Jack Ma with 18 co-founders in his apartment in Hangzhou, 1999
Source: Business Insider
Ah…the end of an era! Alibaba officially announced that one year from today, Jack Ma will hand over Chairmanship of the Group to current CEO Daniel Zhang. Am sure it’s a surreal moment for all Aliren (Alibaba ‘citizens’) — it’s almost impossible to imagine Alibaba without Jack. Everyone is so used to his inspirational speeches, his grand entries in the Annual Party, even his magic tricks at the event :). Xixi campus in Hangzhou (Alibaba HQ) reverberates with Jack’s vibe. His vision, leadership, persistence, sacrifice & personal charm has built Alibaba into a $500Bn digital behemoth over last 18 years, and as he says, the company has only just turned an adult :).
As a Founding Team member of Alibaba’s Globalization Team, I have had the privilege of working closely with Alibaba senior management at the Group level and through this experience, had the opportunity to directly & indirectly, imbibe Jack’s values. As Jack puts his 12 month succession plan into motion, here are some of the things I have learned from him:
- Embrace change — one of the key corporate values of Alibaba, Jack completely personifies it. The way he has maneuvered Alibaba from a B2B marketplace in the late 90s, to going D2C via Taobao (which eventually killed eBay in China), then launching Tmall as a branded marketplace, building an ‘enabler’ stack of Payments (Ant Financial), Logistics (Cainiao) & Cloud (Alibaba Cloud), taking Alibaba global over last 5 years — Jack stands for ‘change’. He always says that one needs to be constantly learning. And that in the age of rapidly evolving tech, no one can be a domain expert for long; everyone needs to keep continuously learning & evolving.
- Today is tough, tomorrow will be tougher, but day after tomorrow will be beautiful. The problem is, most people will die tomorrow — an evergreen quote that has always resonated with me. Building a disruptive company and creating true value takes time. In this era of dramatic distraction, grit & perseverance will separate the great companies, teams and professionals from the rest. Through this elegant quote, Jack keeps reminding us of this amazing competitive advantage that each of us can practice.
- Thinking really long term…like ‘102 years’ long term — one of Alibaba’s vision elements is to be a company that is around for 102 years. Why 102? ‘Cos from inception, that means lasting across 3 centuries or to put it in another way, impacting the lives of 3 generations of users. What an outstanding way of looking at business…and life! How many of us actually think like this, when conceptualizing a new product or launching a fresh BU. This is the ultimate benchmark for a b-plan approval :).
- ‘Building’ talent is more important than ‘hiring’ talent — Jack’s philosophy on talent is simple. Instead of hiring the most-pedigreed, the most proven talent, hire talent that is hungry and build them into stellar leaders. A very different way of looking at people that turns the problem on its head, from a hiring lens to a people development lens.
- Fighting for the ‘small guy’ — riding on the back of China’s manufacturing revolution, Jack started Alibaba with the aim of leveraging the Internet to connect Chinese sellers to the world. Since then, the SMB has always been a key focus area in Alibaba’s strategy, be it helping them reach consumers directly via Taobao, access loans via Alipay, or cost-effective cloud services via Alibaba Cloud. Jack has always fought for the ‘small guy’ and whatever his new adventure will be, I am sure he will continue this fight.
- Globalization — while China has always remained close-walled and insular, surprisingly, Jack has always thought global. Probably because he was an English teacher in the years when the language was extremely rare in China. He got his inspiration to start an Internet company when he visited the US on a trip. Alibaba.com, the first Alibaba product, was a global B2B marketplace. While still running essentially a Chinese company in the mid-2000s, he had the vision and audacity to try and raise money from Silicon Valley (ultimately getting a strategic investment from Yahoo, which turned out to be pivotal for the company). Post the IPO in 2014, Jack pushed for Globalization as a key pillar of Alibaba’s operating strategy, resulting in investments like Lazada in SEA, Paytm in India, getting brands from EU and N.A. into China via Tmall Global etc. Having been a part of these initiatives, every day I have felt amazed and enamored by Jack’s global thinking. As he says “Alibaba is a global digital company that just happened to be born in China”. Personally, I find his vision to enable buyers and sellers from anywhere in the world to transact with each other (via what he calls the Electronic World Trade Platform or eWTP) extremely compelling and inspiring!
- Culture & Ethics over KPIs — Chinese Internet companies are known to be extremely KPI focused and driving ruthless execution to achieve them. At Alibaba, Jack has always emphasized putting integrity, ethics and culture over KPIs. The company is by no means perfect, but having a leader who continuously puts values above just getting results at any cost, is a breath of fresh air in the tech business.
- Believing in the power of Women + Youngsters — Jack has spoken about this a lot at public forums. Having grown up in India and now working in Silicon Valley, it’s so heartening for me to see an extremely high proportion of women colleagues in our HQ. Also, few people might know this, but Alibaba has a very high number of women in senior leadership levels across BUs. Something that other venture ecosystems across the world can learn from.
- Keeping the team together — Jack started Alibaba with 18 other co-founders. Most of them were nobodies at that time, doing simple jobs, no fancy qualifications, no stellar pedigrees. Yet, Jack saw something in them. Most of them went on to start multiple BUs within Alibaba, lead thousands of people and play key exec roles. Most of them stuck around with Jack for many, many years (a few have retired in last few years) and even today, co-founders like Lucy, Jane and Trudy continue to function as operating CXOs. I don’t know how Jack did it but keeping the band together over so many ups-and-downs is to me, one of the defining reasons behind Alibaba’s success.
- Do the right thing — the most powerful mantra given by Jack. One that makes even the most complicated decisions, look much simpler. A mantra that can break any deadlock, guide any strategy, & help win over markets…and people. Always…do the right thing. This is Jack’s legacy that will stay with me forever!
Thanks, Jack, for all you have done and keep doing for the world. For starting Alibaba and for using the power of the Internet to connect Asia to the world. For making entrepreneurship ‘noble’, rather than just ‘cool’. And…for being a sage, a believer in these crazy, cynical times. Wishing you the very best for your next Chapter!