A seat at the table with Jack Ma: Seven lessons learned

I remember trying to keep myself calm: “Only a million people are watching this live. And many others will do so later on. No stress, Omar.” However, I felt my blood pressure skyrocket. What does one do when sitting across one of the most influential business figures of the 21st century? And most importantly, what does one ask?

In a country literally named “Warrior King” – or better known as Ghana – 3 African entrepreneurs had a unique opportunity to share a table with a warrior of a different kind. This specific warrior built his empire most prominently through cofounding Alibaba, a Chinese multinational conglomerate specializing in ecommerce, retail, internet, and technology, whose shares are being traded at over $220 each. Only three entrepreneurs from all over Africa made it to that table with the business tycoon, investor and philanthropist Jack Ma – and I was the first to sit with him.

It was time to face the facts though: My company Nawah-Scientific – a leading online outsourcing destination for advanced scientific analysis – was one of 10 finalists of Ma’s Africa Netpreneur Prize. I had reached this point after about ten months of competition-frenzy, being shortlisted from over 10,000 applicants, writing assignments, conducting interviews and participating in a stormy semifinal in Kenya.

And now, after becoming one of three finalists, it was time to sit down with the judges: Ma, Executive Chairman of Econet Group Strive Masiyiwa, Chairman of the first bank of Nigeria Ibukun Awosika, and Executive Vice Chairman of Alibaba Group Joe Tsai to ask and be asked about entrepreneurship, my business, and their experience.

Here are the seven lessons I learned while sitting at one of the most inspiring tables of my life:

1) Global vision, local win

Many startups rush to plan out-of-country expansion to impress current and potential investors, which diverts their focus from one simple truth: it is much easier to capture more market share locally, where customer acquisition, logistics, operations, etc are all sorted out. Become a local market leader by keeping your eyes on a global vision, but make sure to leverage your local potential first.

2) Don’t worry about competitors; let competitors worry about you

While good practice dictates to keep an eye on your competitors, they should not be your distraction. Make competitors fear you as you focus on satisfying your clients and developing your product.

3) As a CEO, take care of your people

Ma has repeatedly stated this on many occasions: “A CEO’s most important role is to take care of people.” These include your clients and your team. Understand your clients’ needs, while you motivate and inspire your team. Listen as much as you can. Hire people that are smarter than you, invest in them, train them, upskill them, help them grow and become leaders. Show your team how the company is growing – this gives them hope. If your people improve, your products and services certainly will follow.

4) “Do not put too much lipstick on a monkey”

This is how he said it, not me, folks. But it is true. There is nothing wrong about being small in the beginning, but we need to be honest and explicit about it. If you give investors vague words, you get vague questions. Concrete, detailed numbers – no matter how small – convey that you’re serious and know what you are doing.

5) Scale, but stay grounded

Ma and his likes are considered to be sitting at the top of the mountain for many growing companies. His advice: “Don’t even look up there now! Focus and improve your product each day, and you will get up there.” The gist of the matter is to scale quickly, but in a calculated manner. Build in stages, so that you can build sustainably and stay grounded.

6) Learn from other people’s failures, not just successes

We live in an age where information is a mouse-click away, but it is always about which information you hunt down. Most of successful people have a few common reasons for their success, however, those who fail have much more reasons and stories to tell. Ma believes you should study the latter and learn from it.

7) Do not lose your family throughout your journey

The road of entrepreneurship is long, challenging and tough. Your biggest support will always be your family. They will stand next to you when it seems like the road has ended. Do not lose them throughout your journey.

Omar Sakr
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