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An insider's look into Alibaba and its quirky founder

Alibaba Founder Jack Ma.

Jack Ma

A still from the film "Crocodile in the Yangtze" showing Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

In 1995, Alibaba founder Jack Ma was an English teacher. He was visiting Seattle when a friend introduced him to the internet. Ma quickly typed "China" into the search engine. The result? "No data found" appeared on the screen.

Weeks later, Ma was in Beijing, on a Quixotic quest to convince China's government to create the country's first internet site.

The film "Crocodile in the Yangtze" shows grainy footage of a floppy-haired Ma delivering his pitch to a skeptical bureaucrat: "Nowadays, foreigners can use computers from any desktop to find products from around the world," says Ma to a confused-looking senior level 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."

The official politely asked Ma to take a hike. The film's director Porter Erisman says none of the officials Ma visited on that trip had even heard about the Internet. "You can just see in the footage, the people who are looking at him, they just think he's crazy."

Jack Ma Encounters Government Bureaucrats in 1996 from Taluswood Films on Vimeo.

Erisman got the footage from a reporter for state-run television, who thought it'd be funny to follow Ma around as he got kicked out of one government office after another. "The reason the woman was filming Jack was because she thought here's this crazy guy who's clearly not going to go anywhere -- we should record this as an example of how not to behave."

Five years later, Ma started Alibaba, which would become the world's largest online marketplace, and Porter Erisman was hired as the company's first American employee.

At the time, eBay set its sights on China – and Erisman said Jack Ma used his background as a student of martial arts to engage the Western giant.

"One of the key principles in martial arts is you can use an opponents strength against them," says Erisman. "So when we looked at eBay with their big advertising campaign, we realized we could use that campaign to help promote Taobao."

Taobao, Alibaba's shopping site, was launched to fend off eBay.

Alibaba embarked on an aggressive media campaign, attacking eBay and questioning which company was better for China. The strategy worked -- every time eBay ran a local ad, it got people thinking about this new Chinese shopping site Taobao. eBay eventually pulled out of China, and Taobao -- with its hundreds of millions of users -- is a big reason Alibaba is expected to raise billions from investors when it goes public.

That's despite Jack Ma's attitude towards Wall Street, which he shared with Alibaba empoyees at a company gala in Porter Erisman's film.

"Let the Wall Street investors curse us if they want," Ma shouts from a stage in front of thousands of employees, "We will still follow the principle of customers first, employees second, and investors third."

Jack Ma's First Day Speech in Alibaba Apartment from Taluswood Films on Vimeo.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.
Jack Ma

A still from the film "Crocodile in the Yangtze" showing Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

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