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20 Crazy Things We’ve Learned About Alibaba Billionaire Jack Ma

From getting kidnapped to dressing up as Michael Jackson, the Alibaba founder has a lot of wacky stories to tell.

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As someone who rose from being rejected from Harvard 10 times to becoming the second-richest man in China, Jack Ma’s rags to riches story is inspiring

Jack Ma

Through persistence and experimentation, Ma built one of the most successful, record-breaking companies to date, the ecommerce giant Alibaba.

Of course, his success didn’t happen overnight, and his story is full of lessons in failure. Growing up, Ma struggled in school, constantly failing tests. When he finally got accepted to college, after he failed the college entrance exam twice and was rejected from Harvard 10 times, Ma eventually became an English teacher. However, once he was introduced to the internet during a work assignment in 1995, the rest was history.

Motivated to help the internet catch on in China, Ma launched Alibaba, an ecommerce site for small- to medium-sized businesses, in 1999. From there, it took years to build the site into the massive online wholesaler it is today, powered by Ma’s motivation and passion. Today, Ma is worth a whopping $39 billion, and since he stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO in 2013, he’s devoted much of his time and money to social causes.

There’s much to learn about the Chinese billionaire. Here are 20 interesting facts about Ma you probably didn’t know.

He wasn’t a great student

jack-ma-student

One might assume Ma was a straight-A student

While one might assume Ma was a straight-A student, quite the opposite was true. Ma admits that he actually failed multiple times in school: “I failed a key primary school test two times, I failed the middle school test three times, I failed the college entrance exam two times.”

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

He began learning English when he was 12

jack-ma-speaking-english

He would volunteer as a tourist guide for visitors just to practice the language

At 12 years old, Ma was committed to learning English. Every morning for eight years, he would ride his bike 40 minutes to a hotel in Hangzhou, where he would volunteer as a tourist guide for visitors just to practice the language.

He was rejected from Harvard University 10 times

Harvard University

Harvard University

It usually takes only one rejection for someone to give up on getting into an Ivy League, but this wasn’t the case for Ma. During an interview at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in 2015, Ma admitted to being rejected from Harvard 10 times.

He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life after college

jack-ma-rejection

You don’t always have to have the answers

After graduating from Hangzhou Normal University, Ma applied for 30 different jobs, and he got rejected from each one. During the process of applying for these jobs, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, so he submitted his resume for a variety of unique positions, one even being a police officer.

Related: AutoTrader South Africa’s George Mienie Knows Disruptive Innovation Is More Than Shifting Gears

He was rejected from KFC

KFC

KFC hired 23 – and the one person who didn’t get a job was Ma

One of the 30 jobs Ma applied for after he graduated from college was a position at the fast food chain KFC. Out of a pool of 24 applicants, KFC hired 23 – and the one person who didn’t get a job was Ma.

He loves “Forrest Gump”

Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump

Jack Ma’s fictional idol is Forrest Gump. Like Gump, Ma also struggled in school, then went on to achieve success. “I’ve been watching that movie about 10 times. Every time when I’m frustrated I watch the movie,” he shared with CNBC in an interview. “I watched the movie before I came to New York.”

He became a teacher and made $12 to $15 a month

jack-ma-as-a-teacher

The chosen one

After graduating from Hangzhou Teachers University, Ma’s luck – and career – turned around. Ma was the only student of 500 to be chosen to teach at a university. Teaching English, Ma said he made what was then the equivalent of $12 to $15.

Related: 6 Lessons The Founders Of iKhokha Used To Launch An African Fintech Start-up

He was first introduced to the internet in 1995

jack-ma-first-internet-search

What a search

In 1995, while on assignment as an interpreter in Seattle, a friend showed Ma the internet for the first time. His first search was on Yahoo for “beer.” However, it was through this search that Ma discovered there was no data about China, so he decided to launch a website called China Pages.

He was kidnapped and threatened with a handgun

jack-ma-vegas

kidnapped and threatened

During that same trip, which was his first time in the U.S., Ma also was assigned to go to Malibu, Calif., to collect debt from an American businessman on behalf of a friend. The businessman ended up locking Ma in his home and threatening him with a handgun. After a few days, the man brought Ma to Las Vegas with him when he was due to meet with a group of Chinese businessmen. Still without the money at this point, Ma won $600 on the slot machines in Vegas, bought a plane ticket to Seattle and left the scene.

His first entrepreneurial venture ended in failure

china-pages-jack-ma

Not everything is meant to work out

After borrowing $2,000 from friends to launch China Pages in an attempt to popularise the internet in China, Ma’s venture didn’t quite go as planned. It ran on a server with a dial-up connection in his small apartment, which made pages take more than three hours to load. At the time, his direct competitor was China Telecom, from whom Ma accepted an investment of $185,000 for a joint venture. In the end, however, Ma found he did not have much say in the business. Eventually, he left and took a job with China’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation.

Related: 5 Key Tactics That Helped Gill Bowen And Tim Hartzenberg Revitalise The Shooshoos Brand

He announced Alibaba in a videotaped meeting from his small apartment

Alibaba

Alibaba

By 1999, Ma was on to his next business idea for bringing the internet to China, and he had raised $60,000 from 18 friends to launch his ecommerce platform for small- and medium-sized businesses. Through a videotaped meeting that took place in his small apartment in Hangzhou, Ma introduced Alibaba.

The name “Alibaba” came from a children’s story

One Thousand and One Nights

One Thousand and One Nights

Ma got the name Alibaba from the folktale series One Thousand and One Nights. He was inspired by the story of the poor carpenter Ali Baba, who came across an abundant treasure.

While growing Alibaba, Ma and his team made mistakes along the way

Alibaba headquarters

Alibaba headquarters

Ma’s journey wouldn’t make for a true entrepreneurial story if mistakes and hardship weren’t involved. He attributes three somewhat counterintuitive factors to the success of Alibaba: having no money, no technology and no plan. He’s said that having limited resources made his team more diligent – especially when it came to money, because they had to use their limited funds carefully.

Even as Alibaba grew, Ma admits the company tried to expand too fast, was stretched too thin and had to lay off a lot of people. By the end of 2002, Ma said the company had made just $1 in profits.

Related: 6 Great Tips For A Successful Shark Tank Pitch

Alibaba holds the record for most money raised in an IPO

alibaba-office

Alibaba Office

When Alibaba went public in 2014, its $25 billion IPO broke records for the largest IPO in history – beating both Facebook and Visa.

But Ma wishes Alibaba never went public

Alibaba

Alibaba

In 2015, Ma admitted that if he could do it again, he would keep Alibaba private. “Now, after the IPO, it’s much worse,” he said in a speech to the Economic Club of New York. “If I had another life, I would keep my company private.” After Alibaba went public, it entered the spotlight and faced some scrutiny from investors, regulators and the media. Ma was playing on a bigger stage. “It’s not only our people that watch us,” he said, “the globe watches us.”

He says he doesn’t know much about technology

Jack Ma and Charlie Rose

Jack Ma and Charlie Rose

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Ma admitted that he actually doesn’t know much about technology, despite owning one of the most successful tech companies in the world. “I know nothing about technology,” he said. “The only thing I can use my computer [for] is [to] send [and] receive email and browse.”

Related: 3 Secrets To Franchising Success By Edible Arrangements CEO Tariq Farid

He loves to perform

jack-ma-michael-jackson

Show us you dance moves

Ma loves to put on a show. In 2009, during Alibaba’s 10th anniversary party, Ma threw on a blonde wig and performed The Lion King onstage. At the 2017 anniversary party, Ma went all out and dressed up as Michael Jackson from the Dangerous World Tour. With a group of hired backup dancers, he performed “Billie Jean” and Beyoncé’s “Formation.”

He’s the second-richest person in China

jack-ma-forbes

Jack Ma is the second-richest man in China

As of September 14, 2017, Ma is the second-richest man in China, according to Forbes. He has a net worth of $39 billion.

He stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO because he felt he was too old

jack-ma-interview

When I was 35, I was so energetic and fresh-thinking

In 2013, Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO, saying, “I’m 48. I’m no longer young enough to run such a fast-growing business. When I was 35, I was so energetic and fresh-thinking.”

After stepping down as CEO, Ma refocused his efforts on social issues

JackMaFoundation

JackMaFoundation

In an interview with the Financial Times, Ma shared what he planned to do after leaving his executive position. “In China, because of problems in water, air and food safety, in 10 or 20 years, we will face a lot of health problems, like increased cancer. So that is one area where I will invest my money and time.”

Alibaba bought a stake in Citic 21CN in 2014, changing its name to Alibaba Health Information Technology Ltd. Since then, Ma has spent much of his time and money attempting to bring hospitals and pharmacies online.

That same year, Ma launched the JackMaFoundation, which focuses on education, the environment and public health. In 2015, Ma was recognised as China’s biggest philanthropist, having donated a total of $2.4 billion (after share options) to his foundation.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Lessons Learnt

Scaleup Learnings From Our Top Clients – What The Most Successful Entrepreneurs Do Right

So, how do our successful clients move through these constraints to scaling up? We see four key drivers of success, and they are: people, strategy, flawless execution and finance.

Louw Barnardt

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You’re out of your start-up boots, staff is increasing, your client base is growing, revenue is up and you’ve proven your case to the market. Now it’s time to scale up. The challenges of this vital growth phase are different and it’s a time that demands different mindsets and different actions. In a world littered with small business failures, it helps to be well-prepared for scaling up using a proven methodology. At Outsourced CFO, we get an inside look at the success factors of our clients who are mastering the transition.

On the one hand, scaling up is a really exciting phase; this is what moves you into real job creation and making an impactful contribution to economic growth. On the other hand, it is really hard to scale up successfully. We see three major constraints that limit companies’ transition from start-up to scale-up:

Leadership

The business has to have the leadership that can take it to the next level. When you start scaling up, especially rapidly, the founders can no longer do everything themselves. The team must grow and include new leadership talent that can take charge and execute so that the founders are working on the business instead of in the business.

Infrastructure

The processes, procedures, networks, systems and workflows of the business all need to be scalable. This is imperative when it comes to your infrastructure for the financial management of your business. You’re only ready for growth when your infrastructure can seamlessly keep pace.

Market access

Scaling up demands more innovative marketing and storytelling so that you can more easily connect and engage with the new employees, clients, network partners, investors and mentors that need to come along with you on your scale-up journey.

Businesses that build a market conversation and a compelling brand narrative during their start-up phase are better positioned to have this kind of market access when they need to scale up.

People

It is critical to have the right people on your team. Our successful entrepreneurs have what it takes to attract, inspire and retain top talent. A strong team of smart, ambitious and purpose-driven people who love the company and want to see it succeed contribute greatly to a world class company culture. They are adept at communicating a compelling vision and establishing core values that people can take on. These entrepreneurs are tuned into the aspirations of their people and focus on developing leaders in their teams who can in turn develop more leaders.

Strategy

It is planning that ensures that the right things are happening at the right times. At successful scale-ups strategies and action plans are devised to ensure that the most important thing always remains the most important thing.

Strategy includes input from all team members and setting of good priorities for the short, medium and long term. Goals are clear and everyone always knows what they are working towards. The needle is continuously moved because 90-day action plans are implemented each quarter to achieve targets and goals that are over and above people doing their daily jobs.

Flawless execution

Top entrepreneurs are not just focused on what operations need to achieve, but how the business operates. They have the right procedures, processes and tools in place so that everyone can deliver along the line on the company’s brand promise. Frequent, quick successive meetings ensure the rapid flow of effective communication. Problems are solved without drama. There is no chaos in the office environment. Everyone is empowered to execute flawlessly to an array of consistently happy clients.

Finance

Everyone knows that growth burns cash. A rapidly scaling business faces the challenge of needing a scalable financial infrastructure to keep the company healthy. Our successful entrepreneurs pay close attention to finance as the heartbeat of the business, ensuring that everything else functions. They look at the tech they are using for financial management and for the ways that their financial systems can be automated so that they can be brought rapidly to scale. The capital to grow is another vital finance issue.

The best way to finance a business is through paying clients on the shortest possible cash flow cycle. However, when you are scaling up and making heavier investments in the resources you need for growth, it is likely that you will need a workable plan for raising capital. Our scale-up clients know the value of accessing innovative financial management that provides high level services to drive their business growth.

Navigating the scale-up journey of a growing private company is one of the hardest but most rewarding of careers to pursue. Having people in your corner who have been through this journey before helps take a lot of pain out of the process. No growth journey looks the same, but there are tried and tested methods that will – if applied diligently – lead to definite success. Happy scaling!

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Lessons Learnt

That Time Jeff Bezos Was The Stupidest Person In The Room

Everyone can benefit from simple advice, no matter who they are.

Gene Marks

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When you think of Jeff Bezos, a lot of things probably come to your mind.

You likely think of Amazon.com, a company he founded more than twenty years ago, that’s completely disrupted retail and online commerce as we know it. You probably also think of his entrepreneurial genius. Or the immense wealth that he’s built for himself and others. You may also think of drones, Alexa and same-day delivery. Bezos is a visionary, an entrepreneur, a cutthroat competitor and a game changer. He’s unquestionably a very, very smart man. But sometimes, he can be…well…stupid, too.

Like that time back in 1995.

That was when Amazon was just a startup operating from a 2,000 square foot basement in Seattle. During that period, Bezos and most of the handful of employees working for him had other day jobs. They gathered in the office after hours to print and pack up the orders that their fast-growing bookselling site was receiving each day from around the world. It was tough, grueling work.

The company at the time, according to a speech Bezos gave, had no real organisation or distribution. Worse yet, the process of filling orders was physically demanding.

“We were packing on our hands and knees on a hard concrete floor,” Bezos recalled. “I said to the person next to me ‘this packing is killing me! My back hurts, it’s killing my knees’ and the person said ‘yeah, I know what you mean.'”

Related: Jeff Bezos: 9 Remarkable Choices That Shaped The Richest Man In The World

Bezos, our hero, the entrepreneurial genius, the CEO of a now 600,000-employee company that’s worth around a trillion dollars and one of the richest men in the world today then came up with what he thought was a brilliant idea. “You know what we need,” he said to the employee as they packed boxes together. “What we need is…kneepads!”

The employee (Nicholas Lovejoy, who worked at Amazon for three years before founding his own philanthropic organisation financed by the millions he made from the company’s stock) looked at Bezos like he was — in Bezos’ words — the “stupidest guy in the room.”

“What we need, Jeff,” Lovejoy said, “are a few packing tables.” Duh.

So the next day Bezos – after acknowledging Lovejoy’s brilliance – bought a few inexpensive packing tables. The result? An almost immediate doubling in productivity. In his speech, Bezos said that the story is just one of many examples how Amazon built its customer-centered service culture from the company’s very early days. Perhaps that’s true. Then again, it could mean something else.

It could mean that sometimes, just sometimes, those successful, smart, wealthy and powerful people may not be as brilliant as you may think. Nor do they always have the right answers. Sometimes, just sometimes, they may actually be the stupidest guy in the room. So keep that in mind the next time you’re doing business with an intimidating customer, supplier or partner who appears to know it all. You might be the one with the brilliant idea.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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How Sureswipe Built Its Identity By Building A Strong Company Culture

Culture is unique to a business, it’s the reason why companies win or lose.

Nadine Todd

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A company’s culture is its identity and personality. Since this is closely linked to its brand and how it wants to be viewed by its employees, customers, competitors and the outside world, culture is critical. The challenge is understanding that culture contains unwritten rules and that certain behaviours that align to the culture the company is nurturing should be valued and cherished more than others.

At Sureswipe, the core of our culture is that we value people and what they are capable of. We particularly value people who are engaged, get on with the job, take initiative, are happy to get stuck in beyond their formal job descriptions, and who sometimes have to suck up a bit of pain to get through a challenge.

We include culture in everything we do, so it’s a fundamental element in our recruitment process. In addition to a skills and experience interview, each candidate undergoes a culture fit in the form of a values interview. We look for top performers who echo our core values (collaboration, courage, taking initiative, fairness and personal responsibility) and have real conviction about making a difference in the lives of independent retailers. If we don’t believe a candidate will be a culture fit, we won’t hire them.

If we make a mistake in the recruitment process, we won’t retain culture killers, even if they are top performers. This is such a tough lesson to learn, but it liberates a company and often improves overall company performance.

Culture should be cultivated, constantly communicated and used when making decisions. At Sureswipe, we often talk about what it takes to win and have simplified winning into three key elements: A simple, yet inspirational vision; the right culture; and a clear and focused strategy. The first and third elements can be copied from organisation to organisation. Culture on the other hand is unique to every business and can be a great influencer in its success.

Catch phrases on the wall are not the definition of culture

A strong culture is purposeful and evolving. It’s what makes a company great, but also exposes its weakness. No company is perfect and it’s important to acknowledge the good and the bad. Without it, we cannot ensure that we are protecting and building on the good and reducing or eradicating the bad.

Mistakes happen. That’s okay. But we are very purposeful about how mistakes are handled. Culturally we’re allergic to things being covered up or deflected and have had great learning moments as individuals and as an organisation when bad news travels fast. It’s liberating to ‘tell it like it is’ and almost always, with a few more minds on the problem at hand, things can be rectified with minimal impact.

Related: Starbucks Coffee Is All About Culture… For A Reason

Culture should be built on values that resonate with you and that you want to excel at. In our case, some are lived daily and others are aspirational in that we’re still striving for them. In each case we genuinely believe in them and encourage each other to keep living them. This increases the level of trust within the team, as there is consistency in how people are treated and how we get things done.

We are always inspired when, after sitting in our reception area, nine out of ten visitors will comment on the friendliness of staff. We hear their remarks about how friendly the Sureswipe team is or a potential candidate will talk about the high level of energy and positivity they experience throughout the interview process.

These are indicators that our culture is alive and well. It’s these components of our culture — friendliness, helpfulness and positivity — that cascade into how we do business and how we treat our customers and people in general. Being able to describe your culture and support it with real life examples is a great way to communicate and promote the type of behaviour that is important and recognised within the organisation.

Culture doesn’t just happen

We are fortunate that culture has always been important to us, even if it wasn’t clearly defined in our early days. As we grew it became important to be more purposeful in the evolution of our culture. About four years ago, the senior leadership team and nominated cultural or values icons were mandated to relook all things cultural.

A facilitator said to us, “You really love it when people take the initiative, and get very frustrated when they don’t.” That accurate insight became core to our values. We love to see people proactively solve problems, take responsibility for their own growth, initiate spontaneous events, change their tactics or implement new ideas. It energises us and aligns to the way we do business.

We celebrate growth and love to see our staff getting promoted due to their hard work and perseverance. We recently had one of our earliest technicians get promoted to the Regional Manager of Limpopo. It was one of the best moments of 2018.

Be purposeful with culture, describe it, communicate it and use it in all aspects of business. Culture should change. Don’t allow phrases like ‘this is not how we do things,’ or, ‘the culture here is changing,’ to stifle the growth and development of your culture. When done correctly change is a good thing. Culture is driven from the top but at the end of the day it’s a company-wide initiative. Design it together with team members from different parts of the organisation to get the most from it. And then make sure everyone lives and breathes it.

Cost Cutting

The best ROI is achieved when you stop wasting money.

Peter Drucker once said that businesses have two main functions — marketing and innovation — that produce results. “All the rest are costs.”

If you agree, that means that the average business has a lot of fat to trim. Obviously you can go overboard trying to cut costs too. My philosophy has been to look at some of the general areas where you can add some efficiency but not at the expense of impairing your most valuable resource — your focus.

The following cost-cutting measures will do that. Think of these as adding value to your company, whether it’s time, creativity or a closer connection to your consumers.

Related: Wise Words From wiGroup On Building A “Wow” Company Culture

Uncover inefficiencies in your process

This is where I begin. In fact, it was analysing the inefficiencies of legal communication and knowledge sharing that led me to create Foxwordy, the digital collaboration platform for lawyers. I noticed that attorneys in our clients’ legal departments were drafting new documents from scratch when they could pool their knowledge and save time by using language that a trusted colleague had employed in a similar document. Business is all about process. When you create a new process, or enhance an existing process, you will drive cost efficiency.

Refine your process, then automate

If existing processes are lacking, it is time to create process. If you have processes, but they are not driving efficiency, it’s time to redefine your process. Either way, a key second step is refining processes that are needed in your business. Only then can you go to automation, since automating without a process will result in chaos — and won’t save time or money. Similarly, automating a poor process is not going to give you the cost-saving results you are looking for.

Thanks to the Cloud, there are very accessible means of automating manual processes. For instance, you can automate bookkeeping functions with FreshBooks and use chatbots to interface with clients — for very basic information. If you’re a retailer, a chatbot on your site can explain your return policy or address other frequently asked questions. Automating such processes allows you to spend more time focusing on clients and customers. Technology alone isn’t a panacea for all business functions, but if you find something you’re doing manually that can be automated, take a look and consider how much time and process definition automation would save you.

Rethink your outreach

Marketing and outreach are usually big and important challenges for an organisation. In my experience, there are two main components to successful marketing — knowing your customers and using the most effective media to spread your message. For the first part, I recommend polling. There are various online survey services that offer an instant read on what your customers are thinking. You may think business is humming along, but a survey could reveal that while consumers like your product, a few tweaks would make it even better.

For the second part — marketing messaging — once you have a firm idea of your marketing messaging, Facebook is a great vehicle for outreach. The ability to granularly target customers and create Lookalike audiences (from around 1 000 consumers) can help grow your business.

Related: Take Responsibility For Your Company’s Culture To Boost Productivity

Scrutinise your spend history

There are tools that can help you assess spend history and find cost-cutting opportunities. For example, you might be able to take advantage of rewards or loyalty programmes to reduce common business expenses, like travel, or consolidate vendors for a similar function. If you have a long-standing relationship with a vendor, negotiate better pricing.

The most important elements to keep in mind are resources that make your company special. Your company may be built on one person’s reputation and expertise. Guard against tarnishing that reputation with inappropriate messaging in advertising or social media. If your company’s special sauce is intellectual property, protect that too. But everything else — ranging from physical property to salary and benefits — are costs and should be considered negotiable. — Monica Zent

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