Ma Yun was born near Shanghai, China. Short and scrawny, Ma was teased about his size as a kid, but he was energetic and fearless when it came to defending himself against bullies. There was no one he wouldn’t stand up to, regardless of how much bigger they were.
When Ma was still young, he decided that he wanted to learn English. Every day, he rode his bike to a hotel 45 minutes away in order to meet and converse with the foreign tourists staying there. He was charming, offering to guide them around the city for free so he could practice and improve his English. He also bought a radio so he could listen to English broadcasts.
Although he took to learning another language easily, Ma wasn’t as strong in math. In fact, when he took China's college entrance exam, his low scores on the math section caused him to fail the test twice.
After rigorously studying, Ma passed the test on the third try and became eligible for college. He eventually graduated and applied for a number of jobs and was rejected for all of them — including a manager position at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Eventually, he was able to become an English teacher, due in part to his fluency with the language. He was earning about $12 a month.
Thanks to a number of economic reforms in China, many of the country’s enterprising citizens began experimenting with new businesses that brought their once closed-off society into closer contact with the rest of the world. Ma became one such entrepreneur when he started a translation company. This led to his first visit to the USA, where a friend introduced him to a new technology he had never seen: the Internet.
Ma’s friend said that absolutely everything a person could think of was on the Internet, so Ma tested out the claim by searching for a number of Chinese products. He found none, and quickly determined that there was almost nothing about China on the Internet. When he returned home, Ma decided to start China Pages, the country’s first Internet company.
China Pages wasn’t a success, but Ma learned a lot from the experience, and in no time, he made another attempt. This time, he gathered 17 of his friends into an apartment to create a company that would let Chinese exporters post product listings that online buyers could browse. Once their site was online, it quickly started to attract members from around the world.
Ma Yun, known to the rest of the world as Jack Ma, became the first Chinese entrepreneur to appear on the cover of Forbes Magazine just two years after founding Alibaba. But his biggest challenge was still to come.
The opening of the Chinese market to the rest of the world had caught the interest of the leaders at eBay, the largest online shopping website in America. They decided to expand into China, first by purchasing one of Alibaba’s competitors, then by opening their own Chinese eBay site. Jack knew his company was under attack and could lose many of their customers, so he decided to take action.
He put together a small team to create a new site specifically to compete with eBay and maintain Alibaba’s position as the leading Chinese Internet shopping destination. In talking about the coming battle between the two companies, Jack said, “eBay is a shark in the ocean. We are a crocodile in China’s Yangtze River. If we fight in the ocean, we will lose. But if we fight in the river, we will win." What he meant was, if his company tried to do exactly what eBay did, the giant would certainly crush them. But if he specifically tailored his new site for Chinese users with flashy, fun, human touches, they might just be able to triumph.
Jack’s company went on the attack, using bold business model adjustments, hilarious publicity campaigns and shrewd partnerships to win over both users and investors, and, after a five-year struggle, Jack’s company emerged as the clear winner when eBay shut down its Chinese site.
Jack Ma went from being an unemployable college graduate to becoming a globally-recognized entrepreneur and the richest man in China, with an estimated net worth of over 29.7 billion dollars. And stunningly, he made his fortune creating and operating an enormously successful internet business despite never actually writing a single line of code himself. This just goes to show that not knowing how you’re going to reach your dreams will never stop you, as long as you’re focused on why you’re undoubtedly going to succeed.
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