E-commerce giant Alibaba is one of the dominant players in its native China, with interests far beyond its original remit. But its story was not plain sailing: in the early days of China’s experiment with the internet, the prize was clear but the path was tough; at a recent conference chairman Jack Ma shared lessons from the frontline.

Following a trip to the US in the mid-90s, Ma returned to China with the idea of building a company on the internet, which in 1999, when the company began, barely existed. He explained that, despite financial and structural struggles, “we believed that the internet would change China,” and by extension, the world.

“We believed if we don't succeed, somebody will. But if we started now and were smart enough, finding the right people to do the right things, we will win,” Ma explained. (For an in-depth report, read WARC’s feature: Five tips from Alibaba’s Jack Ma on being a ‘brand entrepreneur’)

“Nobody's expert of the future”, Ma said, expanding on the ideas that got him and his company to where they’re at now. “We’re all human beings - we only have the experts of yesterday. But we should always think about the future. There's very little we can do to change yesterday, there's very little we can do to change today. But there's a lot of things we can do to change tomorrow. If we do a little bit today, we can change the future,” he said. 

Make it easy

“If I can use it, a lot of people can use it,” Ma joked. He is not a “technical guy” but a user of technology: like many of his customers he has needs and no matter how excited the designer or engineer might be about their breakthrough, if it doesn’t solve a customer problem, then it’s no good. Making life easier for customers is a precept throughout Alibaba, he claims.

“Everything we do is trying to make sure small businesses (find it) easy to do business. That it’s easy to access finance, easy to do logistics, and easy to find buyers and supplies. That is what we do.”

Make the customer happy

It is a truism, but one often ignored in the face of internal machinations. Ma echoed the mantra of another e-commerce giant, namely one Jeff Bezos who famously used an old door as a desk because a new one wouldn’t necessarily bring customers value.

“I talked to all my people in the early days, and I said: don’t make me happy, make your customer happy. Make your customer love you and I will love you every minute. That is very simple. Everything I do as a founder is to make the customer happy and make the team happy,” Ma said.

Sourced from WARC