Q&A with Suk Lee and Bob Song, editors of Never Give Up: Jack Ma In His Own Words

Jack Ma is not your average business leader. He started his first Internet company with no knowledge of computer coding. Now, he runs a multi-billion dollar business that in 2014 conducted more online transactions than Amazon and eBay combined. Despite his substantial influence in China, and a net worth estimated to be north of $21 billion, Ma’s remarkable story is generally unknown to the American public.

In Never Give Up: Jack Ma In His Own Words, Suk Lee and Bob Song have collected Ma’s thoughts on business, leadership, innovation, and much more. To celebrate the book’s publication, we are sharing a Q&A with the editors.

What business insight will readers learn from Jack Ma that they won’t hear from any other business leader?

Jack is a successful Chinese entrepreneur and he changed the e-commerce world in China. Before Alibaba, Chinese small- and medium-business owners were limited in their ability to connect and sell to other businesses and consumers. Jack has enabled millions of people worldwide to conduct e-commerce with each other, whether it’s business-to-business or business-to-customer transactions. Also, Chinese culture and values gave Jack Ma a different perspective and insight on business. For example, the following quote tells the readers about Jack’s tai chi philosophy:

“I love tai chi. Tai chi is a philosophy. [It’s] about yin and yang. Tai chi is about how you balance . . . I use tai chi philosophy in business to calm down. There is always a way out and to keep yourself balanced. Competition is fun. Business is not like a battlefield where you die and I win. In business, even if you die, I may not win.”

—interview with Charlie Rose, World Economic Forum, January 23, 2015

We selected many great quotes that readers outside of China may have never heard or read. In fact, the business philosophy of Jack is a great combination of Chinese culture, Japanese theory, and American science. We hope to share with readers the wisdom of the East, which has thousands of years of history. Jack Ma exemplifies this wisdom through his thinking and his quotes.

Did you learn anything surprising about Jack Ma while researching this book?

Bob visited Jack’s personal club, Tai Chi Zen Institute, and met with Jack’s assistant, Mr. James Chen, on the afternoon of September 1, 2015 in Hangzhou. When Bob entered the room he saw thousands of Jack Ma’s Chinese books on the table. Bob found out that 20,000 copies were sold out in only one hour at Taobao.com, which is the biggest B2C e-commerce platform in the world. That’s when Bob realized just how influential Jack Ma was to Chinese citizens.

In researching for this book, Suk saw many videos of interviews with Jack Ma. During one interview, Jack Ma was dressed up as a drag queen, and he performed in front of his employees at one of the big Alibaba anniversaries. The performance showed that Jack Ma can make fun of himself, and she knew right away that he is not your typical CEO.

What can current and future business entrepreneurs learn from Jack Ma?

It is Jack Ma’s integral belief that clients come first, employees second, and shareholders third. In the West, it is usually the other way around. Jack says this belief should become a universal value. The Hong Kong Stock Exchange could not accept this belief. Alibaba decided to pass on the HKSE and instead listed on New York Stock Exchange in 2014. Current and future business entrepreneurs can learn about company priority from Jack Ma: clients first, employees second and shareholders last.

In 2014, Alibaba’s online transactions totaled more than those of Amazon and eBay combined. Why do you think Jack Ma’s story is relatively unknown in the United States?

In the Chinese market, we can find about 600 titles on Jack Ma. In America, we can find about 10 titles on Jack Ma. Our book, Never Give Up, is a comprehensive history of Jack Ma’s quotes from the founding of the company to now. We hope our book will give readers a better understanding of Jack Ma’s philosophy. Jack is helping millions of small-and medium-sized enterprises—including American businesses—develop business with China. In the next 20 years, China will have 300 million to 500 million middle-class citizens, which means Chinese consumers will become more important even outside China since this middle class will generate demand in every area. In the past, Alibaba has not directly impacted the lives of many American citizens. People in the United States may hear business stories about how much revenue Alibaba Group generates or how wealthy Jack Ma is, but because Alibaba is not, for example, competing directly with Amazon, Google, or eBay in the United States, they don’t think about it much. If and when Alibaba’s plans to help more and more American small businesses sell to Chinese customers start to take effect, the United States will start to better understand the power of Alibaba.

What will be readers’ greatest takeaway from Never Give Up?

The title says it all. “Never give up” is one of Jack Ma’s most famous quotes. Throughout his life, he experienced many failures and learned from them. We leave the reader with this quote:

Five years ago, my colleagues and I wanted to create the world’s greatest company. Many thought such talk was mad. But no matter what was said, my dream to create such a company didn’t change.

In the Internet recession of 2001–02 we talked only about ‘surviving.’ Even if all the other Internet companies died, we had to survive. And we did so only by refusing to give up, by believing in our dream. This incessant effort and constant ability to learn from our mistakes led to success. While today is tough, tomorrow can be even tougher. However the day after tomorrow may be beautiful. But too many will give up after tough times on the eve of tomorrow night. Therefore, never give up today!”

—receiving Economic Person of the Year in China Award, CCTV-2, December 28, 2004

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