The news feeds have been full of stories about Alibaba securing its place as the world’s largest-ever stock market flotation at $25bn and a market capitalisation of more than $230bn. The story of itsfounder Jack Ma’s long, improbable journey from English language teacher to the richest man in China seems to fly in the face of traditional leadership and entrepreneurship principles.

  • How does an English teacher attract and inspire technical, financial and even other enterprise experts?
  • Where are his commercial credentials?
  • Could his lasting devotion to Winston Groom’s legendary hero Forrest Gump really have provided him with the attitudes and behaviours necessary to succeed as he maintains? read more

Exposure to opportunity
He maximised his exposure to foreigners and the English language by giving free English language tours to visitors around Hangzhou’s West Lake providing him a rare window to life outside China and future possibilities
Attending Hangzhou’s Teachers University where he studied to be a high school English Language Teacher proved providential in two ways:

  • It gave him a cultural advantage rarely enjoyed by his counterparts in other countries. The Chinese have the saying: “Even if someone is your teacher for only a day, you should regard him like your father for the rest of your life.” This gave him later access to a large pool of software engineers, formerly his students, who trusted and respected him.
  • It enabled him to become a Chinese to English interpreter for a trade delegation to Seattle in 1995 where he saw for the first time the Yahoo Portal and how it connected users to the internet.

Recognition of need
Though not coming from a technical background, he understood what Chinese people needed and wanted. He regarded the internet and the newly emerging e-commerce as a way of addressing these issues.

Establishing collaborations and learning what doesn’t work
His ultimately doomed China Pages directory service joint venture with China Telecom taught him what not to do with regard to future collaborations. In 2000 Ma received an additional $20m start-up funding from Asia’s leading Internet venture, the Masayoshi Son Softbank, who also ran Yahoo! Japan in what would be another critical foreign relationship for him.

Defining the business model
In 1999, in the very early days of e-commerce, he received funding from Goldman Sachs for Alibaba. Goldman had predicted B2B e-commerce to be a $4.5 trillion market by 2005. This episode exposed him to the then prevalent US ecommerce business models that focused on serving large enterprises and helping them save money. However, Ma set up Alibaba to help small companies make more money.

Fulfilling a real need
The enterprise was started in his home province of Zhejiang that was already home to hundreds of thousands of manufacturing merchants.

A more careful study of the deliberate choices Ma made together with the principles he adhered to, skills he acquired and lessons he learned reveal that he was displaying classic entrepreneurial behaviours. Can these be learned or are they in-born? Is it really possible to adopt an entrepreneurial mind-set to maximise opportunities, foster creativity and address challenges? How can you display entrepreneurship within your existing organisation? Acquire the necessary skills to become an Organisational Entrepreneur or ‘Intrapreneur’ yourself or learn how to develop potential intrapreneurs you’ve identified on our dynamic ‘Enabling Intrapreneurship’ workshop. In addition, determine if these individuals have really got what it takes by looking at our FDA Full Depth Assessment that examines the key dimensions of the Intrapreneurial Mindset as well as the necessary personality characteristics.