Little known facts about e-commerce giant Alibaba and its founder Jack Ma

Workers renovate a building at the Alibaba head office in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, on Sept 15, 2014. Alibaba Group Holding's initial public offering on Friday on the New York Stock Exchange looks set to make it as one of one of the largest I
Workers renovate a building at the Alibaba head office in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, on Sept 15, 2014. Alibaba Group Holding's initial public offering on Friday on the New York Stock Exchange looks set to make it as one of one of the largest IPOs ever. -- PHOTO: AFP

Alibaba Group Holding's initial public offering Friday on the New York Stock Exchange looks set to make it as one of one of the largest IPOs ever. Alibaba founder Jack Ma will shoot him into the ranks of tech billionaires like Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Mr Ma says he doesn't understand technology - but has great respect for the engineers who do. And what has been his biggest inspiration? Silicon Valley. He made these points to a group of students at Stanford Business School in 2013, just before he stepped down as CEO.  Watch the video here, where he speaks in Mandarin.


Here are 40 facts about Alibaba and its founder.


1. Mr Ma, his wife and 16 friends pooled together US$60,000 to set up Alibaba out of his Hangzhou apartment in 1999.

2. The dial-up connection was so spotty in the early days of the company that it took three hours to load half a web page.

3. Alibaba means "opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies", Mr Ma told CNN in 2006.

4. The company founder said the name came to him at a coffee shop in San Francisco. He asked the waitress and 30 people on the street, if they knew it, and they all did. He chose this name also because it is easy to pronounce in all languages.

5. In 2002, Alibaba had only enough money to stay in business for 18 months. It turned things around by creating a product to let Chinese exporters meet US buyers online.

6. The company fought off eBay with its online marketplace Taobao by offering free listings to sellers. Mr Ma told Forbes magazine in 2005: "eBay may be a shark in the ocean, but I'm a crocodile in the Yangtze River. If we fight in the ocean, we lose, but if we fight in the river, we win."

This Sept 9, 2014, file photo shows a woman walking past the Alibaba booth during an exhibition in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.  -- PHOTO: AFP

7. Unlike US giant Amazon, Alibaba connects small- and medium-sized Chinese sellers with a wide audience.

8. Alibaba is now responsible for 80 per cent of online sales in China.

9. Alibaba makes most of its revenue from fees and commissions that it receives from Taobao and the smaller but more up market Tmall.

10. It also has stakes in Chinese payment services, video streaming and cloud computing.

11. Together, Alibaba’s marketplaces sold US$296 billion worth of goods in the 12 months through the end of June, which is estimated to be more than Amazon and eBay combined.

12. In the second quarter, Alibaba made a staggering 43 cents of operating profit for every dollar of revenue.

13. The company remains largely unknown in the United States with an Ipsos poll finding that 88 per cent of Americans have never heard of it.

14. But that could change as Alibaba ramps up its investments in the US. Recently it has invested  hundreds of millions in US start-ups, including Uber ride-sharing competitor Lyft, delivery service ShopRunner and video-gaming venture Kabam. It has recently invested in mobile browsers, social media and film production. This year, Alibaba launched the invite-only shopping site, aimed at American buyers. 

15. Mr Ma was in Singapore recently, speaking to investors at a roadshow ahead of Alibaba's IPO. A team from the company also visited Hong Kong, New York and Boston.

Alibaba founder Jack Ma waves as he leaves a hotel in Singapore on Sept 16, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

16. Alibaba is poised for a record-breaking stock market debut on Friday, by raising $21.8 billion in a US initial public offering. This could rise to US$25 billion if options are exercised for additional demand, breaking the 2010 record of China’s AgBank of $22.1 billion.

17. The shares were priced at US$68, which is at the top end of the range announced earlier this week.

18. Alibaba would have a market value of around $168 billion based on the price, making it bigger than Amazon.

19. Among the beneficiaries will be current and former employees, many of whom will become instant millionaires as Alibaba like other tech giants such as Google and Microsoft had given stock to staff.

20. In a letter included in the IPO prospectus, Mr Ma said: “Customers first, employees second, and shareholders third."


Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma gives the thumbs-up after speaking to journalists ahead of an IPO roadshow, inside a hotel in Hong Kong on Sept 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

1. Picked up English as a teenager in Hangzhou by cycling 40 minutes every day to the city centre to act as a free tour guide to foreigners. Mr Ma said: "I practised my English every morning, no matter if it snows or rains."

2. Found himself on Hangzhou TV in 1995, after he was the only person brave enough to take on some burly men stealing well covers. The TV station staged the theft to find chivalrous passers-by.

3. Dreamed of studying at Peking University but didn't make it to the prestigious university

4.  Flunked his college exams twice and had to settle for a low-ranked teacher's institute in his hometown.

5.  After graduating, he taught English at a university for five years. His pay was a meagre 100 to 120 yuan (S$20 to S$25) a month.

6.  Once applied to be secretary to the general manager of a KFC outlet, but was rejected.

7.  His first two start-ups, a translation business and an online Chinese version of the Yellow Pages, flopped.

8. Got the idea to start a website in Seattle, where he was a trade delegation's interpreter. Exposed to the Internet for the first time, he searched for "beer", and found that there was no data about China.

People walk at the headquarters of Alibaba in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, in this April 23, 2014, file photo. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

9. At that point, he had never touched a keyboard, and didn't know anything about computers or e-mail.

10. From the looks of it, he still isn't a tech whiz. Mr Ma said in an interview that he "knows nothing about technology", and that he only uses his computer for e-mail and to surf the web. He even gets a colleague to help him load American television shows into his iPad.

11. See himself as a cross between Feng Qingyang, a reclusive master swordsman from a martial arts novel, and iconic Hollywood alien ET. Mr Ma wrote in an e-mail before his 2013 resignation as CEO of the company: "Succeeding a founder CEO is a difficult job, especially taking over from a CEO with such a distinct personality who is very ET-like; this requires great courage and the willingness to make sacrifices."

12. Has been inspired by stars on the big screen. Mr Ma said in 2009: "Forrest Gump is not a smart guy, but he is focused. He's not talented, but he is very, very hardworking, and he's very simple and opportunistic."

13.  Belted out hits from The Lion King to staff at major company events, in full rock star regalia, complete with a flowing white wig and leather jacket. This video briefly shows one of his performances (from 1:06). He has also dressed up as the Terminator, with Arnold Schwarzenegger on his arm.

Chinese billionaire Jack Ma (centre) with his friends gather to watch the AFC Champions League quarterfinal match between China's Guangzhou Evergrande and Australia's Western Sydney Wanderers at the Tianhe Sport Center in Guangzhou, southern China's Guangdong province on Aug 27, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

14. Probably gets his sense of showmanship from his parents who were performers of the traditional musical storytelling technique of ping tan, which was banned during the Cultural Revolution.

15. Founded a taiji school with actor and martial artist Jet Li in May 2013. He was photographed demonstrating taiji at the school's opening ceremony.

16. He is the first mainland Chinese to make the cover of Forbes magazine.

17. Forbes described the 1.62m-tall Mr Ma as a "Napoleon-like person". The magazine must have heard that Mr Ma, in his youth, wished that he was born during wartime. "I could have been a general," he said.

18. Mr Ma's journey with Alibaba has been the subject of a film. Crocodile In The Yangtze was written, directed and produced by an American who spent eight years at the company.

19.Alibaba will last 102 years, according to Mr Ma who wants the company to thrive for three centuries.

20. Mr Ma will reap US$867 million by selling a portion of his shares with the IPO Friday, and his remaining holdings in the company are now worth US$13.2 billion


Sources: The Straits Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today,, CNN, Reuters, Forbes, The New York Times,Washington Post, Businessweek