The path to start-up success is not a predictable one, as only 30% of seeded start-ups secure additional funding. Interestingly, most of the successfully exited ones were actually built by just a single founder. While these one-person start-ups are highly common in today’s tech dynamos, the formula to success isn’t always guaranteed.
In fact, one of the few and probably the biggest exemption that is Alibaba Group. Jack Ma is the founder of Alibaba Group, but it is a little-known fact that the company has actually 17 other original co-founders. To uncover Alibaba’s unique founding story, we take a closer look at its 18 original founders led by Ma, understanding their personal journey and leadership in establishing Alibaba Group.
Following Alibaba’s story from Jack Ma’s personal journey
Despite the many life challenges Ma faced including two failed attempts to get into college, getting rejected for a job at KFC, Ma successfully earned his degree in English from Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute in 1984. Later in 1988, he became an English and International Trade lecturer at the Hangzhou Dianzi University while juggling a teaching job at a night school. His skill came in handy as Ma’s proficiency in English gave him the ticket to go to the United States as an interpreter for a government project where he had his first encounter with the Internet.
As Ma explored more and more of the internet he comes to realize that the world doesn’t know much of China, even Chinese beer doesn’t exist from the search engines. This led him to think that people should know China through the Internet, founding China Yellow Pages- the first Internet company in the country. At that point, the Internet had begun to spread in China which quickly grew his venture enough to open an office in Beijing. Unfortunately, Ma was not the only person with this idea of directory service, he soon pulled the plug and moved back to Hangzhou.
Before departing for his hometown, Ma visited the Great Wall with 12 former employees. Struck by how many messages had been scribbled on the stone Ma decided to replicate it on the internet. In February 1999, Ma invited his 17 colleagues to his apartment in Hangzhou introducing to them the thought of digital platform which he claimed to “revolutionize the Internet industry”. Later, Ma and his 17 colleagues created a bulletin-board service through which Chinese companies could introduce their products to clients calling it Alibaba.com.
Alibaba beyond Jack Ma
The 17 other co-founders of Alibaba are one of the key driving factors that led to its success. Particularly the diversity of each founder which were a mix of Ma’s ex-students, ex-colleagues, mutual friends and like-minded entrepreneurs from different industries journalism, investment banking, web development and education among many others made all the difference. To examine their personal journey and contribution in establishing Alibaba here are their respective stories.
Jin Jianhang – president, Alibaba Group
Jin Jianhang was a top performing student from Fudan Journalism School and has worked at numerous Chinese Media such as Zhejiang Daily and Intl. Business Daily. Jin first encountered Ma during an interview with him back when he was with China Yellow Pages.
Later in 1999, Ma started Alibaba Group along with his trusted friends where Jianhang decided to get on board the Alibaba venture.
Joseph Tsai – executive vice chairman, Alibaba Group
Tsai has an undergraduate degree in Economics and East Asian studies and a law degree. Prior to meeting Ma, Tsai was an investment banker earning approximately US$700k annually. Deeply inspired by Jack’s charisma and his idea for Alibaba, he made a daring move to give up his high-end job to join Alibaba in 1999 and earned only US$50 monthly. Today Tsai is the Vice Executive Chairman and co-founder of Alibaba Group and ranks as its second-largest individual shareholder after chairman Jack Ma.
Lucy Peng – CEO, Lazada
Similar to Ma, Peng began her career as a teacher at the Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics. She married Sun Tongyu, in 1997. Peng quit teaching in 1999 to join her husband, Sun Tongyu as part of the 18-strong Alibaba founding team. She was recently assigned as the CEO of Lazada following Alibaba’s investment of an additional US$2 billion into the marketplace.
Cathy Zhang – married to Jack Ma, a full-time homemaker
Zhang first met Ma at the Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute. Soon after graduation, they got married. In 1999, Jack told Zhang about his plan for Alibaba and along with other partners began working towards the vision. Zhang was in Alibaba’s management team and now dedicates her time raising a family with Ma.
Eddie Wu – chairman, AliHealth
Wu graduated with a Computer Science degree from the Zhejiang University of Technology in 1996 and later joined China Yellow Pages where he was acquainted with Jack Ma. Following Ma’s footsteps, Wu joined Ma in building Alibaba Group as the first programmer out of the 18 founders.
James Sheng – managing director, Alibaba Singapore
Sheng began learning traditional art at an early age. He turned to commercial art and started his career as a designer. He was acquainted with Jack Ma when James’ company was hired to design China Yellow Pages’ website. Sheng joined Jack Ma’s meeting in his apartment and became one of the 18 founding members of Alibaba in 1999. Today, Sheng is known to be the man behind Alibaba’s smile logo and is the Co-founder and Senior Vice President of the Alibaba Group.
Simon Xie – vice president, Alibaba China Investment Team
Xie obtained his degree in Financial Management from the Shenyang University of Technology and later worked for the China National Air Separation Engineering Co. Ltd. Through his high interest in computing, he developed his skills in Information Technology and pursued a career in tech. In 1996, Xie met Ma while he was at China Yellow Pages. Attracted by Ma’s unique aura, Xie gave up his high paying job in finance and decided to follow Ma’s ventures in 1999.
Other founders with little to no information about their current role at Alibaba Group
Lou and Ma were university mates at the Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute. Lou eventually became one of Ma’s closest supporter. Wensheng decided to join Chinese Yellow Pages after seeing a feature of the company in 1995 Oriental Horizon TV documentary.
Jin was Ma’s student at the Hangzhou Dianzi University and later was encouraged by fellow founders Jane Jiang and Han Min to join Alibaba Group.
Ma was his teacher at the Hangzhou Dianzi University back in 1988. With his expertise as a Java Architect, Zhou developed the core code of MVC framework – WebX, which was used on Taobao during its early days.
In 1999, Shi was originally employed by the Central Weather Bureau. Eddie Wu, one Alibaba founders, noted Shi’s works on the internet. Wu introduced Shi to Ma and Shi was immediately attracted by Ma’s passion for Alibaba and decided to join the e-commerce company.
Angela Marie Gratela is content marketing specialist at iPrice Group.