Mr Jack Ma, billionaire and China’s richest man, co-founder and former executive chairman of the Alibaba Group, was the guest speaker at the first-ever Digital Economy Summit, which had the theme, “Leveraging Digital Economy for Trade and Investment,” at the Statehouse Banquet Hall, Abuja, on Thursday and Friday.
Ma, who turned who turned 55, in September, during the conversation spoke on why governments should see entrepreneurs as the goldmine of the continent and explained why the private sector should not do business with governments. He also spoke on other related issues.
I came across a video of you sparring with Manny Pacquiao and the next person was Floyd Mayweather Jr. Is this what drives, pushes your passion and the success at Alibaba?
First, I want to thank you for visiting me to talk about digital economy, mentoring entrepreneurs and leaders. This has always been my passion. As regards the question of challenging the strongest people, I actually try to support my friend, Manny Pacquiao, who is an excellent boxer. And for Mayweather, I think it’s not about challenging the strong people, most of the strong people don’t win because they have muscles, rather it’s because they have the brain. We learn from the strong people, we learn from their success and we learn from their mistakes. For me, my passion is that I try to solve problems.
When I was young I did not have many chances, and I would complain like most of the young people. Later on I found out that the more you complain, the more frustrated you will become. The only way out is to solve the problems that the other people feel frustrated and complain about. I think the opportunity is always in the middle of the complaints.
So I had to challenge myself and to challenge the problems, solve the problems. If you want your company to be bigger you have to solve big problems, if you want a small company then solve small problems. I respect the challenges; I respect the strong people and try to learn from the challenges and the strong people.
You created this business that was not conceivable at the time. How did you convince your early stakeholders to back you on the journey of building this company when there was no roadmap? And what’s your advice to other entrepreneurs on how to tackle these massive problems where there is no roadmap to show you where to go?
About 20 years ago when I stepped in to do internet business in China it was tough. People like me who had no background in technology (and no money because I did not have a rich father or a powerful uncle) came together and we started from nothing. I called myself a blind man riding on the back of a blind tiger. We did not have business experience. When we started in my apartment (18 other co-founders and me) I said if Jack and his team can be successful, 80 percent of young people can be successful. The reason was that we did not have money, technology and the knowhow. The only think we had was that we believed in the future, we believed the internet can help a lot of people, we believed that if we did not succeed, somebody else would and we also believed that the other people were smarter than we were. The only think we did was to think that 18 people should work like one person and we should prepare for a long time. And that was what we did.
But to convince investors, it was very difficult. I tried to raise money from Silicon Valley with my partners again and again but nobody believed that China internet would grow, nobody believed in the China e-commerce because China did not have credit cards, it did not have the logistics; it did not have this and that. But we believed that despite the fact that China did not have this and that we could build it. If China had this or that why then do they need us? So we felt that what China lacked gave us entrepreneurial opportunities, and so we began to crave for opportunities that would enable us create the future.
So convincing investors is very difficult, but those who worked with me believed in the same vision. They didn’t have to believe in me but we all had to believe in the vision that we built together. So when our investors saw 18 people like one crazy guy who believed in the future, the things that we were doing, and then the best ways to convince the investors was to have them look at your team, the people and then they look at the customers.
Even till today, when I see young entrepreneurs that want to get money from us, I want to see in the entrepreneurs’ eyes whether they believe in what we have said. When I talk to the people to know if they believe in what we believe in, then we start to invest. Telling a story to investors is easy but convincing them is not easy, especially if they are smart investors and unfortunately we have a lot of stupid investors today.
For entrepreneurs, you have to know what you believe in, you have to find the people that believe in the things you are doing. Learning little by little, and recognizing that it takes time to achieve goals.
What were your lowest and highest moments building Alibaba? And what is your legacy from a personal perspective?
Well, building Alibaba in the past 20 years has not been difficult or very simple. Even till today people say, “Hey, you have one of the biggest companies in China, in the world you shouldn’t work,” but I get a lot busier, I get more headaches. When my business was small I thought to myself that one day when my company gets big, I will smoke a cigar, go to beaches, run my business, but no, that is not the truth. The bigger your company is, the more responsibility you have, the more crises you have, the more headaches you have. The more customers you have, the more problems you get. But this is the life when you are trying to be an entrepreneur, you will find out that your fun time, your greatest past time is solving problems, you will see this kind of challenges. And I told myself this almost every day in past 20 years: ‘Today is difficult, tomorrow is more difficult but the day after tomorrow will be beautiful.’ Most people die tomorrow evening but you have to work damn hard, hire people because you are not expert in everything. If you don’t know technology you have to hire people who know technology more than yourself, if you don’t know marketing you have to hire people who do marketing better than you; if you are not an expert in accounting, you hire people who are smarter in accounting. So the important thing is to find the people, who are smarter than you, support them, empower them, make sure that these people do better than they think. It is not easy but it’s a lot of fun when you get used to it.
People say you know we got a lot of people who reject us, people don’t want to work with us, and I ask, ‘why should people work with you, why should people accept you?’ You have to prove that you have a vision, you have a dream, you have a smart kid, you have to work very hard, you have to make progress every day, every week, every month and let people start trusting you.
So, my legacy, well I hope that my people will one day say, Jack is a good mentor, Jack shared a lot of experience in entrepreneurship. I think being an entrepreneur is the most exciting thing because you have so many problems you have to deal with every day. So we are like abnormal people.
You have an impressive record of tenacity. You were rejected for so many jobs, wrote your exams three times and applied to Harvard 10 times. So what kept you going and believing in your career?
Thank you for this question. Well, I have been rejected again and again and I got used to that. This is what I tell my people always when they join Alibaba, when they try to partner with others and they get rejected, I tell them get used to it because this is who we are. Everybody, except you have a rich father, or a rich uncle, people may want to partner with you, not necessarily you, rather they want to partner with your father or your rich uncle. When I was rejected I told myself maybe I was not suitable for working for others I should work for myself. I should start something.
When I started my company, I did not reject a person because of diploma, I did not reject a person because he was not good looking and neither would l reject a person because he did not graduate from a high school. Giving him opportunity was giving our own opportunity. I felt that there was an opportunity out there for me, for us and we just had to keep on looking for it, keep on trying.
People look at my life today and say, “Jack, you are a successful business man.” But I say no, I am not. People do not see the mistakes we made, they do not see the failures; we just barely survived after 20 years. I don’t know what will happen next year or the year after that. The world changes so fast, technology changes so fast, we have to keep being paranoid.
When people say ‘yes’ to me I appreciate that; when people say ‘no’ to me I understand that. This is what I think should be at the heart of entrepreneurs: be principled, open-minded, get used to being told no. That is the job we chose.
What makes you want to get up and say I want to make a change?
I don’t know. I never thought about that but I remember one day I was invited by President Barack Obama when he was the president. I went to his office and he and I had a great discussion. He said, Jack you and I are nobody but I became the president, you became successful business person. What do you think that made us and what do you think people like us should do for the world, for the other people? And finally after the discussion over lunch, I said we are the luckiest of people in the world no matter how many troubles we may have had. I said in order to continue our luck, we have to empower young people, empower more people, young leaders and young entrepreneurs. And this is why every time I come to Africa, I feel moved and touched by the entrepreneurs. We want a change, we want to do something. And we can lift entrepreneurs in Africa, they are the heroes, it is not the government that makes the economy grow; it is the entrepreneurs that make the economy grow. Government should support entrepreneurs, build infrastructure, empower them because they will create jobs, hire people, they will make profit and add value.
So for me, I just retired from Alibaba as the CEO. I stepped down and channel my focus on education and entrepreneurs because I have built five companies in the past 20 years and all five are very successful. I found that there are a lot of similarities and I spent a lot time studying why many businesses failed. I found that all the people who succeeded may have had different reasons but all the people who failed have the same reasons.
So, we should share a lot of mistakes and failures with other people. You have to know how to survive rather how to win, when you know how to survive, you will win. If you only want to win, you will lose.
So this is what I think we should share with entrepreneurs and tell them the mistakes we have made. Don’t laugh at those mistakes and say something like, ‘I will never make that stupid mistake,’ because you will make them. The only thing I will tell you is that when you meet the same challenge, when you make the same mistake, how you should face it and solve it.
My life is that of a teacher, I was trained to be a teacher, I call myself CEO – Chief Education Officer of my company and I feel proud of that.
There is a lot of similarity between China and Nigeria and we admire a lot of the phenomenal things happening in China. China has taken 850 million people out of poverty in three decades or less. You being a child of that period, who has seen what has happened, President Buhari has mandated that we lift 100 million out of poverty in 10 years. What will be your strong advice for Nigeria?
Yes, it’s a great vision and great mission to lift people out of poverty. To me, I think the way is to make people rich. Because, for any country there are three ways: make the people rich, lead the people in the good direction and third is to lay a good foundation for educational system.
I think making people rich is by encouraging entrepreneurs to create more jobs. I think China has done a great job in the past 20 years and the government is still trying its best to help and one of the ways that the government in the early days thought that the people should get rich was to build great infrastructure for economic development.
I think for Africa there are four ways that I will strongly recommend that every African government should think about. The first one is to empower and support entrepreneurs, secondly, have e-frastructure not infrastructure, make the internet access available to every individual in Africa, make the mobile phone available to everyone and with the mobile phone you can buy everywhere, sell everywhere and deliver things everywhere.
The UK is a country on the machines, America is a country on the wheels, Africa and China should be countries on the internet. The next is e-government – make the government very transparent, efficiency-driven and the last and very important is education. So the four Es are the direction every country should build up. I think every African government should support their people to get rich and it is by supporting entrepreneurship.
Government spending in the last quarter of 2019 to support startups is N929 million and you have prescribed that to lift people out of poverty, they should be empowered. How can we get startups, who provide logistics and healthcare into the government supply chain?
Well, honestly when I started Alibaba.com, I told my team to be in love with government but don’t marry them. They asked what do I meant by that and I said, ‘Don’t do business with government.’ A good business should focus on its customers. So, make money from the market don’t make money from the government. I have found a lot of companies think of making money out of the government. I don’t think that joining the government supply chain is a good idea. The government should rather think about how the private sector and their services, products, technologies can to improve the government. Don’t worry about it. People may say we have to do this and that to be secure but I tell you, the private sector can offer much better, cheaper and secure service than your own government organization, that is for sure.
A private company should not think about how it can do business with government, don’t think of that. Your eyes should focus on the customers not on the mayor. It is very easy but not sustainable.
I think what the government should do is to make policies that inspires and encourage entrepreneurs, and make application for licence and doing business easier.
My advice to government is that it should give three years tax holiday to startups. You cannot make money out of these young startups, those companies only last for a year or two, they don’t have tax, they don’t have income to survive. Creating jobs is the best tax for the government.
If you want to take tax from less than three-year-old startups, it is like taking meat out of the mosquito’s lap. It is painful for you and it is dead. I don’t like this idea.
Given the fact that Africa is on the race to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and I know you spoke about building infrastructure, what do you recommend as a way of leapfrogging on board for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
On how to leapfrog into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, I think Africa should not follow the way of America or Europe, they should not even follow the way of China. Africa should encourage its internet bandwidth; Africa should leapfrog with its computer. Period. I hate computers because I don’t know what to do with computers but I love mobile phones. Today, the mobile phone is much more powerful than a computer. By the way, America has a lot of experience which is true but there are so many great e-fracstructure of IT engineers. Europe? They worry too much about privacy and security. There is only one continent and I have traveled round the world that never worries: Africa. And the reason is that Africa has nothing to worry about. While Europe will have to worry about losing the past, you don’t have a past, you want the future. So, this is very important, let’s try to put more trust in the young people.
What the government should do is to lay a solid foundation for 4G or 5G, making sure that the Gs are cheaper, making sure that the first two years the tax is lower and making sure that the young people who will begin startups, entrepreneurs are made the heroes, because they are the heroes. It is not easy to start a business, it’s not easy to hire and keep people and it’s not easy to pay people. So let’s do it.
I think African governments have enough opportunities to pump up the economies, let’s give some young people entrepreneurial opportunities and I think they will not disappoint us.
What will be your advice to potential employers regarding giving opportunities to persons with disability but have skills or the ones with disability, so that people will realize that there is hope to earn decent living and keeping choices open?
Thank you so much for the question. But let me tell you that my view is that there is nobody with disability, there is only disability of the mind. A lot of people’s minds are disabled but those people with physical challenges who are working, believing and fighting for their lives, there is nothing wrong with that. I want to tell you that the Alibaba site platform, we have hundreds and thousands of people with challenges that are using computers to serve the people. They are customer service guys, sales people and I can tell you that they are much better, smarter, hardworking and quick learners.
I think internet gives us huge opportunities because on the internet nobody cares if you are female or male, nobody cares if you a dog or human as long as you give good service, as long as you serve people well with a heart, with passion and with results.
So, I think people are physically challenged should focus on learning the skills through the internet and Alibaba will be happy to help. We have a lot of case studies; we have a lot of people supporting that.
You have been talking about education and inclusion. How can you match your words with action via the Alibaba Group to support a young educational startup?
About educational support, it is not Alibaba Group, it is the Jack Ma Foundation and we will be happy to have a discussion. I think the things we teach our kids today are mostly for industry period. For the past 200 years we taught people to remember more, calculate faster, but machines will do better. In the past 20 years we are making people work like machines but now we are making machines work like people. So we have to teach our kids to do the things that machines cannot do.
What is the curriculum, what is the methodology? We should teach our kids more like humans rather than a machine learner. Machines will be smarter but machines will never be wiser than people. Machines should do the things machines are good at, while human beings should do the things human beings are good at. This is really critical for education.
Change the curriculum, change the way we teach our kids and this is crucially important.
Why did you come to Nigeria?
We flew 15 hours into Nigeria and we are excited. This trip is to try to understand Africa more. We came to Africa four years ago and our plan is to visit four, five countries in every trip. My personal target is to try and visit every country in Africa in 10 years and support Africa.
Nigeria is a great country with a large population, very strong economy, excellent young people with excellent innovations. And this is a country I have looked forward to visiting a lot and I think our team today realized our dreams meeting you, the ministers.
We also want help through four Es in Africa. The solution lies in the four Es. The first, E is E-frastructure – support internet connections to everybody. We hope that every young person, every small business should have access to the internet to do business anywhere, anytime.
The second E is support entrepreneurs, this is very important. We think we can make entrepreneurs as the heroes of African continent. In China it is the entrepreneurs that promote business development and the government supports entrepreneurs.
The third is e-government, if government is on E, it will be very efficient, transparent; people will know government can help and government will know what the people want. The last and very important E is education.
In the next few days we are going to have the ‘All the internet prize, everyone in Africa can apply for award. I am happy to hear and know that four Nigerian entrepreneurs are among the top 10. We will have the final competition in two days and I think Nigerian entrepreneurs will have great result.
This is just the beginning. Our job is to support entrepreneurs. Everyone in this delegation is a founder/owner of businesses in China. We think what we have experienced in China can help African entrepreneurs develop. In nutshell, government should support e-frastructure, e-governance, e-entrepreneurs and e-education and this is what we came here for. We will love to know the government’s direction so that we can do a better job.