Chinese e-commerce king tells U.S. businesses: Don’t follow the money

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Jack Ma (center) founded Alibaba.com in 1999. It is now an e-commerce giant. | Saiyna Bashir / Sun-Times

Jack Ma, founder and CEO of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, told Chicago business people on Wednesday that they likely won’t succeed if they focus on making money.

Instead, Ma, speaking at the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel, advised them to focus on customers, on making employees happy and on learning why other businesses fail.

Besides, he said, no one wants to listen if all you do is talk about making money.

Ma’s visit to Chicago is part of his initiative to attract more U.S. small businesses to join the Alibaba e-commerce platform. He repeated his assurance that Alibaba has no aim to compete with Amazon but to introduce small businesses here to a booming Chinese middle class. He noted that Alibaba is an “e-commerce enabler” that facilitates small businesses’ sales, logistics, payment systems and deliveries.

The Chinese middle class is expected to grow to more than 600 million from 300 million in the next 10 years, Ma said at the event, sponsored by American Express.

“They need good products, good services,” he said, noting that Chinese shoppers love American goods.

Ma and American Express Chairman Ken Chenault asked each other questions while appearing together on stage at the noon-time event.

Ma said that 57 percent of sellers on his e-commerce site are women — and women, he added, generally are better at making products user-friendly.

Also important, he said, is for businesses to respect, rely on, listen to and train young people.

Ma started Alibaba.com in 1999 to help businesses connect to other businesses; today, 10 million small businesses operate on the platform.

“Why are we still surviving?” he said. “At first, it was the passion. Now, it’s more like responsibility and love” for helping small businesses.

He predicted that Alibaba will exceed $1 trillion in U.S. sales in 5 years.

Ma, who started the company in his garage, is now the second-richest man in China, and Alibaba is valued at $220 billion on the New York Stock Exchange.

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