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Jack Ma’s Secret to Hiring: “It’s Like Fitting a Boeing Engine in a Broken Tractor”

He said to me, ‘Jack, I have never made a plan below $20 million!’

Photo Credit : The Hollywood Reporter,

He has become China’s richest person. But he doesn’t necessarily call himself a tech expert, a marketing guru or even a champion salesman. Yet he was the cornerstone of a company that grew to be big and successful with around 23 billion dollars in revenue last year.

How much bigger can Jack Ma’s company, Alibaba get?

“Compared to yesterday we are a huge company. But to the future we are still a baby. We are only 18 years old. And also, I don’t want to take credit for it. It’s the team. It’s the technology of internet and the consumer demand, especially the young consumers that make these big developments possible. And I think we will continue to grow, no problem with that. This is not because we are smart. It’s because the market [demand] is rising,” Ma said in an interview once.

He takes business seriously but Ma is not a man to take himself very seriously. At the celebration of Alibaba’s 18th birthday, Ma dressed up as Michael Jackson and even rocked out some groovy Jackson moves to the mirth and applause of his company’s team members. “No matter how successful you are - a politician or a scientist, or a professor, you are human. So I always try to be myself.’’ Ma has a set a mandate for himself, “For every anniversary I have to perform for my colleagues. I will do anything to keep them happy. If they are happy, I am happy.   

In addition to doing anything to keep his team happy, Ma has endeavoured to make a good team. “Try to build a good team,” Ma implored to a conference audience all ears for his wise words.

What does a good team mean?

“A good team does not mean you hire excellent people from Harvard of from multinational [companies] or from a hot Fortune 500 company. I remember when we raised the first $5 million. We thought, ‘Ha, now we have money.’ We had, after all gone from $50,000 to $5 million, so we thought we should hire great people.

We hired close to ten excellent vice presidents from many multinational companies. One of the guys who was a marketing expert and vice president of a big company gave me a business plan for $12 million. And I said, ‘Hey! We only have $5 million! How could you give me a business plan for next year’s marketing budget at $12 million?

He said to me, ‘Jack, I [have] never made [a] plan below $20 million!’

Our take away from that ancedote? In Ma’s own words, “Hire the right people, not necessarily the best people. And the best way to have the best [or right] people is if you train them yourself. There’s no ‘best people’ in the market. The best people for you are always the ones you train yourself. So if you hire the people who are very good, but not suitable for you, it’s just like putting a Boeing 747 engine into a poor tractor. Neither of them are happy; the engine’s not happy, the poor tractor’s not happy. So find the right people.”

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