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The trade secrets of Jack Ma: ‘The blind man riding on the back of a blind tiger’

Zafar Anjum | Sept. 25, 2014
The incredible story of Jack Ma, who like the magical name of his company Alibaba, has magically risen from humble beginnings to become the richest man in China.

Jack Ma

Jack Ma, the founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group

The story of Jack Ma, the founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group, a family of highly successful Internet-based businesses, is very much like a modern fairytale. A one-time struggling English teacher and interpreter pays a visit to the United States and after coming back to his motherland, starts a tech venture that goes on to debut on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) as the biggest IPO in history in September 2014, making him the richest man of China.

Ma's fabulous journey started 15 years ago when he founded Alibaba in his tiny apartment in Hangzhou, China, with a group of friends who forked out $60,000 as seed capital. Today, that company has a market cap of $231 billion, and it is nearly as valuable as Wal-Mart and bigger than Amazon and eBay combined.

How did he do it? Did he rub Alladin's magic lamp, a la Arabian Nights, and the genie fulfilled all his wishes?

Not exactly. Ma's journey has been a journey of having a dream and going all out to make it come true.

"I am like the blind man riding on the back of a blind tiger," Ma once said at an Asia Society dinner in San Francisco. "Alibaba might as well be known as '1,001 mistakes'. But there were three main reasons why we survived. We didn't have any money, we didn't have any technology, and we didn't have a plan."[1]

100 percent China-made

Ma is an unlikely candidate for the Internet hall of fame. He didn't go to Harvard or Stanford. He is purely homegrown talent and a hometown boy who grew up in Hangzhou, a large city 180 kilometers southwest of Shanghai. "I'm 100 percent made in China," says Ma.

He is a "tech dummy" too, which he has shown is not necessarily a bad thing for  designing websites that anyone can use without wearing a geek's hat. "A product should be click and get it," says Ma. "If I can't get it, then it is rubbish".

Ma was born in 1964 at the cusp of a historical change in China-the Cultural Revolution. As a young child, he saw his grandfather being made fun of for being a bourgeoisie. His classmates taunted at him for belonging to a "bad family". He always fought back whenever someone spoke ill of his family.

As a teenager, Ma wanted to be a Red Guard and spread the message of Chairman Mao but then he was spurned by the authorities. Soon, he became disillusioned with the communist propaganda claiming that China was the best country in the world. "I was educated that China was the richest, happiest country in the world," he says. "But I realized that everything was different from what I was told. Since then, I started to think differently. I didn't follow people but developed my own way of thinking."


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