The story of Jack Ma, the founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group, a family of highly successful Internet-based businesses, is very much like a modern fairytale. A one-time struggling English teacher and interpreter pays a visit to the United States and after coming back to his motherland, starts a tech venture that goes on to debut on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) as the biggest IPO in history in September 2014, making him the richest man of China.
Ma's fabulous journey started 15 years ago when he founded Alibaba in his tiny apartment in Hangzhou, China, with a group of friends who forked out $60,000 as seed capital. Today, that company has a market cap of $231 billion, and it is nearly as valuable as Wal-Mart and bigger than Amazon and eBay combined.
How did he do it? Did he rub Alladin's magic lamp, a la Arabian Nights, and the genie fulfilled all his wishes?
Not exactly. Ma's journey has been a journey of having a dream and going all out to make it come true.
"I am like the blind man riding on the back of a blind tiger," Ma once said at an Asia Society dinner in San Francisco. "Alibaba might as well be known as '1,001 mistakes'. But there were three main reasons why we survived. We didn't have any money, we didn't have any technology, and we didn't have a plan."
100 percent China-made
Ma is an unlikely candidate for the Internet hall of fame. He didn't go to Harvard or Stanford. He is purely homegrown talent and a hometown boy who grew up in Hangzhou, a large city 180 kilometers southwest of Shanghai. "I'm 100 percent made in China," says Ma.
He is a "tech dummy" too, which he has shown is not necessarily a bad thing for designing websites that anyone can use without wearing a geek's hat. "A product should be click and get it," says Ma. "If I can't get it, then it is rubbish".
Ma was born in 1964 at the cusp of a historical change in China-the Cultural Revolution. As a young child, he saw his grandfather being made fun of for being a bourgeoisie. His classmates taunted at him for belonging to a "bad family". He always fought back whenever someone spoke ill of his family.
As a teenager, Ma wanted to be a Red Guard and spread the message of Chairman Mao but then he was spurned by the authorities. Soon, he became disillusioned with the communist propaganda claiming that China was the best country in the world. "I was educated that China was the richest, happiest country in the world," he says. "But I realized that everything was different from what I was told. Since then, I started to think differently. I didn't follow people but developed my own way of thinking."
He was so much affected by the 1989 Tiananmen Square shootings that he could not get out of bed for two weeks. He was teaching then.
A poor student, a reluctant teacher
Ma failed his university entrance exams twice. Finally, in 1984, he was accepted by Hangzhou Teachers College-"the worst university in town". A natural leader, he became head of the student union in college.
During his student days, he had made a promise to the college president that he would stay for five years in his first job as an English teacher at the Huangzhou Electrical Engineering Institute. He kept his promise and worked there for a monthly salary of $15. He actually didn't want to teach and when he left the college, he refused many job offers.
Luck had some other plans for him in store.
A trip to the United States
In 1995, he made a trip to the US as an interpreter for a Chinese trade delegation. He also visited some friends in Seattle. During this trip, he came to know about the Internet. He searched for beer and China into a Yahoo! Search engine. When he found zero results, he decided to bring the Internet to China. "When I told my friends in China that I was going to do something called the Internet, they didn't know what I was talking about," reminisces Ma.
When he returned to his hometown, he borrowed money from his relatives and making his wife a partner, launched China Pages. It was the same year when eBay was launched. Yahoo! had already made its debut a year ago.
With the launch of China Pages, Ma started off on a roller coaster ride of an unimaginable journey that has now become a legend.
Here are some of the highlights of Ma's entrepreneurial journey:
- Ma's China Pages was a joint venture with China Telecom, which was in control of this relationship. That control in the hands of a giant was a mistake as it destroyed the startup. However, Ma emerged rich from the deal-he got $185,000, the largest sum he had pocket so far.
- The Chinese government put him in charge of the China International Electronic Commerce Centre. In that capacity, he hosted Yahoo's Jerry Yang on a tour of the Great Wall and the Summer Palace. That proved to be a turning point for him. The friendship would endure and be fruitful to both the parties.
- In 1999, Ma convinced 18 of his neighbours in his apartment to chip in for his e-commerce startup, Alibaba. He raised $60,000. Alibaba was launched that year with the Arabian Nights-inspired theme.
- In early 2000s, Alibaba saw the worst of times in its journey so far. The company, like many other tech companies, reached the brink of bankruptcy during the dotcom crash. A turnaround effort by the then company COO Savio Kwan saved it-Alibaba was burning $2 million per month. It had less than $10 million in the bank. Kwan came from General Electric, so he went into staff reduction with gusto. The result? The company's burn rate of expenses came down by 75 percent. The company struggled on for a few years.
- In 2003, Ma launched Taobao (Hidden Treasure), a Chinese auction site, competing with eBay. By 2007, Taobao had a market share of over 80 percent in China, pulling in $2.2 billion in transactions. It trounced eBay in the Chinese turf.
- In 2005, Yahoo! paid $1 billion for a 40 percent stake in Alibaba. Yahoo! China's management control was passed over to Ma's company. Yahoo! China was not doing well at that time and Ma's involvement was the best shot to turn the company around. The relationship, struck over a golf course, was to pay well for both Yahoo! and Alibaba.
- In November 2007, a portion of Alibaba was made public. At the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Alibaba's IPO raised $1.5 billion.
- In September 2014, Alibaba's listing at the NYSE became the largest stock offer in history. It has made Jack Ma China's richest person with a fortune of $25 billion. Ma reaped more than $800 million selling shares in the company as Alibaba listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The value of his remaining stake of 7.8 percent surged to more than $17 billion the week after the IPO.
 Rebecca A. Fannin, Silicon Dragon-How China is Wining the Tech Race, McGraw Hill, 2008.