Five things studying Jack Ma taught us about entrepreneurship

Jack Ma has been characterized as the symbol of China’s rise to No. 1 in Internet and mobile phone users. He is founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, whose IPO in New York in 2014 set a record as the world’s biggest public stock offering.

NGU Cover_webOver the past two years, my co-editor Bob Song and I have been working on our book Never Give Up: Jack Ma In His Own Words, a collection of inspiring quotations from Jack Ma that is forthcoming from Agate B2 in July.

Both of us live in different cities and countries — Bob is in Beijing and I am in New York.

When we first came up with the idea for this book, we did not realize how challenging the time difference and distance would make the writing process.

As it turned out, Bob and I often had to collaborate as we crisscrossed the globe. Somehow we found a way to work out the time difference and distance between us through emails, Skype, and WeChat (Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp). The combination of all these communications could be a book by itself.

Throughout the experience we learned several points about entrepreneurship while working on the book.

  1. Have a sense of humor while surviving on five hours of sleep.

We would not recommend that you survive on only five hours of sleep, but sometimes you do what you must. Bob and I got the idea for this book when we met at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair. Somehow the conversation drifted to books and how there is so little literature on Chinese entrepreneurs. I suggested to Bob that we write one together. Both of us have been in the publishing business for a long time, so I guess it’s not surprising that we would eventually work on a book ourselves.

Bob has been an independent publisher in China since 2014, a unique and challenging enterprise. Between our day time jobs and this wonderful project from which we have learned so much, some days we survived on five hours of sleep or less.

It was a good thing both Bob and I have a good sense of humor. Although I have to say Bob has much more patience than me, since I always wanted everything done yesterday (that’s the New Yorker in me).

  1. Do your homework, but allow your imagination to soar.

During the first couple of months, Bob and I spent many hours discussing how to shape the book and tell the story of Jack Ma, even though our publisher gave us some strict guidelines.

We did not want the book to simply be a collection of quotes — we wanted Jack Ma’s words to tell his story, from the beginning to the present day. Moreover, we wanted to show a three-dimensional character, one who has inspired so many small- and medium-business owners both in China and across the globe.

We both spent hundreds of hours reading and watching interviews with Jack Ma, and it didn’t take use long to realize that Jack Ma is not your ordinary CEO. As an American, I had little idea who Jack Ma was — other than a successful Chinese entrepreneur — before I started this book.

We decided to organize the chapters in such a way that allows Jack Ma to reveal himself on a deeper level. In a sense, the quotes were designed to mimic a running monologue. Here I have to mention that my background in English literature and Chinese opera was an influence. I was trained to play attention to the story, the characters and their interior world. We hope that our book has achieved this.

  1. Overcome the challenges of working in virtual time by clearly establishing each partner’s responsibilities and deadlines.

Bob and I spent many hours in virtual time together, since neither of us were in the same country or time zones. To organize our workflow, I drew on my 20-plus years of experience in managing international teams and working across many continents and cultures.

Even though we wrote to each other via email and WeChat, we recognized that at certain stages of the process, it was important to speak and listen to each other’s thoughts and comments in real time. I think this is very important for any entrepreneurs working remotely with partners.

We took care to clearly divide our responsibilities. Like Jack Ma, we made some mistakes in the beginning, but we learned from our mistakes. 

  1. Be patient and be prepared for the lonely journey as an entrepreneur.

When Suk suggested we publish an English book about Jack Ma, I was very excited. Initially, we had to overcome each other’s cultural differences and learn to be patient with each other.

Even though Suk is of Chinese descent and can read and speak Mandarin, her thought process and actions are very American, since she grew up in the United States. We learned to respect other’s values and time. When my family was sleeping, I was working on this book. So it is lonely to be an entrepreneur at times. Jack Ma’s experience has affected us. We hope more readers will learn from Jack Ma that any individual without any resources can achieve their dream.

  1. Learning from your subject matter.

After almost two years of living and breathing this book, Bob and I have learned many lessons from Jack’s quotes. For example, one has to have a dream, pursue it and never give up. Like Jack Ma, we did not have investors when we started this venture or when Bob decided to be an independent publisher in China, but we both have our dreams.

Bob visited Jack’s personal club, the Tai Chi Zen Institute in Hangzhou, where Alibaba is headquartered. He met with Jack’s assistant, James Chen. Being Bob, he couldn’t resist and touched the same hammer that Jack Ma used at the New York Stock Exchange IPO. Who knows but maybe one day we both will be striking that NYSE bell.

Bob believes the United States is a great melting pot with people of so many nationalities and tolerance for each other. He has visited the United States 10 times during the last three years and is deeply impressed by the country.

We leave readers with this quote from Jack Ma:

Have a Dream

No matter what, you must have a dream. This is the best working capital to start with.

Second, keep at it. There may be smarter people and more industrious people, but why did we succeed and make money when others didn’t? We kept at it. Others didn’t see a future for the Internet, or the value in search engines, e-commerce, or a B2B network.

While others went bankrupt, we kept at it. . . . Not thinking they’d find another job anyway, our employees stayed on and muddled through until we all became much better.

—Hangzhou Network Operators Meeting, Sept. 15, 2007

Suk Lee and Bob Song are co-editors of  Never Give Up: Jack Ma In His Own Words, a collection of the thoughts and opinions of Jack Ma, the charismatic founder of the Alibaba Group and arguably the most prominent figure in the global tech world over the past 20 years. Despite Ma’s massive influence in China and in the global tech world, his remarkable story is relatively unknown to the American public.