Entrepreneurship

Jack Ma's top tips for entrepreneurs

'Be the honey badger. Be yourself' ... Jack Ma at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China.

Anna Bruce-Lockhart
Editorial Lead, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

The room erupted with applause when Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba, walked on stage to speak at the World Economic Forum in China.

Ma, who recently announced plans to retire, is a cult figure in Chinese popular culture and has attracted a loyal following among entrepreneurs. Against a global backdrop of rising China-US trade tensions, he had some timely words of advice to share with the business community.

Look on the bright side

It's true the economic environment isn't perfect at the moment, but that can be turned to your advantage. All it takes is a simple change of perspective. "If the economic outlook is not perfect, then you will have good competition," he said. "So there are two sides of everything. When everything is fine, then you will have a mediocre company, but when you have headwinds and if a company can live, then this is a great company."

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Build a great team

When he founded Alibaba, back in 1999, Ma didn't know anything about marketing, tech or financing. His main work experience had been as an English teacher. But he was able to turn the leadership of Alibaba into a collective force. "I chose my students," he explains. "And most of my time was spent identifying and cultivating their talents."

"With a team you can do something much better," he says, however brilliant an individual you are.

Teaching and mentoring are among the many things Jack Ma has become famous for, and young people are the lifeblood of his organization. "Newcomers are stronger than us in knowledge, capabilities and skills," he says. "Once we give them time, they will give us new success."

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Be the honey badger

"This animal is fearless. He doesn't care who his opponent is. Just give him the time and location and he'll be there to fight. That's the kind of spirit that should be deep-rooted in an entrepreneur."

Honey badger is also the name Ma gave to his new chip company, Ping-Tou-Ge.

"To be the honey badger in your life - this is the essence of education," he explains. "Being you, not being Jack Ma. And don't imitate anybody. Just be yourself. I think that's very important."

Learn from the greats

Get out and meet people, and learn from them, advises Ma. He draws on his own experience: "For me, living here on this planet is an opportunity for me to know people of all varieties: good people, bad people, great people. And that is my nutrition."

"For my university and for entrepreneurs, the reason we are there is because we need to know about other people. But more importantly, we need to know about ourselves. We need to know how imperative it is to learn from the great people."

Mind your manners

There's still a vast cultural divide between Chinese and Western businesses, says Ma. And for both sides, there's a lot to learn about each other.

"China emphasizes that harmony gives you fortune. And in Western culture, competition makes you better," explains Ma. "But without the communication or respect and appreciation of others, you only have trouble and conflict on your hands."

"Westerners need to know China focuses on wisdom, but the Western world focuses on knowledge."

For Chinese people doing business abroad, Ma urges a diplomatic approach: "Chinese kids seldom say thank you and excuse me or sorry or please. We need to pick up our manners. Otherwise, conflict between China and the rest of the world will arise and we will have more conflicts and frictions."

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