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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.

He was so much affected by the 1989 Tiananmen Square shootings that he could not get out of bed for two weeks. He was teaching then.

A poor student, a reluctant teacher

Ma failed his university entrance exams twice. Finally, in 1984, he was accepted by Hangzhou Teachers College-"the worst university in town". A natural leader, he became head of the student union in college.

During his student days, he had made a promise to the college president that he would stay for five years in his first job as an English teacher at the Huangzhou Electrical Engineering Institute. He kept his promise and worked there for a monthly salary of $15. He actually didn't want to teach and when he left the college, he refused many job offers.

Luck had some other plans for him in store.

A trip to the United States

In 1995, he made a trip to the US as an interpreter for a Chinese trade delegation. He also visited some friends in Seattle. During this trip, he came to know about the Internet. He searched for beer and China into a Yahoo! Search engine. When he found zero results, he decided to bring the Internet to China. "When I told my friends in China that I was going to do something called the Internet, they didn't know what I was talking about," reminisces Ma.

When he returned to his hometown, he borrowed money from his relatives and making his wife a partner, launched China Pages. It was the same year when eBay was launched. Yahoo! had already made its debut a year ago.

With the launch of China Pages, Ma started off on a roller coaster ride of an unimaginable journey that has now become a legend.

Here are some of the highlights of Ma's entrepreneurial journey:

-         Ma's China Pages was a joint venture with China Telecom, which was in control of this relationship. That control in the hands of a giant was a mistake as it destroyed the startup. However, Ma emerged rich from the deal-he got $185,000, the largest sum he had pocket so far.

-         The Chinese government put him in charge of the China International Electronic Commerce Centre. In that capacity, he hosted Yahoo's Jerry Yang on a tour of the Great Wall and the Summer Palace. That proved to be a turning point for him. The friendship would endure and be fruitful to both the parties.

-         In 1999, Ma convinced 18 of his neighbours in his apartment to chip in for his e-commerce startup, Alibaba. He raised $60,000. Alibaba was launched that year with the Arabian Nights-inspired theme.


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