From Earning $12 a month to Becoming a Billionaire – The Inspiring story of Jack Ma

Jack Ma

Everyone knows Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba.


You may have even heard some of his inspiring stories, from getting rejected by KFC to rejections from 30 different jobs and getting rejected by Harvard. And yet, Ma did not let those setbacks to deter him from starting Alibaba, which went on to become the biggest US IPO in history.


In this article, we will dive into the story of how Jack Ma who went from earning $12 a month to facing rejections and failure and finally to becoming a billionaire and the richest person in Asia.


Jack Ma’s Inspiring Story


Let’s look at some of the significant events which have shaped Jack Ma into the person he is today:


Childhood (Year 1964 – 1976, Aged 0 – 12)


Ma Yun is commonly known under the name, Jack Ma. Ma was born in Hangzhou, China on 10 September 1964 and had a modest upbringing.


When Ma was 12, Ma would ride his bike every morning for 40 minutes to the nearest hotel in Hangzhou. He would offer to show the foreign tourists around for free to practice conversing in English.


Besides practicing English, Ma also experienced a shift in mindset and adopted a more globalized view from interactions with foreign tourist. It was at a time when communism was at its peak in China.


Education and Career Beginnings (Year 1984 – 1992, Aged 20 – 28)


Ma failed his university entrance exams twice, before being accepted to study in Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute in 1984.


In 1988, Jack Ma graduated from Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute with a Bachelor’s degree in English. Shortly after graduating, Ma married Zhang Ying as they both met in Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute. Zhang quoted “Ma Yun is not a handsome man, but I fell for him because he can do a lot of things handsome men cannot do.”


After graduating, Ma began teaching at a university, earning a measly $12 to $15 a month. Here’s a not so fun fact, Ma was rejected from 30 jobs he applied after graduating.


In 1992, Ma was again rejected from a job interview. This time by KFC, and in Jack Ma’s own words, “24 people went for the job in KFC. 23 were accepted, I was the only guy…..”


Ma also applied for Harvard ten times and got rejected ten times.


The interesting thing is we are only at the beginning of Ma’s career, and he has already faced so many rejections and setbacks.


A Life-Changing Business Trip (Year 1994 – 1998, Aged 30 – 34)


In 1994, Ma founded his first company, the Haibo Translation Agency, which provided English translations.


In 1995, Ma went on a business trip to Seattle as an interpreter for Haibo Translation Agency on behalf of the Hangzhou city government. While in Seattle, Ma’s friends urge him to try out using the computer, something Ma is not familiar with. Ma started surfing the web and used a computer for the first time in his life! The first word he searched on the internet?




Through surfing the web, Ma saw that there were no searches on the internet from China, a country with more than a billion people. Ma’s entrepreneurial instinct was triggered as he saw this golden opportunity and borrowed $2,000 to set up his second company, China Pages, despite not knowing anything about computers.


China Pages would help to create websites for companies, and in the early stage, Ma source help from his US friends to help with the technical side of things as he did not know coding.


In a short span of 3 years, Ma had made $800,000 from China Pages. Ma then partnered with China Telecom to get more funding for China Pages. However, due to frequent disagreements with China Telecom, Ma left China Pages.


In 1998, Ma was appointed to lead an information technology company established by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation in Beijing. From his job, Ma had gotten the opportunity to meet Yahoo’s co-founder, Jerry Yang as Ma gave him a tour of the Great Wall of China in 1998 (this would turn out to be a key moment later in Ma’s career).


The Early Days of Alibaba (Year 1999 – 2002, Aged 35 – 38)


In 1999, Ma quit his job in Beijing and went back to Hangzhou as he wanted to start his own company. Ma invited his 18 friends for a meeting in his Hangzhou apartment to discuss the formation of Alibaba, a company that uses the Internet to provide an e-commerce platform mainly for Chinese SMEs.


From that meeting, he had gotten his first funding of $60,000 for Alibaba. As Ma recalled “That day I talked like a crazy man.” Then I said, “put your money on the table.”


Ma faced his first setback for Alibaba as more than 30 venture capitalists in Silicon Valley declined to finance Alibaba,  deeming the business model of Alibaba unprofitable, with Ma facing yet another rejection.


However, Ma again chose not to give up and continue to search for funding. By the end of 1999, Goldman Sachs and Softbank decided to invest $5 million and $20 million respectively into Alibaba, giving Ma a huge war chest to spend on and grow Alibaba.


For the first three years, Alibaba made zero sales as they focused on customer acquisition. At one point, Alibaba had only 18 months left before going bust. By the end of 2002, Alibaba made $1 in profits and they then improved every year.


Taobao vs eBay (Year 2003 – 2007, Aged 39 – 43)


In 2003, Ma launched Taobao, an online auction site to compete with the much more established eBay. Taobao’s strategy to eat into eBay’s market share is by offering a free platform for buyers and sellers, with zero commission on sales transactions. With 80% of the market share at that time, eBay’s position looks unthreatened.


In 2004, Ma also developed an escrow service called Alipay to handle commission free transactions from Taobao.


In 2005, Ma’s friend and co-founder of Yahoo, Jerry Yang invested in Alibaba, buying a 40% stake for $1 billion. This had provided Alibaba with the ability to continue to compete with eBay and other competitors and expand internationally outside of China. Ma had predicted the victory of Taobao in the years to come as he said “eBay may be a shark in the ocean, but I am a crocodile in the Yangtze River.”


Within 4 years, the crocodile in the Yangtze River won as eBay’s market share gradually reduces. Taobao claimed 84% of the market share in China. eBay even offered to purchase Taobao but the offer was rejected.


One Trillion Yuan (Year 2012, Aged 48)


In 2012, Alibaba recorded sales of One Trillion Yuan ($157 Billion), which is more than the sales of both eBay and Amazon combined.


Largest IPO (Year 2014, Age 50)


In 2013, Alibaba decided to pursue an IPO in the United States, after talks with Hong Kong regulators on listing on HKSE broke down.


In 2014, Ma raised approximately $20 Billion and listed Alibaba under the New York Stock in Exchange. It was the largest IPO to date. At the closing time of its IPO, Alibaba’s market value was $231 billion.


Richest Person in Asia (Year 2016 – present, Age 52)


In 2016, Alibaba surpassed Walmart as the world’s largest retail platform.


In January 2017, Ma met with the President of the United States, Donald Trump, where they discussed over Alibaba’s plans to create 1 million US jobs over the next 5 years.


Ma was also ranked 2nd in Fortune’s 2017 “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” list.


As of June 2017, Ma is the richest person in Asia and 14th wealthiest in the world, with a net worth of $42 billion.


From humble beginnings to becoming a successful billionaire, Jack Ma has seen it all and done it all.


Infographics on Jack Ma’s Road to Success






























Based on Jack Ma’s inspiring story above, let’s look at the major turning point in Ma’s life and the 3 key takeaways we can all apply in our lives:


Major turning point:


After facing so many setbacks in life, from university entrance exams to jobs rejection, Ma’s first major turning point in his life was when Goldman Sachs and Softbank invested a total of $25 million to fund Alibaba. Think about it, for an unknown person at that time with no experience in e-commerce, Ma is able to raise a whopping $25 million. Without this substantial sum, Alibaba may not have been started.


It again exemplifies Ma’s persistence even after 30 venture capitalists in Silicon Valley had rejected to invest in Alibaba.


The interesting thing about all these is Ma would not have started Alibaba had he not made the trip to the US as it there that he saw the power of the internet. Ma would not have gone to the US if he did not open a translation agency, and the agency wouldn’t have existed had Ma not know how to converse in English. You probably know what I am going to say next. Ma would not have learned to converse in English had he not bring foreign tourists around when he was a kid as China had only emphasized English education after 1979. It’s interesting how the dots all connect in the end if you persist enough.


3 Key Takeaways from Jack Ma’s Story:


1. Persistence


Here are the lists of setbacks experienced by Ma even before he founded Alibaba:

  • Failed university entrance exams twice.
  • Rejected from 30 jobs applications after graduating.
  • Rejected by KFC when 23 out of 24 people was hired.
  • Applied for Harvard ten times and got rejected ten times.
  • Dispute with China Telecom led to his departure from China Pages.


After Ma founded Alibaba, there were even more setbacks as he mentioned Alibaba has made over 1,001 mistakes.


What separates Ma from most people is his ability to persist and not giving up when times are hard. You can either learn from your mistakes and get back up stronger, or let those setbacks destroy you. Without the 1,001 mistakes, Alibaba might not be the powerhouse it is today as mistakes are the bridge to help you progress faster.


The thing is, most people will not even face as many failures as Ma, but have given up on their own journey to towards success, and instead chose to play the victim card by blaming others. If you give up, you will always remain a failure, but if you pick yourself up each time after a setback, you still have a chance.


The worst thing you can say at the end of your life is “What If”.


2. Believe in Yourself


Jack Ma has no technical skills to start an online business as he knew nothing about technology coding. Ma only knows how to send the email and yet he decided to venture into the e-commerce market as he saw an opportunity in China.


When everyone says he is crazy jack, he believed in himself, his vision and took action, when most people would procrastinate and wait for the “right time”. The fact is, the longer you wait, the chances of you starting is slimmer as the doubts would creep in and you start to see more obstacles than opportunities.


I strongly believe that if you don’t believe in yourself that you can succeed, there is no point of starting at all. You will give up upon the first major obstacle or when people say you can’t do it. It will just be a waste of time.


You have to believe in yourself even when no else will, it’s often a dark and lonely path to success, but if you believe in yourself, that light will shine through and you will eventually succeed.


3. Opportunities and Execution


Unlike the previous write-up on J.K Rowling , Ma did not pursue his passion, he just saw an opportunity on the internet and executed better than his competitors. Ma started off as a teacher and in fact, Ma has said someday he would to go back to teaching.


Most people have hundreds of ideas and see many opportunities but will not execute due to excuses such as:


#1 – No Money


Jack Ma had insufficient money to start to Alibaba, however, instead of putting off the plans, he gathered 18 friends in his apartment, pitch them about Alibaba and raised $60,000. The bigger funding then came from Goldman Sachs and Softbank.


If you want to start something, don’t let money be the issue. There are many ways to get funding if you are willing to try hard.


#2 – No Knowledge


Jack Ma did not know how to code and yet he started an e-commerce company.


These days you can pretty much outsource everything, go to Fiverr or Upwork to find freelancers and build a team from there. Once the business is stable, you can hire full-time employees.


Or if you want to learn the skills yourself, go to Udemy as they have plenty of affordable courses.


#3 – No Time


Replace the time you take to watch TV shows and scroll your Facebook newsfeed by executing on your idea. It slowly adds up.


#4 – No Energy and Too Lazy

Then you deserve to FAIL!



The story of Jack Ma has taught us that to never give up, no matter what are your circumstances or what other say or think of you. Your belief in yourself has to be stronger than anything else.


I hope that Jack Ma’s story will inspire you to set a goal, go for it, and never give up. Things will get a lot more difficult before it becomes easy. That is just the path required to succeed no matter what your goal is.


So go out there, work hard, and always believe in yourself.


I will leave you with some of Jack Ma’s famous quotes:







Over to You

Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on the story of Jack Ma. What have you learned from his story?

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2 thoughts on “From Earning $12 a month to Becoming a Billionaire – The Inspiring story of Jack Ma

  1. Love Jack Ma’s inspirational story. It shows that we can still succeed in life despite facing failure many times. One of the best quote of him I liked the most is “You never know how much can you do in your life.”

    Thanks a lot for this story which teaches us to not get demotivated by your failures and never give up!

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