Although both the founders of China’s tech giants — Alibaba and Tencent — are surnamed Ma or horse, they are by no means blood related. Their upbringings and leadership styles are very different.
One thing they share in common is that both their distinct tech empires have changed the way people live in China: Chinese people shop online via Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall, and communicate via Tencent’s WeChat and QQ messenger. Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tencent’s Pony Ma both control corporations valued at about USD 200 billion.
AllChinaTech explores the background and characteristics of the two leaders:
1. Jack Ma is good at public speaking and Pony Ma is low-key and reserved.
Jack Ma is a gifted public speaker. Since the time he founded his company, he has been able to recruit resources for Alibaba through his speeches and social connections. From his early days of being a young entrepreneur with Alibaba, until after he became successful and famous, he has always been eloquent and his speeches persuasive.
On the other hand, Pony Ma, who comes from a technology background, is largely inarticulate in public.
2. Jack Ma is proficient in English and Pony Ma is good at technology
Jack Ma became fluent in English after graduating from Hangzhou Normal University with a bachelor’s degree in English. Before he founded Alibaba, Ma worked as a translator. Ma’s fluency in English has allowed him to communicate with the world.
From the time Yahoo invested in Alibaba, to Alibaba listing on the New York Stock Exchange, Jack Ma has had no problem handling affairs in English. He was once even interviewed by U.S. President Barack Obama at the 2015 APEC summit in Manila, Philippines.
Pony Ma never speaks English in public and there’s no way to assess his English abilities. Pony Ma studied computer science in college. He has also worked as a programer before founding Tencent.
3. Jack Ma isn’t interested in product details and Pony Ma is all about the user experience.
Jack Ma is a strategist. He has strong strategic thinking abilities and is good at predicting the future. This helps Alibaba to strategize. From a pure e-commerce business, to expanding into internet finance, logistics, cultural entertainment and other business, Jack Ma has been strategizing all the way. But Jack Ma doesn’t pay close attention to product details. He disclosed in a recent interview that he has never shopped on Taobao and he doesn’t have the time to either.
Pony Ma is different. He cares deeply about concrete products and user experience having been directly involved in products since the startup period of his empire. He once claimed, in order to attract more active users in the early days of QQ messenger, he and his co-founders pretended to be women chatting with guys over QQ messenger, to gain insight into how users interact with the service. Now Tencent has a monopoly on China’s social network market. Pony Ma has always proudly used his own social network products including Wechat. He always puts forward his own ideas on the detail side of products.
4. Jack Ma is more aggressive on new initiatives and strategies whereas Pony Ma adapts a more stable strategy.
Looking at the history of Alibaba, Jack Ma is good at adapting new strategies to gain market share. For instance, Jack Ma decided to waive seller fees in the early days of Taobao in order to compete with eBay in China. Ma tried to bypass government regulations by registering money market fund Yu’e Bao as an independent company in order to enter the internet finance sector. All in all, whenever Jack Ma makes a decision, he makes a huge deal of marketing it.
Pony Ma’s leadership style is quite different. He is a much more conservative leader and not keen on the hurried expansion of businesses. He only acts when he sees a good opportunity. Pony Ma is good at gaining users for good products and building businesses. Judging from Tencent’s past business development, the company has not made much fanfare of its developments. When Tencent enters a new business, they always let the product fall into place.
5. Jack Ma has international influence. Pony Ma’s influence is limited to China.
The early days of Alibaba’s B2B business aimed at exporting Chinese products to other countries via the Internet. Jack Ma knew how to promote Alibaba via different international channels, to build up his international influence. Receiving funding from Softbank and Yahoo, Jack Ma has further established his reputation on the worldstage. With Alibaba listed on the New York Stock Exchange, it has raised Jack Ma’s international influence to a new level. Last year, Jack Ma became the richest person in China according to Forbes.
Tencent’s core business is in China and they chose to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2004. In the early days of Tencent, Pony Ma rarely went abroad. Pony Ma has been living in Hong Kong in recent years. Although Tencent has been expanding and is now one of the top three tech giants in China, Pony Ma has not built a strong presence on the global stage. This can likely be put down to Pony’s discreet profile, and Tencent’s social network product business.
Social network products are able to work as regional businesses and it can be difficult to enter different markets as culturally varied as the United States. Nevertheless Wechat has proven to be relatively popular in Southeast Asia and this alone has gotten it noticed among a world audience.
(Photos from Baidu Images)