Jack Ma: A Story of Success Through Failure

 "Never give up. Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine" – Jack Ma

 "Never give up. Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine" – Jack Ma

Jack Ma’s life is perhaps the greatest example of success through failure.

He failed primary school twice and middle school three times. He also failed his university entry exam three times. He was rejected by the police force and even KFC. He applied for Harvard ten times and was rejected each and every time.

Now, he is one of the richest people in the world as the founder of Alibaba, one of the biggest e-commerce companies on the planet.  In 2009 and 2014, Ma made it onto Timemagazine’s '100 most influential people' and was also selected as one of ‘China’s Most Powerful People’ by Businessweek, even appearing on the front page of Forbesmagazine.

Humble beginnings

Jack Ma was born in the city of Hangzhou in China, growing up in a poor family at the time of the Cultural Revolution.

It was when US President Richard Nixon visited Hangzhou in 1972 that Jack Ma became entranced by the Western world. As a young child, he would visit the hotels where US tourists were staying to learn English in exchange for giving them tours around the city. In fact, it was through befriending one of the tourists that Jack Ma got his English name ‘Jack’.

Although Ma failed his university entrance exam twice, scoring less than 1% in maths, he eventually passed and began studying English at the Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute. After graduating, he applied for 30 different jobs but was rejected for all of them. Out of the 24 people who applied for KFC, Ma was the only one to be rejected. He also applied for the police force, but was rejected and told he was ‘no good’. He was finally able to find a job as an English teacher, earning as little as $US12 each month.

'He failed multiple times in primary school, middle school and university. He was rejected by the police force and even for a job at KFC'

Persistence through failure

Despite all these failures and rejections, Ma persisted throughout. Relying on his English skills, Ma started a translation service business and visited the US as a translator where he was introduced to the Internet. Without any technical knowledge of computers or coding, Ma became interested in this new phenomenon at the time.


The idea of creating an online store came from Ma discovering the lack of Chinese beer in online search results. This led him to create his second venture online called ‘Chinapage’ which listed Chinese businesses and products. This sparked a flood of emails from people all over the world seeking to form partnerships. In order to expand and obtain more funding, Ma decided to partner with a government company. Unfortunately, as the company gained majority control over the venture, this stifled Ma’s vision for the business and led to his departure from the company.

Ma then took up a government job at the Ministry for Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, through which he was able to build connections with people of influence such as one of the founders of Yahoo!, Jerry Yang.

'Ma came up with the idea for an online marketplace after a search for Chinese beer turned up nothing in the search results'

The struggle to success

In 1999, after having left the government job, Ma gathered a group of seventeen of his friends and pitched the idea of an online marketplace for small and medium-sized businesses.


To secure funding for this venture, Ma travelled to the US once again, this time to Silicon Valley to pitch his idea. But he faced a familiar obstacle as his idea was rejected and criticised as being unprofitable and unsustainable. Through persistence, Ma was eventually able to secure funding of $US 5 million from Goldman Sachs and $US 20 million from Softbank.

However, in 2003, the future still looked bleak for Alibaba, with the company failing to make any revenue within the first three years and facing bankruptcy within eighteen months. As the Chinese economy was still in its infancy at the time, businesses and government authorities were sceptical about the idea of an online marketplace. Ma also faced internal issues within Alibaba, as part of his vision for the company to grow and attract young, outside talent required limiting his existing venture partners' promotions to ranks above managerial roles. Unintentionally, this resulted in dissension amongst a number of his team who ended up walking out on him.   

'His idea for Alibaba was rejected and criticised by investors as unprofitable and unsustainable'

Making history

But Ma was able to pick up the pieces and unify his remaining team to take Alibaba forward, challenging established online businesses like eBay who already had existing operations in China. Within five years, Ma and Alibaba managed to drive eBay out of business in China, and with the help of further funding from Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang, Alibaba was able to expand and grow further into the international market.

In 2014, Alibaba made history through the world’s largest IPO to date. The company has continued to grow from strength to strength, scaling its operations into various industries such as technology and logistics, turning the online business into one of the world’s largest conglomerates today.

‘If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.’ – Jack Ma

‘If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.’ – Jack Ma