Startup Advice

Longevity in business, and the bedroom: As Jack Ma retires, his top business tips live on

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Alibaba founder, former chief and long-time chair Jack Ma is stepping down from the business, handing over the reins to current chief executive Daniel Zhang.

It’s a move that has been 12 months in the pipeline, and while it hasn’t taken anyone by surprise, we still look back on the Ma era — and some of the pearls of wisdom that came out of it — with mixed feelings of respect, amusement and pure befuddlement.

Founded in 1999, the Chinese e-commerce platform listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014, and now has a market cap of about $US456 billion ($665 billion).

And, to mark the 20th anniversary of the business, new chair Zhang has already issued a refresh of the company’s values, reiterating its intent to be a “good company that will last 102 years”.

The new values include a promise to put customers first, employees second and shareholders third. It also a claims trust makes everything simple and says change is the only constant.

But, it also urges employees to be better, saying “today’s best performance is tomorrow’s baseline” and instructing them to “live seriously, work happily”.

This new direction ushers in a new era for Alibaba, but also marks a continuation of its leaders dishing out advice.

As one of the most influential founders, globally, Ma has given us some corkers in his time. While some are wise and poignant, others are a tad confusing, even straying into the bedroom on occasion.

And while we can’t promise to live by all Jack Ma’s advice, we’re certainly not about to forget it anytime soon.

Don’t hire high achievers

In the book Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built, author Duncan Clark, an expert on entrepreneurship in China, quotes Ma as saying that, at least in the early days of Alibaba, he didn’t tend to hire based on business qualifications.

“It is not necessary to study an MBA. Most MBA graduates are not useful … Unless they come back from their MBA studies and forget what they’ve learned at school, then they will be useful,” Ma said.

Rather, he placed importance on life experience and work ethic.

“Schools teach knowledge, while starting businesses requires wisdom,” Ma said.

“Wisdom is acquired through experience. Knowledge can be acquired through hard work.”

996

In April this year, in a speech shared on Alibaba’s WeChat account, Ma encouraged a controversial Chinese work ethic of 996. That is, working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week.

Employees should view this 72-hour week as something to boast about, he said.

At the time, Ma said he believes “being able to work 996 is a huge blessing”, the ABC reported.

“Many companies and many people don’t have the opportunity to work 996. If you don’t work 996 when you are young, when can you ever work 996?” he asked.

“How can you achieve the success that you want without exceeding other people’s effort and time?”

Ma did, however, tone down this so-called advice after copping some flak from both Chinese and international media, clarifying that 996 culture should be driven by employees, and not forced upon them. So, that’s a relief.

Have lots of sex, and lots of babies

At an Alibaba wedding, where more than 100 couples were married in a mass ceremony, Ma flipped the ‘996’ theory on its head, advocating for a ‘669’ approach to matrimony.

“At work, we emphasise the spirit of 996. In life, we should follow 669,” he said, as reported by the ABC.

“We want 669 in life. What is 669? Six times in six days, the emphasis is on nine.”

The ‘emphasis on nine’ appears to refer to duration. In Mandarin, ‘nine’ is a homophone for ‘long’, apparently.

“The first KPI of marriage is to have results. There must be products. What is the product? Have children,” the founder said at the ceremony.

“Marriage is not for the purpose of accumulating wealth, not for buying a house, not for buying a car, but for having a child together.”

Look beyond the founder

In his resignation letter to customers and shareholders last year, Ma said he has always been working towards the day he would pass on the Alibaba torch.

Preparing the business for a change in leadership will set it up for future success, and allow it to continue to grow and develop for the next century, or more.

“No company can rely solely on its founders,” Ma said.

“Of all people, I should know that. Because of physical limits on one’s ability and energy, no one can shoulder the responsibilities of chairman and CEO forever.”

The business has built a system of governance based on “unique culture and mechanisms for developing consistent talent and successors”, he added.

“The one thing I can promise everyone is this: Alibaba was never about Jack Ma, but Jack Ma will forever belong to Alibaba.”

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].

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