Frustrated with his lack solid employment opportunities after graduation in the early 1990s, Ma relied on his English to teach at the local university he had attended a few years prior and to start a translation service business. Upon his first visit to the United States in the 1995 as a translator, Ma got introduced to the Internet, and to his shock after looking up beer from various countries, he learned that there was none from China (a country of about a Billion people) on the World Wide Web. Ma immediately saw the potential business opportunities of the internet and how it could facilitate the way small and medium Chinese enterprises could do business with the rest of the world. Then, he and his friends decided to luanch a site about China and Chinese products online, known as “Chinapage”, that listed Chinese businesses and their products. Within the same day, he began to receive emails from people around the world requesting that they partner up. That experience taught Ma about the incredible power of connectivity, especially how the internet can greatly impact global trade, especially for SMEs.
Later, believing that “Chinapage” will get better funding, Ma partnered with a government entity that had majority control. Unfortunately, that entity brought along the rigid bureaucracy that stifled away many of Ma’s visionary projects and frustrated him; which led to Ma’s eventual departure. Thereafter, Ma took up a government job for a short period at the ministry of foreign trade and economic cooperation in the latter half of the 1990s. There, he also built important connections with influential people that would later impact Ma’s life and business venture; one of whom is the founding member of Yahoo, Jerry Yang. Jerry would eventually get yahoo to invest USD 1 Billion in Alibaba in 2005.
Thanks to his experience there and his failed partnership with the government entity, Ma learned much about government inefficiencies and why not to be in business with the government. As he addressed his relationship with the governments in interview Charlie Rose in Davos, found on YouTube, Ma said “Be in love with the governments, but do not marry them.” For example, when government officials approached Alibaba to help solve a habitual crash of its ticket vending system during the annual spring festival in China, Ma and his young team from Alibaba helped to fix the problem ‘Free of charge’ with the promise of being left alone by the government.
In 1999, after leaving the government job, Ma took a second bite at internet-based business ventures by grouping 18 people (including himself and his wife) at his home and sold them a dream to found Alibaba with the goal of facilitating international trade for small and medium ventures based in China. Alibaba was born out of Ma’s unfulfilled dream of using the internet to facilitate business activities for Chinese SMEs and frustration with the bureaucrats he worked with in the preceding joint venture (Chinapage), where his suggestions to use the internet to facilitate trade of Chinese made products in the international market were repeatedly rejected.
To learn more about this fascinating story of building a technology company in China, get yourself a copy ot the book: Alibaba – The House That Jack Built via Amazon.com or locally at Exclusive Books.