All Successful Entrepreneurs Follow These 3 Core Values, Says Jack Ma

By Lee Williamson

The Alibaba founder spoke to Hong Kong entrepreneurs at the inaugural Jumpstarter pitch competition. Here are five things we learned

Tatler Asia

Three Hong Kong entrepreneurs walked away with a total of US$3 million in funding on Tuesday evening at the inaugural Jumpstarter, a pitch competition for startups organised by the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund.

The chosen three were selected from close to 600 entrants, with each winning up to US$1 million from the not-for-profit initiative, which has also invested in startups from several Generation T listers in the last year, including Luke Grana’s e-commerce platform Grana, Danny Yeung’s genetics testing firm Prenetics and logistics unicorn GoGoVan, co-founded by Gen.T listers Steven Lam and Reeve Kwan.

After the final round of pitches, Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Alibaba founder Jack Ma sat down with SCMP Business Editor Eugene Tang to discuss the topic ‘energising the future’.

Ma was his usual effervescent self during the talk, with a number of things to say on Hong Kong, entrepreneurship and the lessons he’s learnt building an empire. Here are five things we took away from the evening.

Hong Kong’s proposed tax incentives will help startups, but entrepreneurs shouldn't wait for things to be handed to them

“I say to governments, if you can’t give [public] money to startups, why don’t you reduce the tax for them! This is what Hong Kong is doing–and I think it will help a lot.”

“As an entrepreneur, my tip is don’t wait for the environment to be ready. Don’t wait for all the policies to be ready. When everything is ready, there’ll be no opportunity for you. You have to move fast before the government takes action. If the government says everything is ready, you should move to another area."

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Above  Jack Ma illustrates the three values every entrepreneur should live by. (Photo: Lee Williamson/Hong Kong Tatler)

Take rejection in your stride—it happens to the best of us

“Seeing all these pitches reminds me of 18 years ago when we went out raising money. Unfortunately, we were rejected by all the venture capital funds. We still talk about that every day.”

Every entrepreneur should live by these three values

“I have three pieces of advice for startups. The first is ‘Be optimistic’. A great entrepreneur is an optimist for the future. You have to ask ‘What problem am I going to solve, in what way and how is it going to be different from the others?’”

“Second, you have to find a group of people who believe in the same vision. Those people should be coming to join you not because it’s a job, but because they believe in the dream, the mission. There’s no ‘best people’ in the world; the best people are those who will work with you in a team. Train the team well, and the team will also train you.”

“Third, [think about] what price you’re going to pay—what are you going to sacrifice? Do not think ‘What will I get?’; you have ask ‘What will I give up?’ Will I win in three years or 10 years? If you have a great idea, prepare for 10 years. Don’t say ‘I will succeed next year’. It’s impossible – forget about it! If you think ‘I will win this in three years’, prepare for five.”

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Above  From left to right: moderator Eugene Tang, Carrie Lam and Jack Ma. (Photo: Courtesy of Jumpstarter)

Don’t be wowed by big names when hiring; it’s the team that matters 

“A lot of startups love to say, “I’ve got a great [former] vice president from a multinational company on my team.” I don’t like this kind of thing. If today you’re driving a tractor, don’t try to put a Boeing 747 engine inside—you’ll destroy it. You should find people that are suitable for your company. I hired a lot vice presidents from big companies in the early days of Alibaba, and they almost destroyed my company. I only had US$5 million in total, and a guy came in with a marketing plan for 12 million. I said ‘How are we going to do that?’ He said, ‘I’ve never made a plan for less than 20 million.’ So find the right people and train them.”

Lead trends, don’t follow them

“Don’t focus on the things that are hot. One of the reasons we succeeded 18 years ago was because the internet was not hot at that time. E-commerce was so cold! Nobody believed in it, but we did. We didn’t care what other people said, we thought it had a future. We thought it would help people, so we started it. If you pick up something that is hot, when everybody is saying yes, there’s no chance for you.”

“People think that artificial intelligence is hot. Yeah, so what? As an entrepreneur, don’t spend too much time reading the newspaper; read what your customer wants. It’s the customer you should be worried about. If the customer follows you, you always have a chance.” 

Quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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