How Jack Ma Overcame His 7 Biggest Failures
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
This column originally published on May 31, 2016.
Jack Ma turns 52 on Sept. 10, 2016, and is currently worth $27.9 billion. Yet Ma once made $12 per month as an English teacher (though he was still happy).
His achievements are practically unbelievable considering his meager, humble beginnings. Along the way, he failed more times (and more spectacularly) than most of us could stomach in a lifetime.
Here are seven ways Ma experienced soul-crushing failure, but managed to keep his optimism, just like his hero, Forrest Gump. He...
1. Didn’t give up after failing many exams at school.
Ma was not a good student. In fact, he almost didn’t get into middle school.
"I failed a key primary school test two times, I failed the middle school test three times, I failed the college entrance exam two times…” Ouch. These are things most of us are lucky enough to have never said to our parents.
But surprisingly, Ma’s not alone. There’s a tradition of other great minds, including Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln (along with Forrest Gump) struggled early in life with academics but going on to do great things.
2. Scored 1 out of 120 points on the math portion of his college entrance exam.
Failing is one thing. Getting a score of less than 1 percent on your college entrance exam is something else completely. And it wasn’t because he didn’t have time to prepare. To this day, Ma struggles with mathematics, despite the fact that Alibaba is a tech company.
To quote Ma: “I am not good at math, have never studied management, and still cannot read accounting reports."
But as it turns out, he never needed to be good at math to become a billionaire. Perhaps even more impressive is that he never heard the word “computer” in his childhood.
3. Wasn’t deterred after being rejected from Harvard 10 times.
It’s not so much that being rejected from Harvard 10 times is surprising, it’s that he bothered applying that many times in the first place. What this shows us is that Ma is the paradigm of persistence. “The very important thing you should have is patience.”
He also went to the aptly named Hangzhou Normal University, where he went on to become an English major.
4. Stayed optimistic after being turned down for 30 jobs.
After graduating from college, he applied to 30 different jobs and was subsequently rejected by all of them.
He even applied to be a police officer. But they didn’t even give him the time of day, rejecting him with three simple words: “You’re no good.”
Fortunately, just like his favorite movie hero, Forrest Gump, Ma kept on running. "Today is cruel. Tomorrow is crueler. And the day after tomorrow is beautiful."
5. Was the only interviewee (out of 24) rejected by KFC.
Out of 24 KFC applicants in his pool, 23 were hired. Ma was the only one to be rejected. He attributes this largely to his lack of good looks and short stature.
His wife, Zhang Ying (who married him before he became wealthy), doesn’t mind his appearance. “Ma Yun is not a handsome man, but I fell for him because he can do a lot of things handsome men cannot do.”
6. Couldn’t convince Silicon Valley to fund Alibaba.
Even after he started Alibaba, he suffered multiple failures. It wasn’t profitable the first three years. In the beginning, they expanded too fast and almost imploded when the dot-com bubble burst. At one point, Alibaba was just 18 months away from bankruptcy.
As Ma humbly notes: “I call Alibaba ‘1,001 mistakes.’”
7. Told his 18 Alibaba partners that none of them could be execs.
In one of the worst financial and motivational decisions a CEO can make, Ma told the 18 partners (contributing capital for a total of $60,000 USD), that none could rise higher than the rank of manager. His plan was to instead hire outside managers.
This, he notes, was his biggest mistake ever. “The lessons I learned from the dark days at Alibaba are that you've got to make your team have value, innovation, and vision.”
If at first you don’t succeed...
Jack Ma is a classic rags-to-riches story, but even more impressive than his fabulous wealth is his uncanny level of persistence. He is proof that no series of failures (despite how cripplingly depressing) can keep someone from achieving their dreams.
As Ma says: “If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.”