If you don’t give up, you still have a chance.
Giving up is the greatest failure.
Jack Ma Yun
The net worth of Jack Ma, the richest man in China, is valued at $32.7 billion. Even compared to other eccentric geek-billionaires of the 21st Century, Ma remains a standout figure with his dissonant and mysterious personality. There are countless nicknames given to him by friends and journalists—“Crazy Jack”, “Alien”, “Crocodile in the Yantze River”, “Stubborn Ma”, “Chinese Ali Baba”—and behind every name is a different side of his character.
In 1995, little-known young man Ma Yun came from China to the USA, where he first saw the worldwide web. He typed “beer” in the search bar, and saw an ocean of information about beer from Germany, Belgium, the United States—but it was as if it didn’t exist in China at all. In fact, Ma Yun found practically no information about his home country on the Internet. In this very moment, the idea to create a large Chinese site was born. Although the idea was far from its eventual implementation, Ma’s entire life had prepared him to realize this goal.
Ma Yun first took an interest in English back in his school days, and chose an unorthodox way of learning it: he would bike 40 minutes to a hotel, where many foreigners would stay. There he remembered English speech, listened to radio transmissions, and conversed with guests. He did this for 8 years! Then he came up with a new method of mastering the language: free excursions for newcomers. One of the tourists called him Jack, a name that stuck to the future businessman.
His school studies were also nonstandard—to be quite frank, borderline poor. In the earlier grades, he needed three attempts to pass a standardized test. What’s more is he also needed four attempts to pass his middle school exams. School was so difficult for him that his strong pursuit for an education seemed odd. Even Ma himself didn’t seem like your average student.
Out of 120 points required in mathematics to enroll into university, Yun got 1 point. There were 10 unsuccessful attempts to charm Harvard. He finally settled on a Pedagogical University, albeit from the third attempt. Finally, in 1988, upon receiving his diploma, he became an English teacher in that same university. The humble salary of $12 per month settled him for four years, until marriage prompted him to look for higher pay.
Once more, the “Alien” managed to set another unfortunate record: not a single successful job interview. Even KFC hired every single candidate interviewed alongside Jack, except for Jack himself. He attributed the rejection to his “baby face.” However, his looks didn’t stop him from finding happiness with his devoted and loving wife Zhang Ying, who noted, “Ma Yun is not a handsome man, but I fell for him because he can do a lot of things handsome men cannot do.”
In order to avoid any more interview heartbreak, Ma Yun decided to start his own business, using his most important skill: his knowledge of English. His translation office didn’t do too poorly; Ma was even invited to the United States as a part of a governmental delegation. This is the very trip that opened his eyes to the technological barrier between China and the Western world.
Upon returning from the USA, Ma gathered his friends to demonstrate the possibilities of the Internet. Loading a webpage took a humble three hours, but it was worth it—everyone agreed that the Chinese market needed this technology. It has to be noted, however, that nobody dared argue with Crazy Jack.
Ma founded the virtual handbook called China Pages, an imitation of Elon Musk’s Yellow Pages. Although Musk’s project had earned him $20 million, China Pages was a flop, having failed to meet financial support from both users and government institutions. Jack, it appeared, was the only madman in the entire country that believed in the Internet.
There was a barrier between Jack and his dream, it would seem. However, little did he know that only four hard years separated him from his ultimate success; four years during which he would work in the Ministry of Foreign Trade, revisit the United States, and meet Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo. Their chats reignited Ma’s ambitions, and he began working on a bold new business model. This time, he turned to California—a haven for technological startups—in search of investment. Unfortunately, even there nobody believed in Ma or his business; but Jack wasn’t ready to give up yet.
“The Chinese Ali Baba”
The new project was so “Chinese” in nature that, in 1999, nobody in California could truly see its potential. Luckily, when Ma returned to China and asked his friends for aid, they readily helped him out. The idea of a simple, universal online-trading platform was close to all of them.
Many (if not most) products oversees are more expensive than their Chinese counterparts; Ma sought to create a mass online market where precisely such products could be purchased. His friends managed to gather $60,000, which became the project’s starting capital.
It didn’t take long to come up with a name for the business. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, a folk tale from One Thousand and One Nights, is about a poor woodcutter that stumbled his way into a cave filled with treasure. The cave would open to anyone who knew the secret phrase: “Open Sesame.”
Alibaba was founded in 1999, and despite the $25 million investment from Goldman Sachs and Softbank, remained unprofitable for some time. Yet Jack and his team were unfazed, and relentlessly pushed forward.
Finally, when the site gained widespread popularity, the influx of customers brought with it a healthy income. By 2002, the company reached the breakeven point. The media soon took an interest in the site and its founder, with Forbes even inviting Ma for a shoot. Alibaba became the leader of the Chinese market, and even offered competition to established online markets elsewhere. The dream had finally become reality—but there was no time to rest, for Jack already had new ideas.
“Crocodile in the Yantze River”
After Alibaba’s resounding success, Jack Ma’s team began working on a new service called Taobao. It was similar to the American company eBay, which in that time had already penetrated the Chinese market. It seemed wishful thinking to believe that the startup could ever compete with an international giant like eBay.
Many scrambled to warn the unyielding businessman, and to think it through carefully—but his mind was already made up. Jack was certain that a shark like eBay would only be dangerous in open waters; in the Yantze, it wouldn’t stand a chance against the local crocodile.
Jack Ma understood the exact market that would meet the demands of every Chinese citizen, and carefully crafted a product that would make their lives easier.
Taobao took no commission on trades, had its own pay system (Alipay) and a convenient messenger tool, and generally was faster and more functional than its competitors.
Ultimately, eBay lost the fight against China’s Crocodile; by 2007, Taobao controlled 82% of online trades in the country, leaving the American giant with no choice but to exit the market.
Within a year, Ma and his team launched an advertising platform named Alimama, as well as T-Mall—a site where brands need to register with official documentation in order to trade. The latter platform hosted a number of international companies, including Calvin Klein, Lancôme, Adidas, and Samsung.
The fame and the billions didn’t stir in Jack any narcissism or arrogance, although he did demonstrate his furor at Alibaba’s 10th anniversary with a striking performance dressed as a rock star.
As of now, Jack Ma is no longer the CEO of Alibaba, but remains in the Board of Directors and continues to influence Alibaba’s operations. In addition, he has a vested interest in new startups; he invests in social networks, transport services, and cloud technology, to name a few.
He tests the services as a simple user, assuming that if he can’t figure out the site’s functionality, then neither would many others. The most fascinating aspect of his story isn’t his transformation from a poor teacher into a billionaire, but rather the misfortunes and failures that he pushed through to achieve his dreams.
The incredible perseverance of a schoolboy having to retake his exams again and again; the desperate ambition of an entrepreneur to implement a wild idea that would improve people’s lives; the character of a leader to guide his young team to compete against giants of the industry. All of this is Jack Ma—proving that we are only as lucky as our stubbornness and belief allows.