Saturday, 24 January 2015

Jack Ma Yun Speaks his Mind

Jack Ma talked about a wide range of topics at the World Economic Forum
Charlie Rose interviewed Alibaba founder and executive chairman Jack Ma Yun at Davos at the World Economic Forum. The video is here.

Someone did not brief Rose on how to pronounce Chinese words and names... it was excruciating hearing him say Hangzhou wrong as well as tai chi! Hello?! Who is your research assistant!

Nevertheless, it was a wide-ranging 44-minute interview asking Ma about his background and how he became successful with Alibaba. Ma was born in 1964 in Hangzhou and grew up during the Cultural Revolution and around the age of 12 fell in love with English.

But he said there were no English books so he went to what is now the Hangzhou Shangri-La and would take foreigners around on tour of the city for free to practice his English.

This was how he got the name Jack -- a tourist from the US suggested it, and after practicing for years, people were impressed by Ma's English, saying he sounded much like a native speaker. Ma added he also learned different things from visitors, who taught him things he never would have learned in school or from his parents.

Charlie Rose interviewing Jack Ma in Davos
He talked about being rejected many times, not only in his application to Harvard (10 times), but also Alibaba's IPO the first time around. "I don't know anyone else who was rejected 30 times," he says humbly.

In 1995 he visited the US for the first time and tried the internet for the first time in Seattle. The first word he typed in? Beer. He found there were beers from different countries, but beers from China were not mentioned.

His second search word was "China" and there was no information on the country, so he suggested to his friends that they create a website that he admits looked hokey.

Ma came up with the name Alibaba in the US. He asked a waitress in a restaurant what she thought of the word Alibaba and she said, "open sesame". He asked more people o the street, and they said the same and so the name stuck. "It also starts with A," he said with a smile.

The company has 100 million buyers online everyday and has helped create 14 million jobs. Some 800 million use Alipay.

Rose asked Ma about his relationship with the Chinese government, and the response was direct. He said he didn't want to do anything with the authorities when it came to business, but felt it was important to keep them abreast with what's going on with regards to ecommerce and the internet. "Be in love with the government but don't marry them," he said.

When it started, many wondered if Alibaba would work because most transactions in China relied on guanxi. But now the company does 60 million transactions a day so there must be some kind of trust, he says. Customers don't know who the seller is and yet they give them money in the trust that they will get the product they want.

For the first few years Alibaba was just surviving, but he saw how the company changed people's lives. Ma wasn't making money, but he would go to restaurants, and later find out his bill was paid by a happy Alibaba customer.

Not only does Alibaba sell Chinese products to the world, but vice versa. He gave the example of American cherries, where the fruit was pre-ordered and then sent over to China within 48 hours of being picked. He also cited selling 300 tons of nuts to the mainland as well as Alaska seafood.

When Rose changed the subject to Hollywood, Ma immediately said that his favourite character was Forrest Gump. "He's simple and never gives up. People think he's dumb but he believes in what he is doing," Ma explains. "Life really is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get."

Towards the end of the interview, Rose says Ma is one of the richest men in China. Ma is humble about it, and tries to explain it's not his money, but investors who believe Alibaba can do better with the money than the government, which is why he feels he must be responsible.

Ma also feels it's crucial to spend more resources on young people, because he observes they lose hope, vision and complain. "We were also depressed at the time, but we found opportunities," he says.

Interesting to hear Ma trying to inspire young people to keep going, and he is the poster boy for being China's Forrest Gump in his determination. He definitely is a trailblazer -- not without his stops and starts -- but can others follow his example?

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