How Jack Ma became the role model for startups

Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., attends the opening day of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. The 4th annual Eastern Economic Forum, held in Vladivostok, will run from 11-13 September. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

HONG KONG: Long before he became China’s most globally prominent business figure, Jack Ma (pic) was just an English teacher trying to persuade his friends that they would one day buy things over the Internet.

His vision changed China. As Ma makes plans to leave Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, his legacy will be an enduring one. He did far more than just create and build an e-commerce juggernaut into the most valuable company in Asia, impressive as that may be.

He showed that an innovative private enterprise could thrive under a Communist Party regime once hostile, and still at times suspicious, of ambitious capitalists.

To a remarkable degree, his path-breaking success created a model that gave rise to a technology industry that rivals Silicon Valley, propelling a Chinese economy on track to eclipse that of the US.

Ma is now China’s richest man, worth about US$40bil, and a headliner at global talking salons like Davos. At the same time, he’s complied with – and fiercely defended – his country’s ruling party even as it exerts ever tighter control over media, the Internet and any hint of dissident speech.

He’s gone so far as to praise the stability of one-party rule and chastise Western companies like Google that objected to China’s censorship practices. His approach demonstrated how entrepreneurial success can co-exist with the Communist regime, paving the way for a new wave of startups.

“He’s been a role-model for our generation,” said Peiran Wei, a 36-year-old who says he had the confidence to co-found a startup, an app developer called VideoUP, in large part because of Ma and Alibaba.

Jack Ma’s personal story is now the stuff of schoolyard legend. He was born in 1964 to traditional Chinese musician-storytellers in Hangzhou, an ancient capital known for its historic sites and natural beauty. He honed his English by hanging around the town’s main hotel to practice with tourists.

After working as a teacher, Ma turned to business, starting in 1999 with 17 co-founders. He wasn’t the most technically savvy entrepreneur, nor would he claim the smartest. But he proved an inspiring leader who could rally his forces to fight foreign intruders or articulate a vision for modernizing China’s economy.

“Intelligent people need a fool to lead them,” he once said. “It’s easier to win if you have people seeing things from different perspectives.”

Alibaba has brought e-commerce to remote villages of China and expanded into artificial intelligence, health care and Hollywood movies. Less than 20 years after its founding, the business that Jack and his co-founders built is valued at US$420bil, more than any of the older state-backed enterprises in his country.

“He started his company with 18 people in an apartment and even today whenever I pass that place I think of him,” said Wei, who is also from Hangzhou. “It’s a 20-year-old apartment complex that doesn’t look posh but I still get inspiration from it.”

One of the first to see the promise of Ma was Japan’s Masayoshi Son. His SoftBank Group Corp led a US$20mil investment in Alibaba in 2000 and now holds a stake worth about US$120bil.

“He had no business plan, zero revenue,” Son said of Ma on The David Rubenstein Show. “But his eyes were very strong. I could tell from the way he talked, he has charisma, he has leadership.”

It was Alibaba’s record-setting initial public offering that altered the country’s tech industry for good. Ma and team raised US$25bil, more than any other company before or since, a wake-up call for venture capitalists that there were fortunes to be made on the country’s startups.

The impact was immediate. Beijing-based smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp. raised venture funding a few months after the IPO at the highest valuation in the world, at US$46bil. It was soon surpassed by Uber Technologies Inc, but the floodgates were open.

Venture deals in China rose from US$4.4bil in 2013 to US$16.6bil in 2014 and reached US$62.6bil in 2017, according to the market research firm Preqin. This year, China is on track to surpass the US in both venture capital raised and IPOs. “The China startup scene wouldn’t exist in the same way without Jack Ma,” said William Bao Bean, a Shanghai-based partner at venture capital firm SOSV.

“The celebrity of Jack Ma and the success of Alibaba made startups an acceptable career choice, which has fuelled one of the biggest technology markets in the world.”

Ma wasn’t just successful. He broke the mold for China’s business leaders, typically faceless chiefs running mammoth state-owned enterprises like PetroChina and China Mobile.

He dressed up like Michael Jackson and tried the moon walk. He wore a three-foot feather Mohawk and makeup to perform at a company party. And he dispensed Yoda-like axioms that were collected in dozens of management books. “To many he’s the face of China’s Internet – no one really knows what Pony Ma looks like,” said Bean, referring to the CEO of Tencent Holdings Ltd.

In that role, Ma would occasionally criticise his home country, including for its pollution problems, a potentially dangerous proposition given the power of the ruling party. But especially under current President Xi Jinping, he was forced to quiet his independent voice and often defended the government’s practices against its critics. — Bloomberg



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