Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, has an amazing rags-to-riches story. He’s a small guy, barely five feet tall, and he has frequently been described as elfish. His nickname is “Crazy Jack Ma.” He is not imposing, started from nothing, and is affectionately called crazy – but today his net worth is estimated at over $21 billion according to Bloomberg Billionaires index. The story of his rise to wealth and power is both fascinating and inspiring.
When Jack Ma was born back in 1964, China was a remarkably different place. While the 1960’s were a period of liberalization in the Western world, in China the 1960’s were the midst of the the Mao Zedong era. The Chinese world was kept separate from the Western world in a way that would never be possible with today’s global economy. That period in Chinese history was a time rampant poverty and constant fear for many. Shortly after Ma’s birth, China entered a period known as the Cultural Revolution, which amounted to large-scale purges launched by Mao in an effort to regain control of the party by attacking aspects of China’s culture. The Cultural Revolution dominated the next decade of Chinese history until Mao’s death in 1976.
The Cultural Revolution devastated Ma’s early life as his parents were musical storytellers and Mao banned that particular form of storytelling as a part of his Cultural Revolution. As was par for the course at the time, Ma’s parents beat him as a child. For fun, Ma collected crickets for an ancient pastime known as cricket fighting (although that was also banned by the Cultural Revolution). For that day and age, his life was fairly normal.
One of the first steps that would ultimately set Ma on a different path came at age 12, when he began waking at 5 a.m. every morning to travel (by foot or bicycle) to Hangzhou’s biggest hotel to practice English with the foreign tourists. Ma continued doing this for eight years. Ma explained the importance of this to journalist Rebecca Fannin of Inc., “When I was 12 years old, I got interested in learning English. I rode my bike for 40 minutes every morning, rain or snow, for eight years to a hotel near the city of Hangzhou’s West Lake district, about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai. China was opening up, and a lot of foreign tourists went there. I showed them around as a free guide and practiced my English. Those eight years deeply changed me. I started to become more globalized than most Chinese. What I learned from my teachers and books was different from what the foreign visitors told us.”
Ma continued, “The other event that fundamentally changed me was in 1979, when I met a family with two kids from Australia. We met and spent three days together and played Frisbee. We became pen pals. In 1985 they invited me to go to Australia for a summer vacation. I went in July, and those 31 days changed my life. Before I left China, I was educated that China was the richest, happiest country in the world. So when I arrived in Australia, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, everything is different from what I was told.’ Since then, I started to think differently.”
As it turned out, though, thinking differently did not help Ma in the short-term. He flunked his exam for university twice before being accepted into what was commonly considered Hangzhou’s worst university, Hangzhou Teachers University. Despite his unpromising start, Ma was later elected student chairman and eventually became the chairman of the city’s Students Federation.
After earning his degree, Ma’s life still did not become any easier: “When I graduated, I was the only one of 500 students assigned to teach at a university. My pay was 100 to 120 renminbi, which is like $12 to $15 per month. I always had a dream that when I finished my five years, I would join a business — a hotel or whatever. I just wanted to go do something. In 1992, the business environment started improving. I applied for a lot of jobs, but nobody wanted me! I was turned down for secretary to the general manager of a Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
Another life-changing event came in 1995 when Ma traveled to Seattle as the interpreter for a trade delegation. While there, he said, “A friend showed me the Internet there for the first time. We searched the word beer on Yahoo and discovered that there was no data about China. We decided to launch a website and registered the name China Pages.”
Upon his return to China, Ma borrowed $2,000 to begin the company, which was essentially a directory listing of Chinese internet companies. He had no particular knowledge of computers or even of email. He had never even touched a keyboard before that trip to Seattle. Nonetheless, Ma launched an internet company. China Pages competed with China Telecom for about a year before the latter suggested a joint venture. However, because China Pages got so few seats on the board, the effectively got no say in anything, and so Ma resigned. He soon got an offer in Beijing working for a government group intended to promote e-commerce.
Then, in 1999 the enterprising Ma decided to go off on his own and start a new venture. He said, “My dream was to set up my own e-commerce company. In 1999, I gathered 18 people in my apartment and spoke to them for two hours about my vision. Everyone put their money on the table, and that got us $60,000 to start Alibaba. I wanted to have a global company, so I chose a global name. ‘Alibaba’ is easy to spell, and people everywhere associate that with ‘Open, Sesame,’ the command that Ali Baba used to open doors to hidden treasures in One Thousand and One Nights.” Alibaba has indeed been a door to treasure, both for its users and for its founder, who is now estimated to be worth around $21.8 billion.