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Your staff should be more skilled than you, Jack Ma tips Kenyan startups

Jack Ma met Kenyan businessmen and women's thirst for insight with unconventional tips on how he grew Alibaba Group. PHOTO | DANN MWANGI | NMG
Jack Ma met Kenyan businessmen and women's thirst for insight with unconventional tips on how he grew Alibaba Group. PHOTO | DANN MWANGI | NMG 

“Hire people who are smarter than you are, and believe that they are,” China’s wealthiest man told a room full of eager entrepreneurs in Nairobi, drawing muted laughter and mumbles from the audience.

Founder and executive chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, Jack Ma, met Kenyan businessmen and women's thirst for insight with unconventional tips on how he grew alibaba.com - which he started in his apartment in 1999.

“For the first two weeks we didn't have a client, we had to buy from ourselves. But last year, we sold $550 billion (Sh57 trillion)”, he said in a tone devoid of any grandstanding.

For Mr Ma, the pulse of an organisation is in the contentment of its customers and employees, rather than appeasement of the firm's shareholders.

“If customers are happy, employees are happy then shareholders will be happy. Don't spend too much time on shareholders, or competition,” he told Kenyan entrepreneurs.

The Chinese tycoon is in Nairobi for a visit, his first to Africa, on invitation from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

He was at tech business incubator, Nailab, where he spoke to a room full of entrepreneurs, most of them running technology-based firms.

Different focus

His ideology clashes with that of many local firms as it shifts focus away from maximising profits and pleasing the boss or shareholders, and more towards passion-driven work.

Many organisations have been built on structures that require employees to do what their bosses require or demand. However, Mr Ma, advices that this approach needs to shift right from the recruitment stage.

“How to get great people? Find people better than you are; don't get people who want to do what you want them to do, but instead people who can be your boss”, he advised.



The Chinese tycoon spoke to a room full of entrepreneurs, most of them running technology-based firms. PHOTO | DANN MWANGI | NMG
The Chinese tycoon spoke to a room full of entrepreneurs, most of them running technology-based firms. PHOTO | DANN MWANGI | NMG

He also broached the subject of remuneration, a key subject for entrepreneurs as many are often uncertain at what point they should begin paying themselves.

Analysts have previously blamed this trend as a contributing factor for why up to 70 per cent of SMEs fail within the first year.

“We pay well, but we try not to create an imbalance in society by paying too much,” Mr Ma said, adding that as Alibaba grew and was able to pay its workers well, it had to regulate salaries for its staff.

He says he encourages his employees to join other firms, including Alibaba's competition, after 5 to 10 years of working at the e-commerce giant in order to grow in their careers.

Also present was UNCTAD Secretary General, Mukhisa Kituyi, who was just recently handed a fresh four-year term at the helm of the UN agency.

Mr Kituyi said he would be dedicating the balance of his life in global public service to helping young entrepreneurs.

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