Dare to Fail: Lessons from Jack Ma 

At first glance, the young Ma Yun, known today to the West as Jack Ma (Founder, Alibaba, did not telegraph a successful future for himself. Twice he failed national college entrance exams. He says he was rejected by Harvard “ten times” before finally attending what he has referred to as “Hangzhou’s worst college”.

Upon graduation, he couldn’t get a job at his local KFC franchise nor at a hotel nor with the police department. According to what has now become a legend, he was rejected from 30 jobs before finally earning about $20 a month teaching English for a few years.

By 1995, restless and unfulfilled, he created a translation company. Later that year, he travelled to the United States for the first time to collect a debt from an American businessman. Not only did he fail to get his money, he failed at the wrong end of a gun — one he says the man who owed him money pulled on him. That failure, one in a string of missteps and flops in the life of Ma Yun, indirectly led him to his most spectacular achievement so far: Alibaba.

The all-in-one marketplace, search engine and now digital bank has become both China’s largest e-commerce site and, despite its recent struggles, one of the most successful companies in the world. Last November, during “singles day”, it generated $14.3bn in sales in less than 24 hours. By contrast, the full five days from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday were needed to pull in $7.2bn in online sales across all e-commerce sites.

How did Mr Ma turn failure into success and how might the rest of us benefit from his lessons?

Set big goals

“We are ‘crazy,’ but we’re not stupid”, Ma often says, in reference to his famous nickname “Crazy Jack”. The “crazy”, he says, refers to his big goals. In his original investor pitch for Alibaba, Mr Ma already had the vision of creating a uniquely large company. “We can beat government agencies and big famous companies because of our innovative spirit,” Mr Ma said at the time.

Today, Mr Ma wants to expand Alibaba far beyond China, helping small businesses sell goods worldwide. The company is already gaining traction in Russia and Brazil, but Mr Ma is aiming further. “My vision is if we can help a small business in Norway sell things to Argentina, and Argentina consumers can buy things online from Switzerland, we can build up an e-WTO,” he told the World Economic Forum.

Early bird gets the worm

Mr Ma has said that as a young teen he awoke at 5 AM to bicycle to the local hotel to practise English with foreign tourists. He did not make much, if any, money as a freelance tour guide, something that might be viewed as a failure in our profit-driven culture. That practice, however, provided the base for him to build his first company.

Mr Ma used those hard-won English skills to create his interpretation company. That was not, of course, the company that would determine his financial worth. But it did determine his future.

The big first step came in 1995, when Mr Ma travelled to California and tried, but failed, to collect that debt. Recovering at a Seattle friend’s house, he saw a computer. It was 1995, when Mosaic, Netscape and Yahoo! were new.

He typed in “beer” and looked at the results. Then he typed in “beer” and “China”. Nothing.

“Ma sensed opportunity”, writes Helen H. Wang, author of The Chinese Dream. He went back to China and set up his own business listing site, China Pages.

Dare to fail

China Pages was not a success; Ms Wang’s book describes it as “a disaster … it took three and a half hours to load a half page. Ma joked that they could often play a few rounds of poker while waiting for a page to appear”.  According to Ms Wang, Mr Ma attributes some of his understanding of customer psychology to those hours around the poker table.

Despite having broken the record of the largest IPO when it entered the US markets in 2014 ($25bn), Mr Ma attributes Alibaba’s success to an unusual practice of putting customers first, followed by employees … and then shareholders.

Mr Ma also believes that an employee should have technical skills superior to those of the manager. “If he doesn’t, it means you’ve hired the wrong person”, he notes, adding that a person’s superiority in a field does not diminish one’s successes, but rather adds to them. Neither does Mr Ma see a competitor’s achievements as his own personal failures. Rather he sees competitors as friends from whom he can learn, and their successes as providing lessons for how to develop his own potential.

The Tao of failure

Mr Ma is said to carry a copy of the Tao Te Ching with him at all times. The sixth-century text composed by Lao Tzu praises, among other virtues, “openness” and “emptiness”. So, too, do Buddhist teachings, to which Mr Ma has said he also subscribes.

According to Taoism, by discarding attachment to outcomes and by being open to change — and to what society might see and reject as failure — a person is able to see the greater path or “the way”. For Mr Ma, who sees money, leadership and success each as a “responsibility”, that philosophy may serve him better now than ever. While Alibaba’s October 2014 valuation of $251bn had it overtaking Walmart as the world’s largest retail network, the company experienced a $90bn market-value loss less than a year later. The stock has recovered somewhat since then and, at $200bn, the company still remains among the Top 25 companies in the world by market capitalisation.

But Top 25 is not first and Mr Ma has been quite vocal about his big plans for the company, which he wants to be “everywhere” in the next 15 years.

That will require work — and remembering that failure is anything but, so long as one remains open to the possibilities stemming from it. “Now I know that not everything is possible”, he notes in an interview with the World Economic Forum. “[But] if you continue to work hard, there is possibility.” The only true failure, he says, is “giving up”.

Credit: GELookAhead