If at first you don’t succeed …
Jack Ma was born on 10 September 1964 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China. He began studying English at a young age by conversing with English-speakers at Hangzhou international hotel. He would ride 70 miles on his bicycle to give tourists tours of the area to practice his English for nine years. He became pen pals with one of those foreigners, who nicknamed him “Jack” because he found it hard to pronounce his Chinese name.
Later in his youth, Ma struggled attending college. The Chinese entrance exams are held only once a year and Ma took four years to pass. Ma attended Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute (currently known as Hangzhou) and graduated in 1988 with a B.A. in English. While at school, Ma was head of the student council. After graduation, he became a lecturer in English and International Trade at Hangzhou Dianzi University.
Ma applied for 30 different jobs and got rejected by all. “I went for a job with the police; they said, ‘you’re no good'”, Ma told interviewer Charlie Rose. “I even went to KFC when it came to my city. Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy …”.In addition to this, he applied ten times to Harvard Business School (HBS) and got rejected.
In 1994, Ma heard about the Internet. In early 1995, he went to the US with his friends, who helped introduce him to the Internet. Although he found information related to beer from many countries, he was surprised to find none from China. He also tried to search for general information about China and again was surprised to find none. So he and his friend created an “ugly” website related to China. He launched the website at 9:40 AM, and by 12:30 PM he had received emails from some Chinese investors wishing to know about him. This was when Ma realized that the Internet had something great to offer. In April 1995, Ma, his wife Cathy and a friend raised US$20,000 and started their first company. Their company was dedicated to creating websites for companies and he named it “China Pages”. Within three years, the company had made 5,000,000 Chinese Yuan which at the time was equivalent to US$800,000.
Ma began building websites for Chinese companies with the help of friends in the US. He said that “The day we got connected to the Web, I invited friends and TV people over to my house”, and on a very slow dial-up connection, “we waited three and a half hours and got half a page”, he recalled. “We drank, watched TV and played cards, waiting. But I was so proud. I proved the Internet existed”.
Now, in 2019, less than 25 years after learning about the Internet, Jack Ma’s Alibaba has become one of the greatest technology firms in the world and Jack Ma has become the wealthiest man in China.
Ma once said, “Our challenge is to help more people to make healthy money, ‘sustainable money’, money that is not only good for themselves but also good for the society. That’s the transformation we are aiming to make.”
Alibaba Headquarters in Hangzhou, China
On choosing the name Alibaba. “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?,’ and she said, ‘Open Sesame.’ And I said, ‘Yes, this is the name!’ Then I went on to 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 is a kind, smart business person, and he helped the village. So … easy to spell, and globally known. Alibaba opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies.”