- The story of Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba, the Chinese internet giant that just raised $21.8 billion in the US initial public offering, is the stuff that dreams are made of.
- Ma started his career as an English teacher and failed in many ventures, including to land a job in KFC, before he started Alibaba in 1999. Today, he is China’s richest man with a net worth of $21.8 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index.
The company was started with support from 18 friends in Ma’s apartment in Hangzhou. After 15 years, when the company is making waves in the business world for the biggest IPO in the history, Ma’s life serves as an inspiration to all entrepreneurs, young and old, across the world.
Here are seven amazing facts about the man.
1) Learning English: Ma started learning English at the age of 13, from foreign tourists who had then just started trickling into China. He would wake up at 5 am, walk to the Shangri-La hotel and hang around there, chatting up with the tourists and taking them for sightseeing. That was how he practised spoken English. He did this for nine years. But, as he told Xiao-Ping Chen of University of Washington in an interview, he learned not only English, but also the “Western people’s system, ways, methods and techniques”.
2) Teaching English: He started off his career as an English teacher. But he admits he was only a good teacher and not the best. “I knew I couldn’t be the best in China, so I decided to step into the business world,” he says. So he set up a translation company. On one of his trips to the US in 1995, he found out the magic world of Internet through a friend. And that made all the difference.
3) Tryst with the Net: On the internet, which his friend showed him, he searched the word ‘beer’. Curiously for him, all beers – American beer, German beer — threw up but no Chinese beer. “So I was curious. I searched ‘China,’ and all search engines said no China, no data,” a Bloomberg reportquotes Ma as saying in a a documentary. This prompted him to create a home page in Chinese. According to the Bloomberg report, in about five hours of posting the page, he got five emails from various countries, including the US and Germany. The power of the Net world surprised him.
4) China Pages: This was his first internet company, a yellow pages site. Ma invested 7,000 yuan of his personal savings in the company and also took a loan from his sister, the Bloomberg report said citing a book in Chinese by Ma’s personal assistant Chen Wei. However, this was not successful and so he joined the commerce ministry in Beijing. He quit the job and went back to his home province Hangzhou. Alibaba happened in 1999, which Ma hopes will last for 102 more years.
5) Mad Ma: Thus, he believed in the power of internet, while nobody else in China did and so he was dubbed crazy, this USA Today report says. But then Alibaba is Alibaba because there are many more like him in the company. “I gave a speech at Harvard in 2002. After my talk, a CEO from a foreign company said that I was a mad man. He said he had been in China for many years, and didn’t believe that my way of managing a company would work. I invited him to visit Alibaba. After a three-day stay, he said “Now I understand. Here you have 100 mad men just like you”,” he told Xiao-Ping.
6) Family life closely guarded: Ma was earning just $15 a month when he married his classmate Zhang Ying. Zhang was also one of the first two employees of Alibaba. Many in China didn’t even know that Ma had siblings until a black and white photo of himself, his brother and sister went viral there earlier this month, says the USA Today report – a proof that how much Ma has managed to keep his family life away from the media glare. His son is an undergraduate student at the University of Berkley.
7) His management philosophy: It is a mix of Tai Chi, Taoism, and Buddhism. “In Taoism, the best leadership is not leading at all,” he says in the interview with Xiao-Ping. “If someone warns me about an employee who is trying to overstep me, I reply that I’m a teacher and that’s the way it should be,” he says. According to him, a real leader’s responsibility is to give his or her team overall guidance and principles and be the source of your company’s culture.