internet. He 'searched' for beer and found American beer. When he searched for China, he found zip.

Clark reveals how Ma continued to live up to his 'Crazy Jack' moniker. Sporting a Mohican, nose ring and black lipstick while singing Elton's 'Can you feel the love tonight' is all part of the 'Jack Magic'. This small man, with ET looks and oversized ambitions, appears dumb but is smart. Combine this with his mantra of putting customers first, employees second and shareholders third, and you start to understand how the empire was built.

As Clark depicts, Ma makes an unlikely public speaker. I know this only too well, having had the great fortune to meet him when I organised the launch of Global Entrepreneurship Week 2009, with Alibaba as sponsors. But with his hilarious anecdotes, and incredible command of English, he was undoubtedly the audience favourite.

Ma makes no secret of the fact that he was rejected by Harvard 10 times, had multiple failures of the 'gaokao' university entry test and was even refused by KFC. Sheer graft helped him scrape through the 'gaokao' and scored him a place at Hangzhou Teachers College. Hard to believe, this is the man who went on to lead Alibaba to the biggest IPO in history - at a whopping $25bn on the New York Stock Exchange.

With his environmental trust, Ma is a philanthropist too. He recognises that the Chinese used to feel pride about being the world's factory, but are paying the price for that with undrinkable water, inedible food and polluted air. He has taken China from being the world's factory to the world's shopping mall. Now, using the sharing economy principles of efficient use of assets, care for the planet and big data, he has the chance to make it the world's stage for social business. As Ma says, 'Nobody knows the future, you can only create the future'. There's nothing crazy about that.

Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built by Duncan Clark, Ecco, £18.99

Benita Matofska is a global expert on the sharing economy and founder of social enterprise The People Who Share

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