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Global Affairs

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.”

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Global Affairs

Breakfast Briefing: Space Race, Google in China and Zuckerberg

google china

Google to Open in Beijing

Alphabet announced that it will open an AI research facility in the Chinese capital yesterday.

Editor’s Remarks: Under CEO Sundar Pichai, Google has been recommitting itself to China after it had most of its services blocked in 2010 when it refused to censor search content. In recent months, the tech giant has been marketing its new TensorFlow AI tools to the Chinese market, which aligns with the state’s ambitions to become a world leader in AI by 2030. Google’s new facility will consist of a small number of AI researchers, supported by hundreds of Chinese engineers. Google expects to face stiff competition for talent given how local tech giants, Baidu and Tencent, are ramping up their own AI efforts.

Telegram Is Not for Sale

Telegram’s elusive founder, Pavel Durov, insists that his messaging service will remain non-profit.

Editor’s Remarks: Durov and his brother Nikolai founded VK, Russia’s answer to Facebook, before they were forced to sell their stakes to a Kremlin-friendly oligarch. The pair has since relocated and built Telegram, an encrypted messaging service that they insist will never be sold. A libertarian – having enabled Telegram users to even send messages that will self-destruct – Durov and his product have gained popularity among cryptocurrency enthusiasts. Durov himself is bullish about the prospects of cryptocurrencies and owns at least 2,000 bitcoins. Pundits, meanwhile, reckon that Telegram is worth in the region of $5bn.

Japanese Space Startup Raises $90m

Ispace Inc raised $90m from Japan’s largest corporates in a bid to reach orbit by 2019. 

Editor’s Remarks: Ispace is backed by Japan Airlines, Tokyo Broadcasting System Holdings and also government-backed Innovation Network Corp. of Japan. The company plans to sell advertising space on its spacecraft, which will then feature prominently in distributed images. However, Ispace also envisages the use of rovers that will offer a “projection mapping service”, which will essentially produce a tiny billboard on the surface of the moon. This is the latest announcement in what is rapidly shaping up to be a wider commercialisation of space exploration. Elsewhere, SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing reusable rockets, while Planetary Resources intends to mine asteroids.

Roy Moore Loses Alabama

Moore, who was backed by Trump, narrowly lost to Doug Jones, a largely unknown Democrat.

Editor’s Remarks: Moore’s election efforts appeared to have succumbed to allegations of child abuse that were made against him last week. Newcomer Jones won 49.9% of the vote against Moore’s 48.4% in deeply conservative Alabama, marking the Democrats’ first Senate victory in the state since 1992. Moore is a household name in Alabama but the accusations recently levelled against him have ruined his once impeccable reputation. Reluctant to concede defeat in his home state, Moore has said that Alabama must “wait on God and let the process play out”. Meanwhile, Democrats are jubilant that they have managed to reduce the Republican majority in the Senate to 51-49, which could impact Trump’s tax reform.

Zuckerberg Backs VR Firm

Dreamscape Immersive, a virtual reality (VR) company, is backed by 21st Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Mark Zuckerberg.

Editor’s Remarks: Dreamscape is developing new VR arcades for shopping centres and has just closed a $30m Series B funding round – 50% more than planned. Among its initial backers were Steven Spielberg, 21st Century Fox and Warner Bros. The company has now added to that impressive list the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Nickelodeon. Dreamscape is capitalising on Hollywood’s interest in VR, which the film industry reckons will draw in greater numbers of viewers and provide an opportunity to raise margins. Dreamscape intends to open seven VR centres in locations across North America and the UK.

Keep reading |  4 min read

Asia

Google to Open Artificial Intelligence Centre in China

 2 min read / 

Google AI China

Google will be opening its first artificial intelligence (AI) research centre in China, despite many of its services being blocked there.

Fei-Fei Li, Chief Scientist of Google Cloud, said:

“I believe AI and its benefits have no borders. Whether a breakthrough occurs in Silicon Valley, Beijing or anywhere else, it has the potential to make everyone’s life better for the entire world. As an AI first company, this is an important part of our collective mission. And we want to work with the best AI talent, wherever that talent is, to achieve it.”

The research centre will focus on basic AI research, and will consist of a team in Beijing, who will be supported by Google China’s engineering teams.

Google’s search engine and its Gmail are banned in China. However, the country has 730 million internet users, making the market too large to ignore.

Google is not the only tech giant facing restrictions in China. Facebook is also banned, while Apple’ App Store has been subject to censorship. In order to comply with government requests, Apple removed many popular messaging and virtual private network (VPN) apps from its App Store in China earlier on this year.

China has recently announced plans to develop artificial intelligence, and wants to catch up with the US. However, human rights groups are concerned by China’s use of artificial intelligence to monitor its own citizens.

Keep reading |  2 min read

Europe

Europe Warns Trump on Tax

Europe Trump

Finance ministers from Europe’s largest economies have said that Trump’s tax plans breach global agreements.

Europe’s leading finance ministers, including UK chancellor Philip Hammond, penned a letter to the White House in which they raised the possibility of retaliation if the Republicans push on with their tax reforms. Europe is worried that Trump’s “America First” doctrine will undermine global trade patterns and escalate ongoing tensions between the US and its key allies. With the UK looking to its closest ally for support post-Brexit, it is unlikely that Hammond’s latest move will sweeten any future US-UK trade deal. Meanwhile, Trump is unlikely to care about shaking up current trading arrangements, given that he ran for office on the platform of making the US more competitive.

Keep reading |  1 min read

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