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Jack Ma: From KFC Rejectee to the King of Asia

 6 min read / 

Working in a fast food restaurant is arguably one of the easiest ways to land a job. So when 24 people apply for jobs at KFC and 23 get them, one has to wonder: what’s wrong with the 24th?

I even went to KFC when it came to my city. Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy…”. – Jack Ma

Getting into university? Apparently not that easy either. Harvard rejected Ma no less than ten times.

Hangzhou Normal University finally accepted him, after four rejections, and he studied English literature there. Why English? Perhaps it’s because he already knew the world’s most widely spoken language, Mandarin, and it would only make sense to learn the language of business next.  

In a bid to improve his English speaking skills, he is said to have given tours to English-speaking visitors in his region free of charge.

Fast-forward 25 years, and the one man left behind is now part of a very different group. An exclusive one: the world’s billionaires. Jack Ma, founder of China’s tech behemoth Alibaba, is worth $48bn today. Yum Brands, the company that owns KFC, has a market capitalisation of some $27.8bn. Talk about questionable hiring decisions…

But how did he get there? By never giving up.

“Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine.”

The Birth of a Giant

Having used the internet for the first time in the mid-90s, Ma served as the head of an information technology company in 1999, before quitting to channel all his focus on his own business idea and website.

However, he had his doubters. To test his idea, Ma invited 24 people to his apartment to discuss his business proposition.

Out of the 24 people, only one person believed in it (it seems this combination of numbers has been definitory of Ma’s path in life) – the rest said he should abandon it. “You do not know anything about the internet” and “you don’t have the start-up capital” were some of the quotes that were bandied around.

Ma – by now accustomed to rejection – didn’t listen.

To him, being myopic to opportunity is integral to causing people’s failures.

“If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.”

The name for the brand was conceived in a San Francisco coffee shop. Seeking to find a name that was known universally, Ma began asking strangers of different countries and ethnicities whether they knew of ‘Ali Baba’.

“…Then a waitress came, and I said, “Do you know about Ali Baba?” And she said yes. I said, “What do you know about?”, and she said, “Open Sesame”. And I said, “Yes, this is the name!” Then I went on to the street and found 30 people and asked them, “Do you know Ali Baba?” People from India, people from Germany, people from Tokyo and China … they all knew about Ali Baba. Ali Baba – open sesame. Ali Baba is a kind, smart business person, and he helped the village. So … easy to spell, and globally known.”

It was from this micro case study of people’s knowledge of the character from the popular Middle Eastern folk tale, one of the stories told by Scheherezade in Tales of 1001 nights, that the name for his business was conceived: Alibaba.

Investors were instantly attracted to the potential of Alibaba, given how e-commerce giant eBay was surging in popularity during the dotcom boom at the turn of the millennium. 

Through developing his innovative idea and with the help of astute business skills and a never-say-die attitude, he managed to raise around $25m in foreign venture capital investment during two rounds between late 1999 and early 2000.

In 2002, the firm became cash flow positive, and he oversaw a further successful investment round in 2004, when a further $82m had been raised for the company. 2014 was also a notable year for both Ma and the US economy. Its IPO on the New York Stock Exchange remains the biggest ever in US history and raised $25bn in the process.

Ma’s adaptability and ability to appropriately delegate tasks has been indubitably conducive to growing Alibaba: incredibly, in 2010, Ma revealed that he had never written one line of code.

Ma’s creation only continued to prosper. At present, it has over half a billion monthly visitors.

The world’s largest retailer, it has also recently outperformed Google, Amazon and Microsoft in public cloud revenue growth, and since 2015 its online sales and profits have surpassed all US retailers combined.

Alibaba’s revenue has surged rapidly, achieving a stunning growth of 2272% between 2010 and 2017.

Ma’s Other Ventures

The company, however, is not the only business venture instigated by Ma. Since founding the e-commerce titan, Ma has headed the creation of numerous sub-businesses, such as Taobao Marketplace, an online shopping site, and Alipay, a mobile payment platform.

As of 2013, the gross merchandise volume of Taobao Marketplace exceeded ¥1trn – surpassing the values of both Amazon and eBay combined. In the same year, Alipay overtook PayPal as the world’s largest mobile payment platform.

The future of his businesses looks bright. Earlier this year, Alibaba joined many other companies riding the digitisation wave through introducing payments enabled by facial recognition. Further developments and expansions include the introduction of music streaming, as well as the creation of a gaming division to compete with Tencent.

Aside from being a successful businessman, Ma is a strong believer in teaching and nurturing growth. He was ranked 2nd in Fortune’s “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” list and is a philanthropist – as of 2010, Alibaba contributes 0.3% of annual revenue to environmental protection.

Earlier this year, Ma donated $20bn to fund a scholarship program in Australia. He has also founded the Jack Ma foundation in order to help people better their knowledge of finance and running companies, and gives regular talks to enlighten people about the world of business, and life.

“Help small guys. Because small guys will be big. Young people will have the seeds you bury in their minds, and when they grow up, they will change the world.”

1 Comment

1 Comment

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  1. Rav Singh Sandhu

    December 14, 2017 at 9:07 AM

    Nice article Thomas – who will be the next spotlight you do?

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