When it comes to small business, Alibaba Group—the hugely popular Chinese e-commerce company—may not be the first business that springs to mind. That is, until you hear its founder and executive chairman Jack Ma speak, as he did during a candid conversation with American Express chairman and chief executive officer Kenneth Chenault about supporting small businesses in America.
“We believe the Internet is a ‘treasure island’ for small business,“ said Ma at the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel Chicago, addressing more than 300 men and women from Chicago’s business community who attended the June 2015 event. “Alibaba is open sesame for small business online.”
Ma was in the U.S. on a mission: to encourage small businesses to use Alibaba’s platforms for selling their goods and services to a global audience. Alibaba’s Chinese retail websites, after all, have 350 million users, with over 100 million shoppers daily, according to Ma.
“This is not a small company,“ Ma explained. “But we are of the small business, by the small business and for the small business.”
During the conversation, both Ma and Chenault shared advice and words of wisdom for small-business owners. Here are the seven things every small-business owner—and prospective small-business owners—should know.
1. Rejection comes with benefits.
When Ma graduated university, he applied to 30 different large companies—and no one would hire him. “After [being] rejected so many times I thought, ‘Wow, maybe God wants me to do something for myself and not work for others.’“ He started a translation agency, earning $50 his first month. Years later, in 1999, he gathered 17 investors in his apartment, explaining to them his vision to use the Internet to help small-business owners sell goods and services. With $50,000, they started Alibaba. Last year, sales reached $390 billion.
2. Get your business global.
Ma emphasized, time and again, the power of the Internet and the demand of the global community—particularly China—for products. “Innovative products and services bring those small and medium-size companies to China,” he said. “I would say China, in the next 20 years, will become the largest importer country in the world. Because China’s resources, the water, the soil, the air, can never support such a huge demand. I think if China still keeps on exporting, we will never see the blue sky in China. We have to leverage the global resources to serve 1.3 billion people.“
3. Don’t wait to innovate.
When people on his team say the company has had a wonderful year, Ma knows it’s time to change: “Repair the roof while there is still sunshine,” he said. “When the company is good, change the company. When the company is in trouble, be careful. Don’t move. Just like if the storm comes, don’t go up and repair the roof.“
“You have to constantly focus on innovation; reinvention is in our DNA,” added Chenault, referencing American Express’ 165-year history. He said complacency is a threat to businesses of all sizes. When a company is at a high point—not a low point—it’s time for change. “When you’re falling off the cliff, you know you’re falling off the cliff. But when you’ve won that victory and everyone is telling you you’re terrific, often you don’t examine and say, ‘What do I need to focus on going forward?’“ Chenault said he challenges the workforce at his company to “Become the company that will put us out of business before our competitors will.”
4. Learn from the failures of others.
It’s all too common to hear about business successes, but for Ma, it’s the mistakes that business owners should really learn from. “A lot of people fail for the same reason. If you know why people fail and you learn [from] that, you can make a correction.“
5. Be passionate.
If you’re just in the business for money, you’re going about it wrong. Ma and Chenault both emphasized the need for passion in what you do, and agreed that that fervor is a hallmark of successful small-business owners. “Small-business owners have passion and they have courage and they have the willingness to strike out on their own,” said Chenault.
“If you talk about money, money, money, nobody wants to make friends with you,“ said Ma. “If you don’t have any friends, you are not making a fortune.”
6. Customers come first.
Business is filled with uncertainty, said Ma, but your focus on the customer should never waiver. “The ones supporting you are not the shareholders. Not government. It’s the customers, the people, the employees,” he said. “Focus on the customer. Focus on making employees happy. And focus on integrity to everything you’re committed. That is the only thing.“
7. Help build strong leaders.
If a business is to continue after the owner has moved on, the younger generations must understand and embrace its vision and values. “Give them the chance to make mistakes. Listen to them. Respect them,” said Ma. “Make sure the young people are not following you, they’re following the vision and value [of the business].“
Chenault added that leadership isn’t based on a system of hierarchy. “It’s based on character and competence and the followership you’re able to build,” he said. “If you have people in the organization that recognize that their job is to lead, you’re going to do incredibly well as an organization.“