Jack Ma may not be as much of a household name in the U.S. as tech executives like Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, but that might change soon.
Fifteen years ago, Ma gathered a group of friends in his one-bedroom apartment to create Alibaba, a service that would help small businesses in China use the Internet to connect with markets abroad. Alibaba is now the largest ecommerce service in China, a country with more than 600 million Internet users.
This week, Alibaba is expected to raise more than $21 billion in what will certainly be the largest technology IPO ever and perhaps the largest public offering of any company ever. The company’s market cap is expected to be around $160 billion, more than double that of eBay and slightly more than Amazon.
The funds raised from the IPO will help fuel Alibaba’s expansion into the U.S. and other new markets. The public offering will also add to Ma’s personal fortune — Bloomberg puts his net worth at $21.9 billion — and further cement his reputation inside and outside China as a businessman to be reckoned with.
What will he do with his growing fortune and clout? There are some clues from his improbable journey to this point.
1. Jack Ma started out as an English teacher
Ma wasn’t a particularly good student. He was lousy at math and twice flunked a test to get accepted into what he later described as the “worst university” in his home city. At a young age, however, he developed a love for the English language and practiced it by bike riding 40 minutes to a hotel where he could converse with foreigners. He was eventually accepted into a university where he studied to become an English teacher.
My pay was 100 to 120 renminbi, which is like $12 to $15 per month
My pay was 100 to 120 renminbi, which is like $12 to $15 per month,” Ma told Inc magazine in 2008. “I always had a dream that when I finished my five years, I would join a business — a hotel or whatever. I just wanted to go do something.”
2. Ma’s campaign to bring the Internet to China began in 1995
During a trip to Seattle in 1995, Ma stayed with a friend’s family, and was introduced to what was then referred to as the World Wide Web. He searched for the word “beer” online and discovered there were no results from China. When he returned to China, he decided to change that — first with a website called China Pages and later with Alibaba.
3. He was focused on competing with Silicon Valley from the start.
“Since we were working on China Pages, I’ve always said our competitors are not domestic websites, but overseas websites,” Ma said during his original pitch to employees (video, below) about Alibaba in 1999. “Our competitors are not in China, but in America’s Silicon Valley … We need to learn the hardworking spirit of Silicon Valley.”
In order to achieve that vision, Ma marketed Alibaba as a global company, and never shied away from taking on better funded and better known competitors. He went head to head with eBay, effectively blocking the latter’s expansion into the company. As Ma famously put it later, “If eBay are the sharks in the ocean, we are the crocodiles in the Yangtze river.”
Ma touted the company’s fighting spirit and origins from outside Silicon Valley in a letter to investors included with Alibaba’s IPO filing:
Alibaba is not the creation of a few technology innovations or a couple of whiz kids. We have developed an ecosystem that has been built by tens of millions of participants who are passionate about the future and steadfast in their belief that the Internet should be fair, open, transparent and shared. Together, these participants have invested time, energy and passion into this ecosystem, and today the world can see what they have accomplished.
4. He is not a coder. He barely even uses technology.
“I was trained to be a high school teacher. I know nothing about technology,”
“I was trained to be a high school teacher. I know nothing about technology,” he told Charlie Rose in one interview. “The only thing I can use my computer [for] is [to] send, receive email and browse.”
According to a Businessweek profile from 2012, “Ma shows little interest in technology: He doesn’t spend much time online and depends on a colleague to help him download U.S. TV shows to his iPad. Instead, he dabbles in poker, traditional medicine and other pastimes.”
5. He’s a performer at heart
His parents were both professional pingtan performers, a traditional form of storytelling in China. Ma seems to have inherited some of their penchant for performing in public, as you can see in the video, below. Fast forward to the 1:05 mark to catch Ma singing the theme song to The Lion King.
6. Jack Ma: martial arts lover, general in waiting
“People don’t realize how much martial arts and kung fu novels influence Jack and his strategy for business,” one anonymous person close to Ma told The Financial Times. “They also helped shape his idealism because they are all about upholding the righteous way.”
I could have been a general
I could have been a general,” he said at one point. “I thought about what I could have achieved in war.”
7. He’s not afraid to admit mistakes
Ma has repeatedly joked in recent recent years that he would like to write a book calledAlibaba: 1001 Mistakes, and for good reason.
“We expanded too fast, and then in the dot-com bubble, we had to have layoffs,” Ma said in the Inc interview. “By 2002, we had only enough cash to survive for 18 months. We had a lot of free members using our site, and we didn’t know how we’d make money. So we developed a product for China exporters to meet U.S. buyers online. This model saved us. By the end of 2002, we made $1 in profits. Each year, we improved.”
8. He doesn’t exactly hold shareholders in the highest regard
Ma has said many times that investors rank on the low end of his priorities. As he told Charlie Rose in an interview, investors sometimes flee when Alibaba goes through a crisis, while customers and employees show more loyalty. He echoed that in his letter to investors in the IPO filing.
I have said on numerous occasions that we will put “customers first, employees second and shareholders third.” I can see that investors who hear this for the first time may find it a bit hard to understand.
Let me be clear: as fiduciaries of the company, we believe that the only way for Alibaba to create long-term value for shareholders is to create sustainable value for customers. So customers must come first.
Next come our employees, because in today’s knowledge economy, employees are most important in having satisfied customers. Without talented, happy, diligent and passionately committed employees, our commitment to serving customers will be empty. A company that does not have satisfied employees will not have satisfied customers, and without satisfied customers, we could not possibly have satisfied shareholders.
9. Ma is now the richest person in China, and ranks among the 50 richest people in the world
Not bad for someone who once earned about $15 a month working as a teacher.
10. He is now focused on environmental and education causes
He stepped down as CEO of Alibaba last year to focus more on environmental and education causes, though he remains active involved with the company as its executive chairman and one of its largest shareholders. Ma is particularly interested in combatting China’s rampant pollution, which he says has taken the lives of multiple young people he’s known.
“In China, because of problems in water, air and food safety, in 10 or 20 years, we will face a lot of health problems, like increased cancer,” he told The Financial Times. “So that is one area where I will invest my money and time.”