Alibaba's Jack Ma still doesn't know how to code. But the charismatic founder does know a few things about perseverance. From convincing China the Internet was real to building Alibaba into an e-commerce giant with $23 billion in 2016 revenue, Ma has shouldered past ample adversity.
Ma spoke with Charlie Rose Tuesday at Alibaba's Gateway '17 conference in Detroit about his journey, and had some advice for entrepreneurs--both those hoping to break into the Chinese market and in general.
Here are five key takeaways from the Alibaba founder:
1. People need to trust you.
From employees to investors, the people who put everything on the line for you, must trust you. Ma said that trust was an integral part of Alibaba's success. "It's the trust that makes us united," he told Rose, "18 [investors] trusted me. And because they trusted me, I have to be very loyal to them and loyal to the mission that we have."
Ma said this trust in him and the mission of the company is the most valuable thing he could have--going as far as saying he would take the trust over $1 million.
2. Forget the competition. Focus on your customers.
Ma isn't really worried about Alibaba's competition. Everything Alibaba does, he said, depends on the needs of customers. The reasoning is simple: to sustain in the long term, customer satisfaction should be at the crux of your decision-making. "If our customers say 'Jack you should build more warehouses,'" Ma explained, "We build warehouses. We do it not because there is money; we do it because it is necessary."
When asked who he saw as Alibaba's competitor, Ma said he didn't know. "As entrepreneurs, don't look at your neighbor Tom as a competitor," he said. "Do not focus your eyes on the competitor. You are too small to focus on your neighbor or competitor. Focus on your customers. Making your customers happy is important."
3. Think of your business in global terms.
For Ma, the future is global. He believes small businesses should operate internationally to survive in the long term. "If you do not try to globalize your business through the Internet, you may not have a business opportunity," Ma said. He argued that local businesses will only get more and more competitive. He encouraged small businesses to think about how they could sell products across the world.
4. Hire young and hire smart.
"When we were young, nobody gave us a chance," Ma said. "Now, we should give young people a chance. Young people do a much better job than we do." He argued that personal legacy should be less important than building a team that will last and giving them a chance to do so. In that same vein, Ma said he hires people smarter than him because he knows it's the best for the company.
5. Just keep going.
Ma's last advice for entrepreneurs reflects his journey with Alibaba: Just keep going. Perseverance, Ma said, is necessary. "Today is very difficult," he told Rose. "Tomorrow is difficult, but the day after tomorrow is very beautiful."