Five things we learned during Jack Ma’s Netpreneurs 2018 keynote

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This week has been an exciting one for the local entrepreneurial space, with Alibaba and UNCTAD hosting its Netpreneurs: Rise of the African Digital Lions 2018 event at Wits University’s Linder Auditorium.

While there were several discussions about tackling the challenges facing entrepreneurs on the continent, along with the announcement of a massive prize for the most promising startups, the headlining portion of the day-long event was a keynote delivered by Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

The charismatic businessman addressed all in attendance and expanded on his thoughts on the potential that African entrepreneurs possess, the lessons he’s learned during his company’s 19 year existence, and advised on what steps should be taken for the next Alibaba to come out of Africa.

With so much insight forthcoming from Jack Ma’s keynote, we’ve picked five pieces of advice in particular that the Alibaba founder touched on.

Don’t blame infrastructure

One aspect that Ma was quite vocal on is waiting for infrastructure to be in place in order for entrepreneurs to deliver their desired solutions or services. This, the Alibaba chairman notes, is often a waste of time, especially when trying to get a fledgling startup off the ground.

Instead of waiting for infrastructure to be in place, entrepreneurs need to look for innovative work around for any of the logistical or digital problems that may be facing. The technology will eventually catch up says Ma, and provide the support that startups and SMEs need, but waiting for it wastes valuable time few can afford to lose.

Ma also notes that the African ecosystem that he sees today is far different from the one he experienced almost a decade, which he views as a clear sign that infrastructural environment of the continent will definitely improve exponentially in coming years.

Look to others’ failings

A piece of advice that Ma espoused during his keynote was the way we look at success and failure. When trying to get their business off the ground, entrepreneurs often look at successful companies as a model of how to do things.

This, he says, is completely opposite to the mindset that entrepreneurs should have.

Instead, one needs to look at how other companies have failed. The methods of success are different from company to company, but the mistakes are often the same.

He also says the startups should not be averse to risk or failure, and should embrace a quick-pivoting frame of mind.

Tell government what you want

Addressing several of the local government officials in attendance, Ma stressed the importance for them to engage more diligently with their startup and entrepreneur communities, assisting in any way possible, such as introducing tax cuts for SMEs.

Jack Ma also countered this statement by telling the entrepreneurs in the room to not wait for their governments to do things for them.

If there is a need, but no government-led initiative is in place, reach out to the government yourself. Tell them what you’re business or startup is doing, what it aims to achieve and what assistance it requires in order to fulfil those goals.

If a startup or entrepreneur is trying to help their community, government organisations will always be willing to help, says Ma, so be more vocal in this regard he explains.

Earn your seat at the table

Tacking onto the previous point, Ma encourages entrepreneurs and startups to have an independent mindset. Not when it comes to collaboration, but rather when it comes to getting assistance when needed.

He says that people offering you help in the world is very rare, but they will be more likely to assist when you’ve worked hard enough to earn that help.

Adopting this kind of mindset when trying to take the first few steps with your business or startup is key in Ma’s opinion.

Surround yourself with good people

Towards the end of his keynote Ma listed three tips for budding entrepreneurs on the continent. The first dealt with their relationships with government. The next two were working with a 5-10 year goal in mind, and surrounding yourself with good people.

The latter was particularly interesting as Jack Ma did not say the clichéd thing of the “right” people.

This, as Ma explains, is not always possible when your startup is only just setting out, with good talent being hard to come by.

As such, Ma says entrepreneurs need to find people who believe in the business and want to see it succeed. These are two qualities that can make up for a lack of talent in those early stages.


To watch Jack Ma’s full keynote from Netpreneurs: The Rise of Africa’s Digital Lions, head here.


[Images – Alizila]

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

When he's not reviewing the latest smartphones, Robin-Leigh is writing about everything tech-related from IoT and smart cities, to 5G and cloud computing. He's also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games.