Jack Ma, the 5-foot-tall Chinese man with a friendly looking face, is the chairman of Alibaba’s record-shattering $25 billion IPO, which now sits as one of the largest companies on the market. But how much does anyone really know about his amazing story of starting a small business in his one-room apartment to becoming one of the richest men in China?
Here are 13 fascinating facts from the legendary life of Jack Ma:
Jack Ma’s life is full of failures.
When he applied for admission to the Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute (now Hangzhou Normal University), Ma failed the college entrance exam twice. He eventually graduated in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in English.
By 1995, he decided teaching wasn’t for him, so he decided to try his hand at business. Around this time, he even applied to a job at KFC in Hangzhou, only to be rejected. Ma also started a translation company, and on a trip to Seattle, he discovered the internet, inspiring him to start his first legit business, China Yellow Pages. While it is regarded as China’s first internet-based company, China Yellow Pages was also a failure.
As we all know, however, Ma’s second company, Alibaba, is doing much better.
How Jack Ma learned English.
Ma wanted to learn English so badly that when he was 13, he would wake up at 5 a.m. and would ride his bike 45 minutes from where he lived in Hangzhou to the then Hangzhou Hotel just to talk to foreigners and take tourists sightseeing for free. Through this practice, he not only polished his English but also learned “Western people’s system, ways, methods and techniques.”
The time Jack Ma was threatened with a gun, kidnapped and taken to Las Vegas.
From the “Alibaba Saga” in Forbes comes a story of Jack Ma’s crazy West Coast adventure.
In 1995, Ma traveled for the first time to the U.S. on interpretation business. Part of his business included trying to collect a debt for a friend from an American businessman in Malibu, California. It turns out that this American didn’t want to pay back the debt and instead locked Ma in his house, trying to force him to cut a deal. This guy was clearly crazy. Jack Ma explained:
“At one point he started playing with his handgun. It was obviously meant as a threat.”
Scared of what he assumed was a trigger-happy American “cowboy,” Ma complied with his demands while trying to find any way to escape. We aren’t sure if Jack was forced to stay with the American, but a few days later, the American decided to take Jack to Las Vegas as a “routine showcase trip” for Chinese businessmen. It was clear that Jack was still his captive.
To make matters worse, Jack Ma had almost no money on him. Seeing as how matters couldn’t get worse, he decided to try his luck at the slot machines. Miraculously, Ma won $600; he managed to escape the businessman, left everything he had behind with him, went to the airport, and used his winnings to buy a plane ticket to Seattle where his friend was waiting.
“It was a terrible experience … Every time I think of L.A., I have a nightmare,” says Ma.
When Jack Ma first discovered the internet.
In 1995, while in Seattle visiting his friend, Jack first laid his eyes on a mysterious box-like device that he later learned was called a “computer.” His friend told him to try it out, and that’s when he discovered the world wide web. This inspired him to create his first business, China Yellow Pages, which he started with 7000 yuan ($1140) of his personal savings and a loan from a family member. Ma entered the world of dial-up internet.
“The day we got connected to the web, I invited friends and TV people over to my house … we waited three and a half hours and got half a page …. We drank, watched TV and played cards, waiting. But I was so proud. I proved (to my house guests that) the internet existed.”
How Jack Ma picked the name Alibaba.
Originally posted on Alibaba’s company forum, but no longer available, someone asked why Ma chose the name Alibaba. This is what Jack said:
“One day I was in San Francisco in a coffee shop, and I was thinking Alibaba is a good name. And then a waitress came, and I said do you know about Alibaba? And she said yes. I said what do you know about Alibaba, and she said ‘Open Sesame.’ And I said yes, this is the name! Then I went onto the street and found 30 people and asked them, ‘Do you know Alibaba?’ People from India, people from Germany, people from Tokyo and China… They all knew about Alibaba. Alibaba — open sesame. Alibaba — 40 thieves. Alibaba is not a thief. Alibaba is a kind, smart business person, and he helped the village. So…easy to spell, and global know. Alibaba opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies. We also registered the name AliMama, in case someone wants to marry us!”
On the day Alibaba went public, Ma didn’t even ring the bell at the NYSE. Because Alibaba is supposed to be focused on customers, Ma had eight Alibaba customers ring the opening bell instead.
Jack Ma loves dogs and owns an Alsatian named Apollo.
Zhang Ying (Jack Ma’s wife) was there with him from the very beginning.
“Ma Yun [Jack Ma] is not a handsome man, but I fell for him because he can do a lot of things handsome men cannot do.”
Zhang Ying and Jack Ma met in school when they were studying to be teachers. They married shortly after they graduated in the late 80s. She remained a teacher while Ma was building China Yellow Pages and she eventually quit being a teacher to jump on Alibaba’s team from the very beginning as the company’s “political commissar.”
As the Commissar, she spent the early days cooking meals for clients and associates and apparently running odd errands. She eventually became Alibaba China’s GM. She now focuses on caring for the couple’s two children.
How Jack Ma told his wife how much money his company made.
A couple years after Ma started Alibaba, his wife asked him how much money the company had made. Jack responded by raising a single finger.
“Ten million yuan ($1.6 million)?” she asked.
“No.” Jack responded.
“A hundred million yuan ($16 million)?” she asked.
“No.” said Jack again. “One million yuan ($160,000) …” he said to his wife’s disappointment.
“… a day.” he added.
Jack Ma’s lifelong hero isn’t even a real person.
In his quirky, broken English, Jack Ma explains his love for Forrest Gump:
“I watched the movie again, telling me that no matter whatever changed, you are you. I’m still the guy 15 years ago, you know, I only earned like $20 a month. Today I can do that much.”
In all seriousness, Jack Ma has a beautiful soul.
How running Alibaba caused family trouble for the Mas.
Unfortunately, focusing on growing a multi-billion dollar company takes its toll when it comes time for family.
Zhang admitted in earlier interviews that they had effectively “sacrificed” their son, who was born in 1992, for the company. They put him in daycare five days a week, only seeing him on weekends, and their parental absence eventually led to his addiction to online gaming at internet cafes, where he spent most of his time rather than returning to an empty home.
Jack later asked his wife to step down from her role as Alibaba China’s general manager to become a stay-at-home mom for their then two children, a move she was very reluctant to make, but in the end she chose family over the money.
“She helps me a lot with my career and family,” Ma tells of his wife when it comes to balancing the success of Alibaba and his family.
Why Jack Ma leads his company by “not leading at all.”
In an interview with Xiao-Ping Chen, a professor at Washington University, Ma explained his very unique and humble management philosophy that mixes Tai Chi, Taoism and Buddhism.
“In Taoism, the best leadership is not leading at all … No teachers want their students to fail. So I never steal the spotlight from newly hired young people. 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.”
When Jack Ma was called crazy (a lot) for starting Alibaba.
In 1999, Jack Ma founded Alibaba after raising $60,000 with 18 friends in his one-bedroom apartment. He started his humble e-commerce company in an attempt to connect small Chinese businesses with global markets. As the underdog going up against an already established and expanding eBay in China, many people called him crazy. Ma told Xiao-Ping Chen:
“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.’ ”
15 years later, Alibaba now holds the record for the largest IPO ever in U.S. history at $25 billion with a market cap of $231.44 billion, more than Amazon’s $153.08 billion and eBay’s $65.04 billion combined. Alibaba trades on the NYSE under (BABA).
Underdogs do win after all.