Jack Ma, the man behind Alibaba's rise

È-COMMERCE GIANT: Mr Ma speaking in Hangzhou last May at an event to mark the 10th anniversary of Taobao Marketplace. Together with, Alibaba's two main websites account for 60 per cent of packages shipped through China's postal system.


    May 09, 2014

    Jack Ma, the man behind Alibaba's rise


    THE first time Jack Ma used the Internet, in 1995, he searched for "beer" and "China" but found no results.

    Intrigued, he created a basic webpage for a Chinese translation service with a friend. Within hours, he received a handful of e-mail messages from around the world requesting information.

    It was an introduction to the power of the Web that would drive Mr Ma to create the Alibaba Group four years later.

    Today, Alibaba is China's largest online retailer, with merchandise volumes that lag only Walmart, worldwide.

    The e-commerce giant is also moving forward with plans for a stock sale that is expected to rival Facebook's US$16 billion (about S$20 billion) offering two years ago.

    If successful, the deal would help vault Alibaba and Mr Ma, who owns 8.9 per cent of the company, to the highest ranks of technology industry titans.

    Mr Ma's ascent to dot-com billionaire is remarkable for not following the traditional script.

    Unlike Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Apple's Steve Jobs or Microsoft's Bill Gates, Mr Ma, 49, has no background in computing and professes not to understand technology.

    Raised during China's Cultural Revolution, he began his career as an English teacher. Instead, his role at Alibaba has always been as the company's main strategist, a flamboyant motivator-in-chief to his staff and a relentless opponent to those who have competed against him.

    Alibaba's two main websites, Taobao Marketplace and, now account for 60 per cent of the packages shipped through the Chinese postal system.

    Mr Ma has proved to be a serial disrupter - an outsider with a knack for creating new markets by re-imagining old industries like retailing and finance.

    Alibaba and Mr Ma are shaking up some of China's most staid, state-dominated industries, starting ventures in banking and finance and mobile phone communications. He is even moving into the department-store business and film production.

    "Innovation in many industries has been triggered by outsiders," Mr Ma wrote last June in an opinion article in The People's Daily.

    He was putting the country's state banks on notice. Publication of the article coincided with the start of Yu'e Bao, a high-interest money-market product that Alibaba initiated to attract investment from its customers' online payment accounts. As of February, 81 million people had signed up for the product.

    "The finance industry needs a disrupter, it needs an outsider to come in and carry out a transformation," Mr Ma wrote.

    From the start, he has shown a knack for thinking differently. At a time when few Chinese households had their own computers, Mr Ma in 1995 made the decision to leave teaching to set up an online business.

    In his hometown, Hangzhou, he established one of the country's first officially registered Internet companies, a business index site called China Pages.

    Cui Luhai, who was then running a computer animation business, met Mr Ma at the China Pages office to learn more about his plans for the website.

    "I can still remember the...scene when I walked into his office," said Mr Cui, today a lecturer in new media at the China Academy of Art. "It was a pretty empty space with only one desk set up in the middle of the room. There was only one very old PC desktop, surrounded by a lot of people," he said.

    Mr Ma, it turned out, had spent much of his money on registering the business and appeared to have little left for hardware.

    He struggled in his early efforts to get government support for his new venture.

    In a memoir-style documentary about Alibaba and Mr Ma called Crocodile In The Yangtze, Porter Erisman, a Mandarin-speaking American who worked at Alibaba from 2000 to 2008, presents footage of one of many visits Mr Ma paid to officials in Beijing in the mid-1990s.

    Mr Ma appears in a button-down blue denim shirt, sitting over a boxy old laptop computer in a smoky government office and explaining his business to a bespectacled official in jacket and tie.

    "Nowadays, foreigners can use computers from any desktop to find products from around the world," he explains to the official. "They can order directly from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, but they can't order anything from China because right now there's nothing from China on the Internet," he says. "I hope the various departments will support us."

    But his pitches were rebuffed. He soon left China Pages in 1997 to work at a unit of China's Commerce Ministry, helping to create websites. In early 1999, he struck out on his own again, to start Alibaba.