The story of how Alibaba founder Jack Ma became one of China's most successful businessmen sounds like it was lifted straight from a Hollywood movie. Ma grew up in Hangzhou, China, earned a modest income as a schoolteacher, and founded two unsuccessful companies before striking it rich as the founder of China's largest e-commerce company.
"Jack is an entrepreneur's entrepreneur," Duncan Clark, the author of the forthcoming book, Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built (Ecco, 2016), toldThe New York Times in a recent interview. "He's not a tech guy, he didn't go to Harvard, he even once supplemented his income as an English teacher by buying and selling plastic carpets on the streets."
The rag-to-riches story may seem tried and true, but it's very different from the one that seems to be told over and over again to aspiring American tech entrepreneurs. That is, follow in the footsteps of Mark Zuckerberg: Go to college, take a few tech classes, drop out, and move to Silicon Valley to get your company up and running. And don't forget to pack plenty of hoodies.
"Zuckerberg has a tech background [and] leveraged that and good timing while at Harvard to build a massive and almost global social business," Clark says.
Clark concedes that Ma's lack of tech skills means that he has faced a somewhat uphill battle while building Alibaba, which runs several e-commerce platforms such as Tmall, its online shopping mall where businesses sell their products directly to consumers. It's even more critical that Ma (who still doesn't know how to code) hires wisely, because he has to rely on colleagues with a tech background to bring his ideas into reality.
But Clark says that what Ma lacks in tech skills he makes up for in charisma. He's relied on outrageous appearances, such as singing The Lion King's theme song at an event for company employees, and presiding over mass weddings at Alibaba's headquarters to promote the brand and introduce Alibaba to customers outside of China.
Ma has also been able to stay on the good side of Chinese authorities, who keep a tight leash on businesses not run by the government, even as they become less wary of capitalism.
"If anything, he has positioned Alibaba as a useful ally as the government attempts to put Chinese consumers in the driving seat," Clark tells the Times.
But Ma's high profile means that if he screws up, Alibaba could take a serious hit and face the wrath of the Chinese government. It's why Clark says that the last chapter of his book on Ma is: "Icon or Icarus."