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No Silicon Valley, No Alibaba

Ma began his Stanford University talk by acknowledging how his Silicon Valley days encouraged him to pursue a career as an internet entrepreneur: “The street lights in Silicon Valley and the late night conversations in restaurants energized me.” Inspired by the tech boom, Ma returned to his hometown of Hangzhou to follow his dream in the mid-1990s.

At first Ma faced lots of skepticism, as people did not believe that e-commerce would be successful in China where a credit system had not been developed so consumers didn’t have access to the credit cards that made conducting transactions online so easy in the U.S. Despite the initial setbacks, Ma built Alibaba into one of the largest internet companies in China.

“No Money, No Technology, and No Plan”

These are the three reasons that Ma offered for Alibaba’s success. When he first arrived in Hangzhou, Ma was an English teacher with limited wealth and resources, but he had a vision of creating a company that would “make it easy to do business anywhere in the world.” He and his cash-strapped team thought carefully about the most innovative and cost-effective ways to build the business of their dreams.

Ma noted that he never wrote a single line of code at Alibaba. He believes that it is because of his non-technical background that he was able to understand the usability and functionality of Alibaba’s products from the customer’s perspective. Ma believes that to lead a technology company, one doesn’t necessarily have to have technology skills, but one must respect them.

Ma stated that “he doesn’t make plans,” explaining Alibaba’s constant readiness to adapt to technological advances. Since Alibaba’s inception, Ma always encouraged his employees to embrace change. Ma advised business students not to stick to their business plans, as the world is fast changing and effective global leaders must know how to manage the fast turnover of technology and the turn of events.

China in the Next 30 Years

China will experience tremendous changes in the next 30 years. The Chinese economy will transition from selling to the world to selling to a major domestic consumer market. Technology will play an even more important role as it continues to touch almost every aspect of people’s lives. Additionally, mobile will potentially become a bigger market than PCs in China. The next wave of mobile penetration will come from the second and third-tier cities that have relatively low computer penetration rates.

“But change creates opportunities for ordinary people like you and me,” noted Ma. The significant changes in China will offer young people opportunities to shine as technology has leveled the playing field. It is against this transformative context that Alibaba will continue to stay true to its original mission of making business easy anywhere in the world”.

Ma argued, “In the industrial age, winning was determined by size and depth; in the information and technology era, it is ruled by innovation and individualism”.

As Ma concluded his talk, he shared his final insights with the assembled Stanford students and Silicon Valley professionals: “Once in your life, try something. Work hard at something. Try to change. Nothing bad can happen.”

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