Keren Agbonika
10 min readSep 6, 2021



Without Sugarcoats.

Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

Jack is different from most of his Internet billionaire peers. He struggled in

math as a student and wears his ignorance of technology as a badge of honour.

His outsize ambitions and unconventional strategies won him the nickname

“Crazy Jack.” In this post, you will explore a bit of his past and his quirky

personality to learn the method to his madness.

  1. In 2005, Alibaba approached China Post, proposing to work together on eCommerce. But chief strategy officer Zeng Ming recalled, Jack “was laughed at. They told him to stick to his own business. They didn’t believe in express delivery.”

Do not expect everyone to believe in your idea, your business, your plans. Etc. Imagine being mocked at by people who are more experienced than you, this deters the strongest of men. But Jack was not, he knew the huge market in express delivery at the time, and he continued disregarding the mockery.

Have that un-deterring attitude towards scorns and mockery even if it comes from a source you hold high up. All you need is to believe in your idea, your own business, your path, even if made a laughing stock by another. Believe first in what you know, this jeeps you on despite all raving odds. In business, you need a tough skin to survive- Build it!

The best of every man is still a man, do not allow the heights of others to limit you from exceeding that height. There is more out there. Endless. Unlimited. Untapped.

2. Alibaba is attempting to build a whole new competitive playing field by

harnessing data technology, including Big Data — the ability to analyze and

drive business decisions from the huge volumes of information generated

every day on its websites.

The keyword is attempting.

You can start by attempting. You can expand by attempting. You can try out “new and scary” by attempting. You can change course entirely by attempting. You can build that idea into a multimillion-dollar business by attempting. You can make a savoury lasagna by attempting. First, Attempt!

Where I come from, sometimes the instructions for high school and undergraduate levels examination read: Attempt question 1 and three others or Attempt four questions. I interpret this as; write down what you know or what you think you know. Even when you do not know 100%, write what you think is the answer.

Use this logic through life- attempt today. When it seems daunting, rather than holding on till God-knows-when, attempt! If you make mistakes- learn, if it booms- congratulations!

Realistically, you get a more beautiful view of a mountain when you begin your journey towards it compared to its blurry image through your window. Start by attempting! NOW.

3. The iron triangle is a key factor in making Alibaba such a dominant player in China’s e-commerce market. But it is the charisma of the company’s founder — his “Jack Magic” — that bound together with the people and capital who would build on these foundations. Most companies bear the imprint of their founders, but few more than Alibaba. Jack Ma’s outsized influence stems from his passion for teaching.

As the founder of a large business, a small startup, the CEO of an organization, a team leader, you set the atmosphere.

Let me share a story I once read from Strive Masiyiwa with you: When Nelson Mandela was President of South Africa, he came several times to Harare. On one of those occasions, he decided to co-host a Business Breakfast meeting with his host Robert Mugabe at the leading hotel in the city. When Nelson Mandela arrived, he was relaxed and jovial. He went to almost every person and gave them a high five. It was so warm, and beautiful. He beckoned everyone to sit, and he shared a few jokes as he went around.

Robert Mugabe was preceded by heavily armed soldiers who took positions at every corner of the room. Everyone was made to stand as he walked in. An atmosphere of fear quickly filled the room. A few minutes later he walked in surrounded by Secret Service personnel, Robert Mugabe did not greet anyone, except Nelson.

The leader in any vocation sets the tone. As a leader, what kind of tone are you setting? One of love and hospitality? Or one of fear? You hold that power at your disposal to set a healthy atmosphere, as this breeds good fruits. Both in your presence and absence.

4. Jack combines a love of showmanship with a relish for defying stereotypes. Where other business moguls like to talk up their connections or academic credentials, Jack enjoys talking down his own: “I don’t have a rich or powerful father, not even a powerful uncle.” Having never studied abroad, he likes to describe himself as “one hundred per cent Made in China.” He stands out as a tech company founder with no background in technology. At Stanford University in 2013, he confessed: “Even today, I still don’t understand what coding is all about, I still don’t understand the technology behind the Internet.” Jack has made a career out of being underestimated: “I am a very simple guy; I am not smart. Everyone thinks that Jack Ma is a very smart guy. I might have a smart face but I’ve got very stupid brains.”

LOL! So much to say from the founder of one of the top ten most valuable companies in the world, worth almost 300 million dollars as at the time. If I were in Jack Ma shoes, I honestly would not muster the eccentricity to say that of myself, even if it were true. It was false in Jack’s case obviously; I mean look at what he has achieved. Jack once explained that he loves the lead character of the movie Forrest Gump because “people think he is dumb, but he knows what he is doing.” This affirms that you do not always have to stick with the usual pattern or norms of doing things. You do not always have to fit into the approved societal context of business or life in general. You do not always have to walk on other peoples’ paths.

Deviate out from the usual. Try the unusual. Try new strategies which are not in the books, develop your initiative and use it more. Even if it seems stupid. Take the risk.

5. With his tales of overcoming challenges and defying the odds, Jack regularly drives some in his audience to tears, even hardened business executives. After giving a talk to a group of students in South Korea, Jack himself appeared to be consumed by emotion when asked about his biggest regrets in life, replying that he regretted not spending more time with his family. After composing himself, he added, “Normally I make other people cry.”

If I were in that audience, I will shed a tear too. The feelings of regret are strong- stronger than the feelings of buying a new house or car or the latest iPhone immediately it gets launched.

The desire for great achievements and to attain feats can be compelling, and if not watched- consuming, consuming your time, your energy, your attention, which your family craves. Do not neglect your family! They should always remain your priority over your business. Time lost with them is time lost forever! Attend their graduation, their games, be home early for dinner, watch a movie together on the couch, be intimate with your spouse, go to the park together, go to church together, spend time with your siblings, your parents. Create those memories! Be available for your own. They need you as much as your business needs you. Always remember this.

6. Jack took the gaokao but failed badly, scoring 1/120 in math. His hope crushed, he took to menial labour delivering heavy bundles of magazines from printers to the Hangzhou train station on a pedicab, a job Jack managed to land thanks only to his father’s connections. Jack was rejected from numerous other jobs, including as a waiter in a hotel. He was told he was not tall enough. Chen Wei relates in his biography of Jack.

As cheese is part of a cheeseburger, failure is part of life. Even the smartest people, the best, have failed at one point in their life. For Jack, his series of failures highjacked him early in life. Jack never gained admission to a prestigious university in Beijing or Shanghai. But in 1984, when he was nineteen, he raised his math score sufficiently to win acceptance to a local university, the Hangzhou Teachers College, after two failed attempts on taking the gaokao exams.

There is no guarantee that failure would not arise, whenever it arises ensure you rise above it.” Jack did not find commercial success with Hope (his first company). But his first venture gave him direct exposure to the entrepreneurial revolution that was transforming Zhejiang and his first tentative steps as an entrepreneur himself.

Let me share an insight I got from reading: Money won’t make you rich by Sunday Adelaja;

Find inspiration in your obstacles. (Like Jack did). Obstacles will come your way as soon as you determine your goals. Learn to see impediments to progress as stages of success. Everything you overcome will bring you closer and closer to your dream. It is like a ladder in that the higher you climb, the more effort it takes. Every step seems like a test or trial, but it brings you closer to your end-game. Teach yourself to have this positive attitude towards your goal.

Jack once again set about applying for jobs to make ends meet. He sent out eleven job applications but all were met with rejection. Jack likes to tell the story of how even KFC turned him away, the only one of twenty-four candidates they didn’t like.

Imagine the extreme rejection. Be courageous as you walk through life! Do not be afraid to accept the challenges that life throws at you. One of Jack’s favourite quotes is:

“Today is brutal, tomorrow is more brutal, but the day after tomorrow is beautiful. However, the majority of people will die tomorrow night. They won’t be able to see the sunshine the day after tomorrow.” Ensure you see the sunshine the day after tomorrow!

7. But in the latter half of 2000, it looked like there was something wrong with Alibaba’s strategy. Although it had raised $25 million and signed up more than half a million users, its revenues that year wouldn’t even hit the $1 million mark. Alibaba did start to charge some fees — helping build and host websites for some of its members — but expenses were increasing far more rapidly than revenues. Alibaba’s hiring spree was creating more problems than it solved, as recruits arrived before reporting and budgeting systems had been put in place. The international nature of its business was also a challenge, both in dealing with clients and in managing human resources. As the tech downturn continued into 2001, Jack and Joe recognized that things needed to change. In January 2001 they brought on board as chief operating officer Savio Kwan, a fifty-two-year-old veteran of GE,7 who gave a frank assessment of the company: “We need to ground [Alibaba] in reality and make it into a business.

Be swift to realize when you need help; career help, business help, financial help. Etc. Do not absorb everything with the mentality that you can handle it. Seek professional assistance in the right places, early in time. There is no glory in suffering, or uncertainty or confusion. Be confident enough to admit that you need help then go after it swiftly. The more time wasted, the more damage done to either you or your business. It is “strength” to admit that you need help. Do not wallow in your misery- reach out!

When I play scramble for an elongated period, my brain slows down on identifying new words speedily compared to when I started. The letters begin to synchronize with my mind which causes a delay in identifying the words. However, someone who has not been staring down at the screen identifies those words eluding my mind quicker.

We can apply this same logic to business, certain times you need fresh eyes and minds of people, of professions to stare down at the problem you are encountering. They may identify the problem- immediately!

Take advantage of the knowledge and experience of others in your field.


1. Apply prompt and firm action to contain and avert any damage to your business.

2. Jack received backlash against the Alipay dispute but he did not back out. Be bold about your decisions even if the majority would question them.

3. At some point, things will get rough. When that happens, holding on to the values which got you started in the first place is one way out.

4. Know how to instill guts into your team or your workers.

5. There will always be risks in business, developing a keen sense of discernment lessens the chances of disruption.

The story of Jack Ma leaves me fascinated, fascinated by his resilience, his focus, his charm and joviality, his craziness, his hospitability and definitely his guts! There remain several lessons to learn from the Jack Magic. Start with implementing these I have provided for you and see.

DISCLAIMER: All words in Italics are excerpted from; Alibaba, the house that Jack Ma built. By Duncan Clark.

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Keren Agbonika

With words, we are blessed to express our essence, and that’s what I do- I express with essence. Well, after my psychology classes sometimes before.