This article was written in 2008.
Hangzhou, August 1995. Inside Jack Ma's home, there is a TV camera filming what is going on. Through his i486 computer, Jack dials into Shanghai Telecom. The connection is successful. He opens the Mosaic browser and keys in "http://www.chinapages.com". Three and a half hours later, the web page of Lakeview Hotel Hangzhou is fully downloaded. Pointing at the images and summary received from Seattle, Jack is both proud and excited. He has proven that he was not lying to everyone: the Internet truly exists...
Jack Ma was born in Hangzhou on the 10th of September 1964 to semi-literate parents. He became proficient in English from a young age and began fetching foreigners around Hangzhou on a bicycle when he was 13. However, he was poor at math and once scored a whopping one mark in an exam. He practiced martial arts since his childhood, and enjoyed fighting so much that he once required 13 stitches, while in a separate incident, he was disciplined and forced to transfer to Hangzhou Eighth Middle School.
When he was 18, he had dreams of attending Peking University, but ended up failing the college entrance exams. At 19, he retook the exams but failed them once again. At 20, he retook them a third time and was narrowly accepted into Hangzhou Normal University as a junior college student. However, thanks to vacancies in the intake, he was subsequently allocated to the foreign languages undergraduate major.
And so, Jack finally made it into university in 1984. Because the courses were taught only in English, he took to them like a duck to water, and was soon elected as chairperson of Hangzhou City's students' federation. After graduating in 1988, he was assigned as an English language lecturer to Hangzhou Dianzi University, where he earned a salary of 89 yuan per month. He quickly became an "Outstanding Young Teacher" of Hangzhou, and established the first English Corner by the side of West Lake. He also began to make a name for himself in Hangzhou's translation circle, and would subsequently receive more translation requests than he could handle. In 1992, he founded Hangzhou Hope Translation Agency, through which he invited retired teachers to do translation work. The agency amassed a revenue of 700 yuan in its first month, way lower than the monthly office rent of 2,400 yuan. In order to keep the business going, the agency began selling fresh flowers and gifts, and thus Jack had to carry large sacks to purchase stock from cities such as Yiwu and Guangzhou. For a year, he even sold medicine to clients ranging from big hospitals to barefoot doctors. The agency broke even in 1994 and became profitable from 1995. Jack no longer managed it after it turned profitable.
Hangzhou Dianzi University, a week after Christmas 1994. Bill, a foreign lecturer from Seattle, was talking about the Internet with Jack. Though neither man understood the Internet, this was no hindrance. Bill spoke very excitedly about the topic, while Jack listened equally excitedly. By this time, the latter had already made up his mind to become an entrepreneur. "Everything which I've taught my students was copied from books. There's no meaning and fun in misguiding the young." He was on the lookout for an opportunity.
Jack arrived in Los Angeles in early 1995 as a translator for a highway investment project which was ultimately unsuccessful. He took a flight to Seattle to find Bill, who as a believer in the Internet, brought Jack to visit Seattle's first ISP company, VBN.
两间很小的办公室，猫着5个对着屏幕不停敲键盘的年轻人。马云不敢碰电脑。公司的人说，不要紧，你就用吧。公司的人打开Mosaic浏览器，键入Lycos.com，对马云说：“要查什么，你就在上面敲什么。”马云在上面敲了个beer，搜索出了德国啤酒美国啤酒和日本啤酒，就中国啤酒。马云敲Chinese，返回是no data.，马云又敲china history，找到一个50字的介绍。
Cramped within two very small offices were five young men who perpetually faced monitor screens while tapping away on their keyboards. Jack did not dare to touch the computers until an employee told him not to worry and to try using one. The employee opened the Mosaic browser and keyed in "Lycos.com" before telling Jack, "Type in whatever you want to search for." Jack entered the term "beer", which returned results of German beer, American beer, and Japanese beer, but none of Chinese beer. He then entered the term "Chinese", which returned the message "no data". He subsequently tried the term "china history", and found nothing but a 50-word introduction.
He asked the employee, "Why are some things searchable while other things aren't?" To which the employee replied, "You have to create a homepage and put it on the web first. After that, anyone around the world will be able to find it."
Jack immediately thought of setting up a homepage for his translation agency. At 9:30 a.m., he waited beside the machine for the web page to be completed. According to Jack himself, the programmer provided the agency's translation rates, as well as a telephone number and an email address, on the web page. Jack left the company at 12:30 p.m., and when he returned at night, he noticed five messages in the inbox. Four of them were written by clients from Japan, the United States, and Germany, asking about the agency's translation rates. The last message was from an Overseas Chinese student who told Jack that "Hangzhou Hope Translation Agency is the first Chinese company on the Internet." Beginning to feel the magic of the Internet, Jack excitedly told VBN, "You shall be responsible for the technical aspect here in the US while I head back to China to find clients. Let's work together on China's Internet enterprise."
24 friends were gathered in Jack Ma's home on one fine night in March 1995. These people were all foreign trade professionals who Jack had got to know over 4 years of teaching evening classes. He wanted to find out what business needs these professionals would have for the Internet.
He told them, "I want to quit my job and work on the Internet," following which he began to explain and extol the virtues of the Internet. After speaking for a good two hours, Jack became just as confused as his listeners.
After he had spoken enough, his friends asked him five questions, none of which he was able to answer. At the end of the gathering, 23 of his friends opposed his plan. "You may open a bar, run a restaurant, or found your own night school. Anything but this." Only one person said, "You can give it a shot if you really want to."
Jack did not heed their advice. The next day morning, he immediately resigned from his job at the school. He then pooled together a sum of 20,000 yuan, of which 7,000 was his own money while the rest was borrowed from his sister and brother-in-law. Subsequently, he rang up He Yibing, who was a computing teacher at Hangzhou Dianzi University. "Have you heard of the Internet? Let's work on the Internet together..."
In April 1995, China's first Internet business company, Hangzhou Haibo Computer Services Limited, was established. Its three staff were Jack, his wife Zhang Ying, and He Yibing. At this time, China Telecom was still four months away from providing Internet services.
China Pages (http://www.chinapages.com) was launched online on the 9th of May 1995. Jack started to do business with his friends. His method was like this: he would first describe the pros and benefits of the Internet to his friends, and then request information regarding their companies from them. He would next send the information via EMS to the United States. VBN would do up a homepage, print it out, and send it back to Hangzhou via EMS. Jack would show the print-out of the web page to his friends and tell them that it was visible on the Internet. At this time, China was still three months away from being able to access the Internet.
His friends suspected that he was running a scam because they were yet unable to see the web page for themselves. His reply to them was, "You can call your friends in France, Germany, or the US to take a look. I'll pay the call charges. If they say there's nothing, then forget it. But if they can see it, then that proves that it's real, and you'll have to pay us some money." The standard fee charged by China Pages at that time was 20,000 yuan for a homepage with 3,000 words and a photograph. Of this amount, 12,000 went to VBN.
In 1995, China Pages achieved strong results, in large part because there were few Chinese websites on the Internet. The only Chinese hotel which could be found on the web was Lakeview Hotel. Appropriately, during the World Conference on Women that year, many delegates paid a special visit to the hotel while touring Hangzhou. When Qianjiang Law Firm launched its own web page and placed a home number on it, the owner of this number began to be inundated with phone calls even in the middle of the night.
Abandoning Beijing in Quick Succession
In a small Beijing pub on a night of heavy snow in early 1999. Jack and his 18 staff were eating and drinking non-stop to the point of inebriation. They began singing "True Hero" and expressing their wish for more such fun gatherings. When day broke, Jack suggested climbing the Great Wall, and so they did. On the Wall, one of them finally burst into tears. "Why do we have nothing to show for all our efforts?" Jack had no answer, but he checked his emotions and vowed to build a website which every Chinese citizen would be proud of. He pointed at the words "Zhang San was here" which were scribbled on the Wall and quipped, "This is China's first ever BBS." At 8 p.m. that night, Jack and his staff hopped on a train from Beijing to Hangzhou, and never looked back...
After the online launch of China Pages, Jack brought He Yibing to visit his Internet idol Zhang Shuxin, who could afford only half an hour to meet Jack as she was busy.
Stepping out from Inforhighway's office, and after taking another glance at the famous sign which read "How much further is China from the information superhighway?", Jack said to He Yibing, "If anyone dies because of the Internet, then Zhang Shuxin will surely die before me. Firstly, I can't understand her concept, and secondly, her business is about getting people to get online, whereas mine's about getting enterprises to do so."
In July 1995, China Pages created a website for Zhejiang Province's international communication office. The website, which publicized Zhejiang's economy and culture, was dubbed as the "Golden Pigeon Project". As it was China's earliest governmental online project, two journalists of Qianjiang Evening News, Wen Min and Zhou Dan, wrote a lengthy feature on it. One line read, "General Manager Jack Ma has flown to the United States to address the technical issues of Golden Pigeon Project's next step..."
Having made a name in Hangzhou, Jack wanted to become famous throughout China. He once again visited Beijing in December 1995. Through a friend's introduction, he became acquainted with a driver working for Beijing Youth Daily. Jack passed a manuscript together with 500 yuan to the driver. "The money is yours as long as any media outlet publishes the manuscript." The savvy driver sent the document to five media outlets, and it even made the front page of China Trade News, which Jack thereupon recognized to have good foresight. He immediately sought out the deputy editor-in-chief Sun Yanjun, with whom he spoke for two days and nights. China Trade News had already become China's first web-based media on the 20th of October 1995. "Like myself, he didn't understand the Internet at that time, but he could feel its potential. He told me he supported me."
A month later, Jack forked out 30,000 yuan for the opportunity to give a talk about the Internet at Beijing Chang'an Club to an assembly of more than 30 editors and journalists invited by Sun Yanjun from Beijing's various major media outlets. He had to store all of his content on a hard disk because Beijing's network speeds were too slow to connect to the web.
Early that morning, he readied the two i486 computers he had brought over from Hangzhou and waited at the club for the arrival of the editors and journalists. Subsequently that day, he spoke for two hours explaining what the Internet was and what benefits it had.
But no articles regarding his talk were published in the newspapers. This was because the day after his talk, the media outlets received a notice from on high with instructions not to publicize the Internet for the time being. "They told me that they would be able to report on it if I could persuade People's Daily to go online." Jack soon got to know an executive from the People's Daily's office through a friend. One night, Jack was chatting with this acquaintance until it was very late when someone walked over and asked, "What are you two chatting about?" After Jack told him they were discussing the Internet, this person joined in the conversation. He was the director of the development bureau of People's Daily, Gu Jiawang. In the end, he said, "You should give a talk about the Internet to the upper management of People's Daily." Thereafter, Jack gave not one but two talks to the People's Daily and participated in the newspaper's framework and planning processes for its online venture. "The People's Daily treated me well. I managed to make back not only my travel fare between Beijing and Hangzhou, but also my daily expenses." While in Beijing, Jack stayed in his friend's office, and ate McDonald's every day until he will vomit if he sees the golden curvy M today.
Jack's fame grew as China Pages became ever bigger. This caught the attention of Hangzhou Telecom, which began to set up its own version of China Pages, at the domain chinesepage.com, to compete in Jack's market. "Hangzhou Telecom had a registered capital of 300 million yuan, whereas we had only 20,000 yuan. Moreover, Tian Suning's AsiaInfo was also lurking." Jack decided to merge his company with Hangzhou Telecom in March 1996. China Pages was valued at 600,000 yuan and took a 30% stake, while Hangzhou Telecom pumped in 1.4 million yuan and took a 70% stake. Although China's Yellow Pages business made a turnover of 7 million yuan in 1996, Jack was not happy about the partnership with Hangzhou Telecom. "Running a dot-com is like raising a child. Instead, Hangzhou Telecom only thinks about making fast money. You can't ask a three-year-old child to earn money, right?"
Jack decided to give up on China Pages after receiving an invitation from MOFTEC to establish China International Electronic Commerce Center (CIECC) in Beijing in early 1997. He sold his 21% stake in China Pages back to the company at a price of 20 to 30 cents per share, and received more than 100,000 yuan. At that time, China Pages had 1.07 million yuan of cash and more than 400,000 yuan of receivables in its accounts. "It was all but in smooth operation already. China Pages never made a profit after I left. Individualistic heroism must be gotten rid off in order to do business, for it'll ultimately harm the business instead." MOFTEC provided a start-up capital of 2 million yuan to CIECC and offered Jack a 30% stake in the company. He excitedly brought over five brothers from Hangzhou, and together the six of them rented an apartment of 20 square meters and toiled for 15 straight months. They created a series of websites for entities including MOFTEC, China's Commodity Trading Market Online, China's Technology Export Fair Online, China Merchants Bank, and Canton Fair Online. In particular, China's Commodity Trading Market Online was the Chinese government's first attempt at organizing a large-scale e-commerce business, and it made a net profit of 2.87 million yuan. After they finished their work, however, Jack and his brothers found it difficult to liquidate their shares within the system. "At that time, we received a monthly pay of a few thousand yuan, and nothing else."
The Internet began to boom in late 1998. Over MOFTEC's platform, Jack became acquainted with Jerry Yang and established relations with a wide range of foreign trading partners.
The Alpha of Alibaba
Hupan Garden, Hangzhou, 21 February 1999. Inside Jack Ma's home, a camera is recording the entire scene. Standing or sitting around Jack are 18 people, comprising of his wife, colleagues, students, and friends.
马云将手一挥，“从现在起，我们要做一件伟大的事情。我们的BToB将为互联网服务模式带来一次革命！”马云掏出身上的钱往桌上一放，“启动资金必须是 Pocket money（闲钱），不许向家人朋友借钱，因为失败可能性极大。我们必须准备好接受‘最倒霉的事情’。但是，即使是泰森把我打倒，只要我不死，我就会跳起来继续战斗！”
Jack waved his hand and said, "We shall do something noble from now onwards. Our B2B shall revolutionize the service model of the Internet!" He fished out a few coins from his pocket and placed them on the table. "Because the likelihood of failure is extremely high, our start-up capital has to be our own pocket money. There shall be no borrowing of money from family members or friends. We must be prepared for the worst case scenario. But, even if I'm knocked down by Mike Tyson, I'll get on my feet and continue fighting as long as I'm not dead!"
Jack was talking crazy. He poured his heart out fully and impassionedly. He was finally able to explain what the Internet, which he had spoken non-stop about for four years, was. He started by talking about new trends before moving on to his own future. "Now, I want all of you to take out your money and keep only a little for food. All of you can only be 'captains' and 'sergeants' within the company. I'll hire better-qualified people for the upper management."
According to Jack's instructions not to borrow money from family members or friends, the co-founders, who later became known as the "18 arhats", pooled together 500,000 yuan in capital. Their office was set up in Jack's home, which was only big enough for 35 people to squeeze into. He stipulated that every staff must rent an apartment within five minutes of the office. Everyone's pay was fixed at 500 yuan per month, and they would have no holidays for the first ten months. "After the starting pistol is fired, you won't have time to look at how your opponents are running. Your only option is to run as fast and wild as you can." Jack demanded that every staff work for 16 to 18 hours a day. They could sleep on the floor when they were exhausted. He would cook up a few dishes for everyone when work became too tough.
Jack had conceived the domain name "alibaba.com" while eating in a restaurant in the United States in late 1998. He had casually asked a waiter whether he knew who Ali Baba was, to which the waiter laughed and replied, "Open sesame!" Jack went to the streets and asked several people the same question, only to get identical responses. "Everyone, from my maternal grandmother to my son, has read the story of Ali Baba. Practically every language on Earth pronounces the name as 'a-li-ba-ba', and that means merchants all over the world will be able to accept our website name without difficulty." Jack eventually chose the name Alibaba out of more than a hundred ideas.
He had already finalized the business model while working for MOFTEC. The net profit of 2.87 million yuan generated by China's Commodity Trading Market Online was practical proof of the existence of this market and the robust health of this business model.
At that time, China's foreign trade depended heavily on the Canton Fair, overseas exhibitions, and existing foreign trade relations. It was also controlled to a large extent by Hong Kong, which served as a commercial transit point. China's imminent entry into the WTO meant that an autonomously-controlled foreign trade channel became a pressing need for China's SMEs. Jack believed that, with the aid of the Internet, Alibaba could and should undertake this mission.
Jack was adamant about using BBS as the implementation method. "It can publish supply and demand information and classify by industry. That's enough." Some of his staff disagreed, and would bang on the tables as they argued with him. After beating his head, Jack remained convinced that he was right. "Alibaba's users are merchants who aren't savvy with the Internet. We have to keep the interface simple."
In March 1999, Jack sent an email from out of town to his staff, demanding that they complete the design of the BBS immediately. The staff revealed that they remained opposed to Jack's idea. Enraged, Jack made a long-distance call and screamed over the phone, "GO AND DO IT RIGHT NOW, ALL OF YOU! RIGHT NOW! RIGHT! NOW!" He wished he could fly back immediately and smack every one of them on their heads.
This was his fourth business venture already. What Jack needed was not partners, but followers and executors. He Yibing, who had collaborated with Jack all along, became unable to conceal his differences with Jack while working on Alibaba, and eventually went his separate way. Since then, neither man would talk about work whenever they met again.
Alibaba.com was launched online on the 15th of April 1999. After hearing about Alibaba, Joseph Tsai, a vice-president at Invest AB who had spent many years studying at Yale University and working on Wall Street, immediately got on a plane to Hangzhou to negotiate an investment with Jack. After four days of discussion, he said, "Jack, I'll give up my job to join Alibaba!" Jack was most welcoming. "Alright! You shall help me to manage money. I don't know how to manage money. The most I've ever managed is 2 million yuan."
蔡崇信加盟增加了阿里巴巴的说服力，1999年10月29日，由高盛公司牵头，Transpac Capital、Investor AB of Sweden、Technology Development Fund of Singapore 联合向阿里巴巴投资500万美元。
Joseph's addition to the team increased Alibaba's persuasiveness. On the 29th of October 1999, a joint investment led by Goldman Sachs and comprising of Transpac Capital, Investor AB of Sweden, and the Technology Development Fund of Singapore invested US$5 million in Alibaba.
On the 30th of October 1999, the day after Alibaba's first round of financing, Jack jubilantly flew to Beijing to meet Masayoshi Son. That day, Jack neither wore a suit nor thought about seeking investment from Son, for he had raised money just the previous day. Jack simply wanted to talk about Alibaba and the Internet to Son and hear the latter's opinions on them.
Fragments of History Fall Through the Air Page After Page
Everyone lives in a world of their own experiences, and a journalist is no different. China Computerworld ran an exhibition in the year 2000. As this coincided with the publication of my new book, "China Dotcom", I was sent by my newspaper to our exhibition booth to sign autographs and promote my book. While I was happily chatting away, a reader tugged on me and said, "You should pay attention to Jack Ma. A new foreign trade channel for SMEs has been opened by his Alibaba. His experiments at MOFTEC were also groundbreaking and inspiring." I laughed and did not take this reader's words to heart. At that time, I was preoccupied with the Three Gateways, Wang Zhidong, and Ding Lei.
I did no foreign trade and never went on alibaba.com before. Thus, when Jack Ma appeared on the cover of Forbes on the 10th of July 2000, and the media reported that he was the first Chinese entrepreneur in 50 years to receive this honor, I smiled indifferently and continued to not take him seriously.
On New Year's Day 2002, I went to Hangzhou to interview the president of Insigma Group, Chen Chun. I suddenly thought of the interesting West Lake Discussions, and of Jack Ma. I knew that Wang Juntao had a very good relationship with Jack Ma. Wang Juntao had been a distinguished guest at the first and second West Lake Discussions. My relationship with Wang Juntao was also very good, and so I called him up and told him I was in Hangzhou and wanted to meet Jack Ma. He told me that he would get Jack Ma to call me right away. Jack Ma called as soon as I put down my phone. When my interview with him was ending, he told me that his maternal grandmother had just passed away and he needed to rush over, and so he would not be able to treat me to dinner, but that if I had no other plans at night, he could treat me to tea.
In the West Lakeside teahouse, after the interview was finally completed, Jack began to chat about DoNews with me. He suggested for DoNews to market enterprise IDs. "There are a lot of critical comments on DoNews. Enterprises should also have a space and way to speak." Subsequently, this idea was realized as what is Xinwentong today.
Although Jack Ma left a favorable impression on me, I never dared to write about him after returning to Beijing. I was afraid that I would be writing a non-existent magical story. At that time, Alibaba's website remained as distant as the fairy tale's "open sesame" to me. I could not feel it personally, just like I could not find circumstantial evidence that Jack Ma was once kidnapped by an American syndicate.
Taobao was established on the 10th of May 2003. It began to snatch away eBay's C2C market, and after not long, Jack Ma declared that Taobao had already surpassed eBay. I laughed and told myself, "How's that possible? eBay's original market share was 90%."
On the 17th of August 2005, Yahoo announced that it would pay US$1 billion and all of Yahoo China's assets in exchange for 40% of Alibaba's shares and 35% of its voting rights. Yahoo China's assets were privately discounted by US$600 million.
This news made me begin to reexamine the interview I had conducted three years ago. I wrote in my personal blog, "Fragments of history fall through the air page after page. Busybodies pick up whichever page catches their fancy."
Jack Ma has succeeded. Now that he has, does that really prove that all of the stories he told were true? But I, like everyone else, love listening to successful people's stories and summaries of their experiences. This helps me to motivate and inspire myself to achieve my goals. After all, false stories can inspire real ones. Perhaps a journalist may never be able to feel truth, but he can at least feel himself. That's why I omitted from my story "Jack Ma's kidnapping by an American syndicate", "Jack Ma's and Masayoshi Son's financing talks in a restroom", and other stories which I felt were dubious.
On the 9th of October 2005, I treated Jack Ma to tea in the lobby of Grand Hyatt Beijing. He told me, "Only two types of media outlets or websites can survive: one is those which have special characteristics, and the other is those which are large-scale." "DoNews used to be left-of-center, now it's right-of-center." "Stop being so regular. It'll be boring if it becomes like Sina Tech."
That day, Jack Ma, who was reveling in the joy of success, spoke about his views on journalism. "When something has been done, it must be recorded, or else it's as good as not having been done before, and future generations will repeat similar mistakes." "Wang Juntao can write while I can speak." He was very critical of writers who mixed opinion and fact in their articles. "If you're making a wild guess, you have to declare that it's your personal opinion."
That day, I asked Jack Ma a question which seemed like flattery. "Why is it that you can be where you are today, while the equally-clever Wang Juntao, who is the pioneer of China's e-commerce, is still toiling away?" He replied, "While I was talking, giving speeches, doing promotions, and attitudinizing, there was a group of people behind me doing the nitty-gritty and working themselves into the ground. Conversely, Wang Juntao doesn't have '18 arhats' behind him. When I say something, there are people working on it. When he says something, it's just empty talk."
2006年11月3日，DoNews 5G在讨论 “马云付华谊兄弟3000万广告费，而他自己是华谊兄弟股东，这是否是关联交易？”马云得知后，短信告诉正在参与讨论的牟正蓬：“我马云不贪便宜，哈哈。我马云要是那样的人，还能做什么事？”马云的这个回答使我想起，马云分股份给18罗汉，马云放弃控股用VC的钱养大阿里巴巴，这些事实都指向马云是一个只顾事情成功，而不计较小利的人，但马云的确是华谊兄弟股东，的确付了华谊兄弟3000万高额广告制作费……更有消息指出，阿里巴巴日前收购的口碑网股东马云夫人张瑛……
On the 3rd of November 2006, DoNews 5G held a discussion on the topic "Jack Ma paid Huayi Brothers 30 million yuan in advertising fees when he is a shareholder of Huayi Brothers himself. Is this a related party transaction?" When Jack Ma learned about it, he sent a message to Mu Zhengpeng, who was taking part in the discussion, saying, "Haha, I'm not a cheapskate. How could I be successful if I was that kind of person?" This response made me think of his distribution of shares to the 18 arhats, as well as his forsaking of holding and using venture capital to grow Alibaba. These facts show that Jack Ma is someone who only cares about the success of his business and does not bother about cheap gains. But he is undeniably a shareholder of Huayi Brothers, and certainly paid Huayi Brothers 30 million in advertisement production fees... news has also pointed out that Jack Ma's wife, Zhang Ying, is a shareholder of the word-of-mouth network which Alibaba purchased a few days ago...
Fragments of history fall through the air page after page. Busybodies pick up whichever page catches their fancy." Even if they pick up the same fallen page, the 18 arhats and Zhou Hongyi would certainly interpret the writing differently. But the advice to pay attention to Jack Ma which I received 6 years ago was right. Jack Ma is indeed somebody. (Liu Ren)