‘Top-down innovation doesn’t work:’ Alibaba co-founder’s advice to startups and corporates

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Alibaba co-founder and executive vice chairman Joe Tsai dished out plenty of advice for startup founders – and their prospective corporate partners – at the StartmeupHK 2019 festival in Hong Kong today.

Delivering the opening address on the second day of Jumpstarter, the Fund’s event at StartmeupHK, Tsai provided insight on Alibaba’s journey from being a tiny startup in Hangzhou to becoming one of the world’s biggest tech firms.
Alibaba co-founders Joe Tsai and Jack Ma

The key to its success, he suggested, was that it set out to solve a real-life problem with technology – rather than creating a new technology and then attempting to find use cases for it.

“Most companies start with a technology or an idea, but that technology then has to go out in search for a problem to solve,” Tsai said. “So it’s exactly the opposite of how you build a long term, long-lasting, sustainable company. The great companies in the world try to find problems to solve, whether in business or society.”

Canadian-Taiwanese Tsai is Alibaba’s second-biggest individual shareholder after co-founder and former CEO Jack Ma, and a director of the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund, the company’s non-profit initiative that provides education and investment to startup founders in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Back in the tech giant’s early days, the problem they wanted to solve was that small-scale exporters in China were struggling to reach the rest of the world, crowded out by the country’s massive state-owned enterprises, according to Tsai. The founders realized they could use the internet to level the playing field.

“We based our company on the mission to make it easy to do business everywhere – and today, that is still our mission,” he said. “Once you scale up – and all the entrepreneurs sitting here will face that problem when you start to think about scaling the business – ask yourself, what’s the problem you are trying to solve?”

“If you solve the problems of society, you’re going to create value and you’ll be able to monetize that. Think of a problem, then a vision of the company will look like,” he added. “Mission, vision, values – these are the three most important things to think about when you start your business.”

That mantra also works for larger, established corporates that are trying to be get ahead of the competition, whether through partnerships with startups, or by trying to encourage internal innovation.

“I have one word of advice for corporate partners: When it comes to innovation, top-down innovation doesn’t work,” Tsai said. “It doesn’t mean that the boss comes up with idea and tells [their company] to do it. It’s not companies that innovate – it’s people who innovate, [who are] closest to the customers on the ground.”

“Let the young people in your organizations flourish, give them the space and the resources to do that,” he added.

This is the second time that Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund has held Jumpstarter, which includes a startup competition featuring 24 founding teams selected from thousands of applicants. Event attendees will be able to vote for their favorites, with the top eight getting the chance to pitch onstage to accelerators, incubators, and investors later today.

The first Jumpstarter event was held in 2017, and Tsai noted that international participation has grown since then, with half of this week’s participating startups coming from 35 countries outside of Hong Kong.

Tsai said that representation from women entrepreneurs has also grown, with women comprising 22 percent of participants up from 17 percent at 2017’s event.

Note: we take this article directly and without editing from techinasia.com

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