Ignorance is Bliss

Alibaba boss Jack Ma says he has never used Taobao or Alipay, and doesn’t plan to

July 2, 2014
July 2, 2014

Tech companies often urge employees to “drink their own Kool-Aid” by becoming heavy users of their own products, but Alibaba co-founder and chairman Jack Ma apparently refuses to drink a drop.

In a speech last night to the graduating class of Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, Ma said that has never purchased a product on Taobao, Alibaba’s dominant e-commerce site. Moreover, he doesn’t know how to use Alipay, the company’s pervasive electronic payments service that is now even bigger than PayPal.

Ma thinks “if he used his own products too much, he would naturally be biased, and therefore lose the feeling of anxiety to improve them,” the state-run Xinhua news agency reported (link in Chinese).

Ma’s frank admission, if taken at face value, may cause some consternation among investors considering whether to buy Alibaba’s shares in the company’s forthcoming IPO. After all, if the chairman isn’t familiar with his own company’s products, how good of a leader can he be?

But on the other hand, perhaps Ma is on to something. A former executive at Amazon, which is often compared to Alibaba for its size and breadth, said last week that CEO Jeff Bezos’ obsession with fine-tuning the company’s hardware products like the Fire smartphone often became a major distraction.

Still, it is striking that so many Chinese internet users rely on products that the company’s founder has never used. An analyst who follows Alibaba told the Wall Street Journal last year (paywall) that it is “hard to find a Chinese internet user who has never used Taobao or [its sister site] Tmall.” Maybe he should have been looking in the chairman’s office.

Update: The Financial Times unearthed a 2010 video (paywall) of Jack Ma saying that he used Taobao heavily in the site’s early years. The paper noted that Ma “is probably China’s greatest living promoter, and that means getting your company noticed, no matter what.”

Additional reporting by Cathy Sizhao Yi.

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