After taking his internet company, Alibaba, public on September 19 2014, Jack Ma became the richest man in China, with an estimated worth of $25 billion. Alibaba’s initial public offering was recorded as the largest in history for a U.S. listed company.
But, in his own words, Jack Ma, born Ma Yun, never dreamed that his third internet company, which he started in a small apartment would earn him as much wealth and fame as he has today.
Ma’s is a classic rags-to-riches story of a young boy who grew up in a poor family in Communist China but who now oversees one of the world’s richest and most successful internet companies.
Here are some essential lessons you can learn from him about making the most of your circumstances:
It is easy to look at successful people and think they had a good head start in life. However, many self-made wealthy people had to start from scratch and overcome difficult circumstances.
He was born into an ordinary, low-class working family and he hardly knew any successful individuals in Communist China. Ma got the idea to start his first two internet companies after a visit to the U.S. Both companies failed. For his third venture, Alibaba, he gathered eighteen of his friends and asked them to invest in him.
By October 1999, the company, which allowed exporters to display their products online for customers to buy directly, had attracted many customers globally. More importantly, technology and investment companies became interested in Alibaba and invested up to $20 million in the young company.
Just because you are not well connected now does not mean you have no chance of making headway with your goals. What’s important is to get started; people will see the value of what you are doing and they will be drawn to that.
Whether you are trying to change a bad habit, working hard to set up a business or putting in a lot of effort to keep you team and your business afloat, you will face tremendous challenges. The temptation to give up is always present.
In what Ma calls the ‘dark days of Alibaba,’ when the company was struggling financially and it was bombarded with customer complaints, he adopted a spirit of never giving up.
In his words:
Never give up. Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine.
This is how he was able to motivate his young team to stay focused on the larger goal. Needless to say, Ma was not just the company leader; he was also his team’s main motivator.
Think about what would have happened had he given up when his company faced those incredible challenges.
When he was just 10 years old, Ma began taking American tourists on city tours around his town, Hangzhou, in exchange for English lessons. He knew the only way out of his family’s poverty was to get an education.
After high school, he failed his college entrance exam two times. On his third attempt, he was accepted at the Hangzhou Teacher’s University, which was considered one of the worst universities at the time. However, he did not dismiss this opportunity—he later became the city’s Student Federation chairperson.
Upon graduation, Ma received many job rejections until he finally got an English teaching job that paid him $20 a month. Through his teaching job, he got an idea to start a translation business, which later allowed him to travel to the U.S. where he first learnt about the internet.
The opportunities that opened up to Ma were far from glamorous, but he grabbed them and made the most of them.
Unless you are starting from a privileged place, you will likely come across disguised opportunities—will you shun them or will you grab them?
When you experience one type of failure or another, a lot of people tend to want to go at it alone to recover from their struggle. This is especially true for leaders who want to be seen as strong, knowledgeable and independent.
However, to rise from failure or to overcome a challenge, you may need other people with a better perspective to guide you.
Ma is not a technology ‘guy’ and he often admits that. But he does not see his technological ineptitude as a hindrance. He says it is much easier to win when you have people seeing things from different perspectives.
To him, having a team that is only made up of tech people is not the best approach; allowing others (who are not tech scientists but who have a valuable perspective) to contribute has brought the company to its current success.
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