Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma was in São Paulo, Brazilthis week for the inaugural meeting of the NETmundial Initiative, a group of global Internet stakeholders. During his flight home, the well-known Chinese billionaire said some of the people he met during his recent travels inspired him to jot down some thoughts for entrepreneurs who are facing hard times. Here’s a translation of his notes, which Ma originally shared via Laiwang, Alibaba’s chat app:
I am often asked the same question lately: “It is getting harder and harder to do business now, will I still make money if I open a store on Taobao?” A lot of people see others making money on Taobao Marketplace as effortless, while they fail to make a dime, and they want to quit. They wonder if they started their businesses too late.
Actually, it has never been easy to do business! Entrepreneurs have to put in relentless effort to succeed. They spend day and night worrying about this and that. They sacrifice time with their friends and families. Their effort might simply be fruitless. When people say it is easy to do business, they are just bragging. You have to take all kinds of risks at all times. It requires wholehearted devotion both physically and mentally. To be rich overnight only exists in TV dramas. You need to devote time and effort in order to establish a successful business. Spending time and energy doesn’t guarantee success, but you can never succeed otherwise.
Opening a Taobao store is no different. In fact, not many store owners have survived for the entire 13 years of Taobao’s existence. It was very difficult to open a store in the early days. Online shoppers were rare, delivery was inefficient and payment was challenging. Those from the brick-and-mortar stores thought those who tried the online platform were absurd. It is strange that people who wanted to be rich overnight all gave up or closed their stores. But those who took an interest in running stores and communicating with customers succeeded. Many of them, who started from one employee, are now managing hundreds of employees.
The first element of this kind of success is to have wholehearted devotion. You must be passionate about what you are doing. Because when you have a heart for your own products and services, and you receive positive feedback from your customers, you will be grateful, and you will communicate with them with passion and patience. I believe people who often feel gratitude towards others are better prepared to succeed. It doesn’t matter if you fail at first, what really matters is the people who are interested in your products and services.
The second element for success is to put your brain to work. Once you have decided what to do, you need to consider carefully how to do it. It is vital for small enterprises to find their own unique qualities—to be different and to have fun while developing your business, in order to create connections with your customers. Doing business is not simply about buying and selling, it is about creating and exploring the same set of values shared with your customers. Finding a customer who likes your products is as valuable as finding a soul mate. Aren’t you grateful and excited to have found a soul mate?
The third element is to devote time, energy and physical strength to your business. Most exemplary entrepreneurs find ways to improve their products and services wherever and whenever they are. They grab every opportunity and every minute to listen to their customers and their employees. They learn from their mistakes. They find hope when they are desperate and they find opportunities in their worries. Over the years, many said Taobao was simply lucky and it is true that there were elements of luck in its success. However, we are where we are today because we woke up early, we got off late and we did not sleep like a log, and we had much shorter holidays. We struggled day and night and picked ourselves up from disappointments and frustration.
So is business easy on Taobao today? The answer is a definite “no.” But you would not find a better place than Taobao. Hundreds of millions of online shoppers visit Taobao every year. If you find the right customer, you must ask yourself whether you have worked your body and your brain hard enough. In the past you were doing businesses for twenty-plus people and now you are facing the country’s consumers and the global market. So the question is, are your products and services unique enough? Can you identify your soul mates among the hundreds of millions of consumers? How do you create customer loyalty among your soul mates?
When Taobao Marketplace was first established, we hoped that it would bring happiness to all. Selling goods is happiness. When you have problems selling your products, finding the right customers will bring happiness upon you.
From day one, Taobao Marketplace was not designed to run like a shopping mall or a supermarket. Instead, we are creating a lifestyle shared among young people via the shopping experience. It is this very reason that people go to Starbucks for the experience and not the coffee. It is a lifestyle. Expensive clothes aren’t made for keeping people warm, it is a way of life.
Taobao Marketplace is bringing innovation, originality and creativity to life. You can find almost everything on Taobao. From what I have seen, many successful Taobao merchants are the quirky ones who treat their businesses as their hobbies. They see their businesses as an enjoyable way of communication. If no one is buying, it means you are doing it wrong. It is simply ridiculous if you think you can find soul mates by dumping cash on marketing. You need to spend, but using your creativity to upgrade your services is key.
The era of e-commerce has just begun. In the next three decades, it will take off. In the future you might not be selling real goods, but you will be using your creativity and originality, your hopes and dreams, to find not your customers but your soul mates. What you need to learn is not how to do business, but how to find the new way of life. You are not managing a business, you are becoming your better self.
The world is vast and e-commerce still has another 30 years. Let’s try it out. What if you manage to find your soul mates? It is OK if we aren’t loaded with cash. We just need to find friends who recognize us.