By Amy Wilkinson
Jack Ma was an English teacher of modest means in the southern Chinese province of Hangzhou. He had little business experience and few connections in the Chinese government. Yet he launched a new kind of Internet company that became the $216 billion market behemoth Alibaba—the world’s largest business-to-business e-commerce marketplace.
What made it possible for a teacher in rural China to create a whole new way for his country’s small business owners to gain access to the international marketplace? People often point to entrepreneurs’ resources and personal connections but Jack Ma had neither.
Or consider Elon Musk, a South African-born entrepreneur who dropped out of his Stanford PhD program just two days after he began it to launch the first in a rapid succession of ground-breaking companies. How, by his early 40s, could Musk have created an online currency, designed and built an electric car, created a rocket company?
I would argue that Ma and Musk, and others like them, have a certain sensibility that strengthens their ability to identify gaps and opportunities. They see what others don’t.
Entrepreneurial alertness is one way to describe it.
Jack Ma and Elon Musk saw what was missing and built new solutions to fill the void.
They are Architects: blank-sheet-of-paper creators who design and build new models from the ground up.
Just as professional architects who design tall buildings work within environmental and logistical constraints, Architects deal with individual components of projects, striving to understand how each element builds upon the next. They listen for silence and pay attention to what others have overlooked. Jack Ma focused on a part of the Chinese market that was of little interest to others at the time. In 1998, on a business trip to Seattle, Ma first saw a computer connected to the Web. On a whim he typed-in “beer” as a search term. The search engine returned sites from all around the world…except for China. He searched again, this time trying “Chinese beer.” Still nothing. In a flash of insight, Ma recognized that China’s small and medium-sized businesses were invisible on the Internet. They were not there. And he saw what a huge untapped opportunity that represented.
Ma decided to test his hunch. He posted an advertisement for the English-to-Chinese translation service he had developed while teaching English at Hangzhou Teachers College. With some help, he posted a one-page site featuring the name of the service, a price list, and contact information. The site went up at 9:30 A.M. and by 5 P.M. he had received 5 emails. This was enough to convince him that he was on to something.
At the time Ma was getting started, only large Chinese companies had clear sales channels to the international market. Ma knew that four-fifths of China’s companies were small and medium-sized, and they faced tremendous obstacles without a means to connect with each other or the outside world. The beauty of Alibaba was that it provided visibility to smaller players.
By the end of 2001, the Alibaba China “Supplier Club” had topped one million, making it the largest B2B Web site in the world in terms of members. In 2004, at an Alibaba conference, Yahoo’s co-founder Jerry Yang noted, “this is the first time I have even heard people talking about ‘Net business.’ America doesn’t really have this. I myself had not appreciated the usefulness of the Internet as a tool for small and medium sized enterprises to transact business.” (end)
Amy Wilkinson is a strategic adviser, entrepreneur, and lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.