Sesame, open!

Born in 1964 in an ordinary household, Jack Ma was an underdog in his early years, due to his humble family background, his unusual look and pale school records. Teachers and neighbors regarded him a problem kid because he was eager to fight. Thin as him was, Ma was stern and spirited. He fought so much as a child that he was forced to transfer to another school.

Jack Ma turned 50 in 2014 and Alibaba, the company he founded 15 years ago, became the biggest IPO in US stock market history, raising $21.8 billion. He is then turning the richest person in China, with an estimated fortune of $18.01 billion.

It doesn’t matter that Jack Ma was very bad at maths as a kid.

One of the most important turning points in Ma’s life seemed to rise in middle school: his geography teacher spoke beautiful English and encouraged the students to learn English well. The inspired 12-year-old Ma then seized every chance to practice English with foreign visitors in his hometown Hangzhou, a local heaven-on-earth. At 13, he was able to guide foreign tourists for sightseeing. English has since then been his passport to the world.

Ma was neither handicapped by his poor maths nor blocked by his ignorance in technology. He has been quick in hunting for talents.

“Our proposition is simple: we want to help small businesses grow by solving their problems through Internet technology. We fight for the little guy.”

Ma managed to have Joseph Tsai, a Wall Street veteran, as his CFO from the start. Mesmerized by Ma’s passionate speech and genuine entrepreneurship, Tsai did not care that his initial salary at Alibaba was next to nothing. He made a waterproof English contract for each of the 18 founding members of Alibaba, clarifying their liabilities and obligations. Tsai paved the way for the company’s transnational cooperation and added credibility when VCs came to examine Alibaba. More importantly, he knew when to say “no” to the hungry investors.

Ma was also blessed to have John Wu as his CTO. Wu is the developer and the only patent holder of Yahoo’s search engine technology. Wu helped build Alibaba’s e-commerce tech framework.

A good story-teller and martial arts aficionado, Ma asks every Alibaba employee to have a nick name from martial arts fiction. This is his way to build a unique corporate culture.

He cherishes chivalry and announces Alibaba is built to support small businesses grow, to give them an opportunity, first to survive and then to thrive. By and by, he finds a need to build an Alibaba financing chain for banks sometimes are quite hesitant to lend money to small start-ups. After that he discovers logistics an essential part in e-commerce and start building express delivery services. In this way, he has built three most basic infrastructure of e-commerce: database, cash flow and quicker delivery. His life and work is about locating problems and trying solutions.

In the hectic battle against eBay, he once famously said “Ebay is a shark in the ocean. We are a crocodile in the Yangtze river. If we fight in the ocean, we will lose. But if we fight in the river, we win.” The fighter’s spirit seems to stay in his blood.

He does not always need to be this tough. In fact, he has been practicing Taiji for years, a Chinese philosophy that values balance and changes.

“Whenever I feel down, I’d watch FORREST GUMP. Before I arrived in New York, I watched it once again. I think Forrest’s story is to tell that anyone can succeed if he or she tries hard enough.”

Ma is an avid researcher of ancient Chinese wisdom. He stated that he learnt the secret of leadership in Taoism, saw the texture of management in Confucius and learned the way back to the ordinary via Buddhism – to combine them all, he understood Taiji. He and actor Jet Li become buddies partly due to their common interest in Taiji. Jet Li is now an independent director of Alibaba Pictures, Ali’s film wing.

Fluent in English, Ma remains a quick learner, open to anything inspirational. In 2008, Jack Ma visited a number of business leaders to learn from them. He figured Jack Welch could teach him the philosophy of business; Bill Gates could show him where the next big thing is; Walmart could guide him to build a sound ecosystem while Warren Buffett could teach him how to achieve sustainable development.

In no more 5 years, Ma builds a B2C shopping site TMall, echoing Amazon; operates Alipay, opposing PayPal; launches aliyun, rivaling Amazon’s web services; invests in Youku, China’s Netflix; bought Xiami, a local Spotify and invents Juhuasuan, unveiling his version of Groupon.

As the indisputable leader in the digital era, he declares little interests in technology itself and spends little time online. He asks his assistant to download American programs on the iPad for him to watch. He would spend his leisure time playing poker, reading traditional Chinese medicine or doing other retreats. He adores Chinese kung fu and even once wanted to act in a TV series himself. These years, he joined the Nature Conservancy and caring about environment protection.

In the group’s annual conferences, he always emphasizes that Alibaba is going to last at least 102 years – in a span of 3 centuries.

Long-term investment has always been the priority in his strategic deployment.

Ma is among China’s biggest film companies Huayi Brothers’ earliest share holders, he invested over 1 billion USD in Youku, China’s Youtube and his Alibaba has recently established Alibaba Pictures, with Zhang Qiang, China Film Group’s former top executive as the head and Alex Liu, Tencent video’s ex-leader another chief. It is said that Alibaba is willing to pay producers as high as 50% of a film’s profit in order to attract really experienced filmmakers whilst the average producer can only get 5%.

It would not be difficult to envision that one day Alibaba inserts e-commerce into its film production: whether you are watching 3D films in the theater or enjoying online video on a subway, mobile applications can enable you to buy the very product that you see in the film, almost an instant purchase and delivery in a blink.

Such experimental interaction between content and product placement has already existed in some countries. It is just a matter of time that it appears in China and Alibaba is the most likely site to make this happen. If the scale goes big, this would restructure China’s advertising and marketing businesses as well as the film industry. After all, Alibaba has advantages in the nation’s busiest social networking, online shopping service, VOD business and film crowd-funding. With Ma’s global vision and enthusiasm in traditional Chinese culture, Zhang Qiang’s human resources in filmmaking, and new ways of film financing, production and distribution, Alibaba Pictures is possible to achieve something unprecedented.

Alibaba has already reshaped the way people do business, and it is going to reshape the way people make films, the way people make purchases and ultimately the way people lead their lives.

Jack Ma and the Alibaba Pictures team are now in Hollywood talking with studio executives. Producers back home are desperate to learn what they are negotiating.

Sesame, open! It’s BABA.

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