You would probably not have expected the first TV interview Jack Ma did was unexpected for him, with the would-be entrepreneur still sitting on his bicycle on a street at night:
In 1995, four years before starting Alibaba, Jack Ma just founded “China Yellow Pages” – a service that helped Chinese companies create their first internet pages.
One evening, he was riding a bicycle to his office while he noticed a few bulky men trying to remove a manhole cover from the street. He had read in the newspapers days before that after a manhole cover was stolen (to sell for scrap metal), a young kid fell into the manhole and drowned.
He was upset and wanted to stop the bad guys. However, he realised he was himself too thin to confront a group of bulky men. He decided to ride the bicycle up and down the street to find a policeman. But he could not find any within a few hundred metres and no other passerby seemed willing to join him.
After a few rounds up and down the street, he decided to intervene himself. He rode back, still sat on the bicycle, and shouted at the guys carrying the manhole cover back: “put it back!”
He later recounted “if these guys came to me, I would have fled. But I would have felt really bad if I did not do anything”.
Suddenly, a man rushed over to him and asked “what did you say?”. Behind the man was a TV camera.
It turned out that it was a test put on by a local TV station to see how citizens will react if criminal activities happen in front of their eyes. How many people will stop the behaviour when they see it?
Jack Ma turned out to be the only person who ‘passed the test’ that night.
You can watch from the link above from 1’36” the original footage aired by the local TV station in 1995. Most passers-by interviewed pretended that they did not know what was going on.
From 2’14” of the video clip you could see the excited Jack Ma, still on his bicycle, recounting that he had been riding up and down trying to find a policeman.
You would then find it much easier to understand his later success. Now Jack Ma is back to Alibaba in Hangzhou, and we could feel that his mere presence had already boosted the morale of the quarter-million people group. Employees, who had been grappling with two years of tussle, welcomed the mission-driven founder and his mission.
For more details about Jack Ma and other tech leaders in China, how they built their successes in China and how they now try to expand internationally, you can refer to the Leadership chapter of our book Seeing the unseen: behind Chinese tech giants’ global venturing.