The lumbering, sleeping giant awakes. What will soon become the world’s largest economy is very much on the radar screen as it emerges from centuries of sleep. China’s potential for growth and its likely impact upon the economies of the Western world cannot be underestimated. Several homegrown entrepreneurs are riding that wave and one of their most notable nationals is Jack Ma, who founded the business-to-business website alibaba.com. After a meteoric rise, Ma’s company went public and now has a valuation of more than $30 billion.
Ma is certainly a child of China’s Cultural Revolution. He learned English when he was 12 and was able to interact with a number of foreign tourists. In his own words his eyes were opened. "China was opening up and a lot of foreign tourists went there. I showed them around as a free guide and practiced my English. Those eight years deeply changed me. I started to become more globalized than most Chinese. What I learned from my teachers and books was different from what the foreign visitors told us." A visit to Australia in the early ‘eighties reinforced his vision.
Ma was not a model student and flunked university several times. Upon graduating with a degree in English he took a mundane teaching job at a university, but his passion had been fueled and when the business environment started to open up in the mid-nineties he started searching in earnest for ways to get into the corporate world.
During a visit to the United States in 1995, Ma discovered the Internet. Showing significant entrepreneurial skills he decided to set up a search engine centered on his own country. "I borrowed $2000 to set up the company. I knew nothing about personal computers or e-mails. I’d never touched a keyboard before that. That’s why I call myself "the blind man riding on the back of the blind Tiger.""
During the next few years his skills improved considerably and his business venture attracted a lot of interest from other emerging enterprises within China. But it was in 1999 that things really started to take off. "My dream was to set up my own e-commerce company. I gathered 18 people in my apartment and spoke to them for two hours about my vision. Everyone put their money on the table and that got us $60,000 to start Alibaba. I wanted to have a global company." In fiction, the words Ali Baba conjure up visions of the command that the character of the same name gave in order to open doors to hidden treasures. The choice of name is an inspired one.
Ma contends that the company survived in the initial years only because they were very prudent, but they were able to expand considerably when they received investment dollars from companies such as Goldman Sachs. The vision of the company is to help small and medium-sized companies to interact and make money. He wanted a business model that worked. "It has to be — click and get it — if I can’t get it, then it’s rubbish," he observes.
Like all expanding businesses, Alibaba suffered through its ups and downs. Ultimately, they developed a product for Chinese exporters to meet US buyers online and from there the business-to-business site really exploded. A new site taobao.com did so well that in 2006 eBay shut down its own similar site in China. Revenues for Alibaba exceeded $440 million in 2008.
"My vision is to build an e-commerce ecosystem that allows consumers and businesses to do all aspects of business online. We are going into search with Yahoo and have launched online auction payment businesses." Ma maintains that he wants to create 1 million jobs in his own country, to change China’s social and economic environment and make it the largest Internet marketing place in the world.
This softly spoken 44-year-old calls himself a purist. He wants to be able to influence many people in the development of his beloved home nation. "When I am myself, I am relaxed and happy and have a good result." It seems that Ma must be relaxed and happy all the time.