How Failures Made Jack Ma Rich and Successful

Billionaire. Investor. Philanthropist. Those three defining words shed light on Jack Ma. Today, he is getting attention for the wrong reasons but let’s take a step back and focus on his road to success. Not everyone could pull what he did and become one of the richest men in China. Many can say that he made the largest impact on China’s economy. He forever changed the country’s internet industry. For those who are not familiar with his name, he is the founder of Alibaba. It is the biggest e-commerce platform in China. According to Forbes, his real-time net worth is $61.6 billion. You’d think the journey to a billionaire for Jack was simple. Was it handed over to him? Not really. Luck? Maybe.

In 1964, Jack Ma was born as “Ma Yun” to poor parents whose professions were musicians and storytellers. He lived in Hangzhou and it was a time when China was still in its communist era. Like most Chinese families, they did not have much and were not exposed to the rest of the world. His favorite subject was English and one of his first jobs was to give out free city tours to foreigners. His inspiration for doing so came after Richard Nixon visited Hangzhou. Tourism trickled into this south-eastern city. This gave him the chance to practice and improve his English speaking skills. Eventually, he graduated with an English degree at Hangzhou’s Teacher’s Institute. His first pay as an English teacher was a meager sum of $12 per month.

Jack Ma happened to be at the right place at the right time. It happened in the mid-90s. The internet was gaining popularity among households. After a business visit to the United States, he was exposed to the internet for the very first time. There, he recognized that the internet possessed a lot of potential for business. While doing some research, he recognized that China was nowhere to be seen. He did something that no one thought of doing at that time. He decided to put China on the map by creating a website with the help of a friend. The internet would know more about China with a little bit of its information.

This certainly caught the eye of Chinese investors. They pursued what he was doing. Starting with $USD 20,000, this company was known to the public as ‘Chinese pages’. They focused on assisting companies when it came to website creation. Three years later, the same company made $USD800,000. Things seem to fall into place when he made the head of an information technology company. Moving on, he quit his job. With the help of his friends, they founded a startup in his apartment. It would grow into a household name of Alibaba. It served as China’s very first business-to-business marketplace website. Here, exporters were able to post their product listings. Customers who showed interest reached out to them and made the necessary purchases.

Before that success happened, he experienced a lot of obstacles along the way. You could say that he was the king of rejections.

1. Rejections Make Us Stronger

  • He failed a total of 8 examinations in his elementary (2), middle (3), and university (3)
  • He applied for 30 jobs including KFC, hotel, and the police force – and got rejected by all
  • He was rejected 10 times by Harvard
  • 2 of his business ventures failed

You would never imagine that these occurrences happened. Or it paved the way to becoming a billionaire. An ordinary person would have simply given up. Many would have said he was a loser. Others wouldn’t expect much of him. There’s one thing we can learn from this extraordinary man himself. It’s to never be afraid of rejection. He never stopped trying. As a teacher by profession, he never stopped learning. Because of his resilience, he recognized a business opportunity. He preyed on it.

Aside from Alibaba, he founded Alipay (one of the digital payments used in Alibaba. Think PayPal!) in 2003. When it hadn’t materialized yet, many people thought it was the most ridiculous idea. His persistence paid off. That’s because he pushed through. Alipay now has more than 500 million users! If he had listened to them, Alipay would not have come into existence. Otherwise, someone else would’ve beaten him with the same idea.

We should learn to accept rejections, not as obstacles. Rather, it’s an opportunity to improve ourselves even further. If our business ideas get rejected, it’s a chance to improve them even further. Or we just need to recognize there must be a better opportunity out there. We just haven’t seen it yet.

The biggest failure is to give up. Whether you achieve your goal in the end, you will pick up valuable information and skills along the way. You, as a person, will learn so much. The best way you can learn is to overcome challenges and obstacles.

2. Attitude + Skills + Passion = Success

Instead of learning everything on his own, he’s the kind of guy who hires people for their skills. Especially the ones that he doesn’t have. He hires employees who have far better skills than him. He knows for a fact that they can get the job done and better than anyone else. With the right kind of employees, you can achieve and towards a shared vision. He believes workers should have the right attitude and driven passion.

Would you believe this billionaire found Alibaba at the age of 31 years old? He achieved success without having to sell something to someone or writing a single code. Yet, his e-commerce company is worth much more than Facebook. You may or may not know that Alibaba processes more goods than eBay and Amazon combined! With global sales, they are second behind Walmart. Not bad for a company that started in Jack Ma’s apartment in China, right?

This man believes that all leaders should own foresight, intuition, and tenacity. When someone has all these qualities, they can always be one step ahead of everyone else. They should be able to weigh out their decisions and foresee what the consequences are. By doing so, they can have a better advantage.

When a true leader sticks to a clear vision, there is simply no stopping him or her. They will not take no for an answer. Instead, they will find creative ways to work around any problem. United by a common goal, it will inspire others to do the same.

If there is one takeaway we can absorb from Jack Ma, it would be this:

“On the MBAs at a lot of business schools they teach people a lot of skills on how to run business and make money. I want to tell people that if you want to run a business, you have to run the value first. Serve the others, help the others, that’s the key. This is the way to run business in the 21st Century.”

Many people look up to Jack Ma because of his practicality when it comes to business. He truly believes in helping other people and their businesses, allowing them to stand on their own. If he focused on accumulating wealth, he would not have retired from his position as CEO at Alibaba Group. At the moment, he is proud of Jack Ma Foundation, a fruit of his labors. This philanthropic organization focuses on four core pillars:

  • Education
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Medical and Environmental Protection
  • Women’s Leadership

3. Stop Complaining

“We keep fighting. We keep changing ourselves. We don’t complain.”

Jack Ma learned a lot from people’s complaints. He observed that some complaint a lot but never do anything about it. However, the game changers are those who try to do something about it. Once there’s a complaint, the best way to overcome this is to change the existing situation so that you can move on. Once it has been fixed, they pick up something meaningful from the experience. Like, “Oh, it was that simple!” or “Hey, I can start getting the hang of this!” which will lead to satisfactory results. Jack advises everyone to stop complaining and look for opportunities instead. They can be found anywhere if you just know where to look.

“If we want to change the world, we change ourselves. Changing ourselves is more important, and easier.”

Are we guilty of complaining? If you answered yes, then this is the right time to stop and start doing something about them. It’s a skill if we can listen and observe. It’s because these complaints can be disguised as real opportunities. Once you recognize them, don’t be afraid to take charge. After all, this could lead you to something bigger, bolder, and better!

This video is his advice for young people:

4. Customer is King

“Customer, number one; employee, number two; shareholder, number three.”

Jack Ma stuck to this philosophy which he believes made his company successful. He truly emphasizes that customers are the number one priority. That’s because they are the ones bringing revenue to the company. Next on the list are the employees who are bringing innovation. As for shareholders, they were the first ones to sell when times came tough. It can be best summarized in Jack Ma’s quote:

“When the crisis came they run away. My people stayed. Customers stayed.”

In reality, you will never be able to please every person you encounter in life. You also won’t be able to convince everyone to invest in you. Jack Ma says that’s okay. If tradition tells you to quit, he’ll tell you that anyone can change their approach.

5. Enjoy Life

“My religion is helping small businesses. It is an honor. We would focus on helping people, helping others, and then people would help us.”

After achieving so much success in his life, it is time for him to enjoy life. He finds contentment in helping others to succeed. Just like a teacher, he acts as a guide and facilitator in aiding others to achieve success as well.

He also reveals that one of his biggest secrets is that culture is his core competency:

“My core competence is culture. Working hard on the vision, mission, and values of our company. We believe in helping others rather than just making money.”

According to Jack Ma, success comes when culture becomes the main focus. When everyone sticks to a company’s mission and values, it will lead you to the right path. Once this has been achieved, the money will follow afterward.

Others may be obsessed with making more and more money, but not him. Money was never his ultimate goal in life even if he came from a simple background. He was interested in business opportunities that helped others making business others. He turned down plenty of offers that promised him a lot of money.


We can learn so much from this billionaire who came from humble beginnings. Jack Ma went through so many failures in his life yet he persevered until the very end. He became resourceful and made the most out of what he had. If he hadn’t gone through what he went through, things would be different. He might not have been standing tall today as one of the richest Chinese billionaires. If it weren’t for him, it would’ve been someone else walking in those shoes. We would not have learned who Jack Ma was.

There came a time when no one believed in him. That’s why you need to believe in yourself, your vision, and your goals. If you don’t believe in them, no one else will do. Don’t start with something small. Dream big. It will be your dream that will keep you alive. Are you ready to make your vision, goals, and dreams a reality? Make it into reality by starting today with small steps.

“Go big or go home.”

Share with us what you think about Jack Ma’s story and the components that made him successful. What can you change today to reach out to tomorrow’s goals?


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