10 things you may not know about Alibaba's Jack Ma

The man behind the record $170bn tech IPO was rejected by KFC, held at gunpoint by a US gangster and is a big fan of the Lion King.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 11 Nov 2014

Alibaba shares start trading in New York later at $68 (£41) today under the ticket BABA: valued at $170bn, it’s the world’s biggest tech IPO. And if underwriters claim their shares it could raise $25bn, which would trump the previous $19.2bn record raised by Agricultural Bank of China’s 2010 Hong Kong listing.

The ecommerce giant, whose online marketplaces are effectively Amazon and Ebay on steroids, was founded 15 years ago in Hangzhou by Jack Ma. He is still chairman, after stepping down as chief executive in January, but just who is China’s richest man?

1. He was a rubbish student

Ma failed the national university entrance exam, not once but twice, due to his shabby maths scores. Instead, he went to what he called Hangzhou’s ‘worst university’ to train as a teacher.

2. He taught English for less then $20 a month

Ma taught English at a city college for five years on a salary of 100-120 renminbi per month (worth $12-$15 when he spoke to Inc back in 2008, now around $16-$19) - a far cry from his billionaire lifestyle now.

3. He gave free tours to tourists

The maverick entrepreneur’s love for English actually started far earlier - from the age of 12, every morning he would cycle 40 minutes to a hotel in Hangzhou’s West Lake district and show tourists around for free.

4. He was rejected by KFC

Ma may now be seen as something of a messiah by his adoring employees, but back in the early 90s, not everyone was quite so convinced. He was turned down for jobs as a KFC manager’s secretary, in a hotel and as a city policeman.

5. He was held at gunpoint by a US gangster

In 1995, Ma went to the US as a translator for a prospective Chinese-American business venture, but the deal was crooked to say the least, according to an account given to the Economist in 2000. The Californian boss of the non-existent company took him gambling in Las Vegas, but then locked him in his Malibu beach house when he turned down bribes. Ma got out of the bind by pretending to be keen to do business in China with the gangster in a new-fangled industry - the internet.

6. His first business idea was inspired by beer

Ma hadn’t even been on the net yet, though. When he made it from Malibu to a friend’s in Seattle he surfed the web for the first time. Ma searched ‘beer’ and saw there were no Chinese results - his first venture, listings site China Pages, was born.

7. He can’t code

Ma may be a pioneering internet entrepreneur a la Zuckerberg and Bezos and able to talk his way out of a gangster’s pad, but he can’t code to save his life. A colleague even has to help him download US TV shows to his iPad, according to a 2012 Businessweek profile.

8. He’s got a keen ear for crickets

As a boy, Ma collected crickets and set them to fighting one another. His ear got so attuned he could distinguish each one by its sound, according to a 2013 book by Chen Wei, Ma’s personal assistant at Alibaba.

9. He fancies himself as a novelist

In his spare time, Ma enjoys writing kung fu novels, practising Tai Chi, playing poker with friends and meditating in the mountains. MT wonders what he’ll do with all those billions - buy a mountain to meditate on, perhaps?

10. And a stadium star

At Alibaba’s annual Alifest, Ma takes to the stage for rather, er, special performances. In past years he has shared the stage with Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and basketball player Kobe Bryant, according to the Wall Street Journal. At Alibaba’s 10th birthday celebration he sported a fetching long hair-cum-mohican wig for a rendition of the Lion King theme and ‘Can you feel the love tonight?’. You’re welcome.

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