The tale of Alibaba is one that we are all familiar with.
This story, however, is different from the one popularised by Arabian Nights. The forty thieves and the cave of treasure are absent from this version.
Instead, there is only one protagonist, Jack Ma.
Alibaba started as a business to the business e-commerce marketplace. Since its inception, the company took off like wildfire and grew to immense proportions. In 2019, the company reported revenue of over US $56 billion.
How did it happen?
How did this startup surpass all its contemporaries and rise to such magnitude in only 20 years?
What is the story behind Alibaba and Jack Ma’s success?
That, my friends, is why we are gathered here today.
I am going to take this opportunity to tell you all about Jack Ma and his trajectory to success.
Let us start at the beginning, shall we?
Jack Ma was born in 1964 in Hangzhou, China. This was around the same time that tourists started flocking to this part of the country, and Jack Ma was introduced to English for the first time. The proverbial lightbulb clicked on in his head and he realized his interest in the language.
Jack Ma’s perseverance showed in the way he learnt English. Language classes were hard to come by in China. For years, Jack would travel for miles on his bicycle to meet English tourists at the Hangzhou International Hotel and learn from them.
In fact, young Jack would even offer to show the tourists around his city in exchange for the opportunity to practice his English.
Can you imagine being that entrepreneurial in your adolescence?
It is commonly believed that adversity brings out the best in us. This was definitely true for a young Jack Ma and his indomitable spirit.
Much like most of us, Jack was weak in Mathematics. He did not understand the concepts and feared the dreaded subject. For college, it took him three tries to pass the Chinese entrance exams. He finally graduated in 1988 with an English degree.
Sadly, Jack’s encounters with adversity had not seen its end even after college. His family was not well-off financially, and he had to find some way to support them. However, his luck with jobs was no better. He applied for at least 30 jobs and got rejected for all of them.
Jack was even rejected for a job at KFC!
“Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted.” Jack was the only one who did not qualify.
Eventually, he managed to scrape by with a job as an English teacher. His starting salary was just $12 per month.
Was it luck? Or was it destiny?
In retrospect, we can spiritualise about all the funny ways in which the universe manifests itself. However, for a young Jack, this must have been the ultimate blow.
In the 1980s, the Chinese government started reforming the economy so as to allow foreign investment and the establishment of private companies. Jack’s hometown Hangzhou also saw the birth of a number of small businesses which showed a lot of potentials.
There was just one problem which prevented these Chinese businesses from breaking into the world market and the global trade sphere.
Jack viewed this as an opportunity and started his first business Haibo. This company was a translating agency which helped the Chinese companies market their products in the world market and reach a much larger customer base.
This marked the turning point in Jack Ma’s life.
Although Haibo was short-lived, it helped Jack create a reputation for himself as an expert in English. In China, in the 1990s, this was indeed a rare skill and proved to be extremely valuable going forward.
His proficiency in English was the reason why Jack was selected to go to the US on behalf of the Hangzhou local government to deal with a few issues. He went to the US in early 1995. There, his friends introduced him to a magical invention, the internet.
The internet changed Jack’s life. It promised potential like nothing Jack had ever encountered before, and opportunities galore.
Jack soon discovered the fact that while the rest of the world had already jumped on the Internet wagon, China had been left behind. Companies from all parts of the world used the Internet to promote themselves and their products. However, there was almost no information available about Chinese businesses.
Knowledge of this fact presented to Jack the opportunity for his second business, China Pages. Adapted from the popular Yellow Pages, this company was formed with the intention of providing information about all the businesses in China and their products.
China Pages did not survive for much longer than its predecessor Haibo. This is because while the idea itself was revolutionary, the situation in China was not developed enough to make proper utilisation of the company.
Soon after, Jack started working for the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation. During this period, he was inspired by the business model of ChinaMarket.com, an e-commerce marketplace initiative launched by the Chinese government. He realised that such a revolutionary idea could not be executed to perfection amidst bureaucracy and government intervention. In order to succeed, the idea would have to be germinated in a private company.
In 1999, Jack Ma started Alibaba with a group of friends. Alibaba started as a business-to-business marketplace which provided a direct link between Chinese consumers and manufacturers.
The logic behind the name was to provide a shortcut to unimaginable treasure for small and medium companies, much like the original Alibaba and his secret cave of treasure. This company would act as a catalyst which would help smaller companies reach a consumer base that was a few thousand times the conventional demand base in their local cities. Alibaba offered entry into a virtual global marketplace filled with millions of consumers.
After the rocky start to his career, Jack Ma struck proverbial gold with Alibaba. Much like the original story, Alibaba provided entry to an endless cave of treasure for Jack Ma.
From here on, Jack Ma’s trajectory went straight up. Gone were the days when even KFC rejected him. As Alibaba’s popularity grew, so did Jack Ma’s reputation and fortune.
By January 2000, the company raised capital of $25 million from foreign investors, namely Goldman Sachs and SoftBank. This company proved to be a revolutionary initiative which helped smaller Chinese businesses break barriers and surpass all possible limits. Unlike most other startups which require a significant gestation period, Alibaba became profitable in just three years since its inception.
In fact, Alibaba proved so successful, that SoftBank’s initial $20 million investment in 2000 grew to $60 billion in 2014.
Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
Jack Ma’s ultimate aim was the global e-commerce marketplace. From 2003 onwards, he launched several new companies to fulfil this objective, namely Taobao Marketplace, Alipay, Alimama and Lynx.
Taobao was launched to facilitate B2C transactions as opposed to the B2B model followed by Alibaba. Taobao proved so successful that eBay offered to buy out the company. However, Jack was not interested and instead obtained a $1 billion investment from Yahoo to develop the company.
Alibaba went public in 2014. In fact, this was the largest Initial Public Offering in history. Alibaba raised an unimaginable $25 billion and became one of the most valuable technology companies in the world. In a span of just 15 years, Alibaba had not only entered the major leagues, but it also established itself as one of the strongest players in the world.
Under Jack Ma’s leadership, Alibaba has expanded immensely and has entered into a number of other industries. The company has invested in newspaper houses, production studios as well as other companies like Yahoo China.
In September 2018, Jack Ma announced that he would be resigning as the Chairman of the Alibaba Group of companies. He will be succeeded by Daniel Zhang as the new executive chairman. Ma intends to focus more time and attention on philanthropy and the other aspects of his life.
The story of Jack Ma is a true rags-to-riches tale. It is fit to inspire a generation of potential entrepreneurs.
It is no secret that life rarely works out the way we plan. But the fact that adversity brings out the best in us is also true. So, if you have been struggling with your studies or with your career, allow this tale to inspire you and fill you with renewed determination to succeed. A decade down the line, no one will care whether you placed first in class or whether you were fired from your first job. All that will matter is your courage and your perseverance.
Jack Ma dreamed of getting a degree from the holy grail, Harvard Business School. He applied to the prestigious university ten times and was rejected ten times.
Maybe if he had gotten into Harvard, he would have graduated with an MBA and joined an American firm with a high salary. He would never have gotten the urge to form his own company and surpass any imaginable limit.
Today, Jack Ma is worth $43.9 billion. He is featured at number 21 on Forbes’ list of the most powerful people in the world. He is the wealthiest person in China and now has the opportunity to live out all his dreams, ranging from acting in movies to owning vineyards to travelling around the world on his personal jet plane.
Remember guys, perseverance is key. It does not matter whether you struggled in the beginning. All that matters is where you end.