"Nowadays, foreigners can use computers from any desktop to find products from around the world," Mr. Ma explains to the 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," he says. "I hope the various departments will support us."
But Mr. Ma's pitches were rebuffed. He soon left China Pages in 1997 to work at a unit of China's Commerce Ministry helping to create websites. In early 1999, he struck out on his own again, to start Alibaba.
The company's first site, Alibaba.com, was a business-to-business marketplace that connected Chinese exporters with overseas buyers. Unlike most Chinese websites of the day, it was not a clone of Western companies.
In 1999, the company lured Joseph C. Tsai, a Taiwan-born former lawyer who had been educated at Yale and was working in a private equity business in Hong Kong. Together, Mr. Ma and Mr. Tsai brought in Goldman Sachs and SoftBank as investors.
Early on, Mr. Ma honed his skills as a strategist. He began Taobao, the company's consumer-to-consumer platform, in 2003, at a time when eBay's Chinese unit dominated the business. Fighting for market share, Mr. Ma decided to keep Taobao free, although it was hemorrhaging money.
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"With eBay, he liked looking foolish and stupid," says Mr. Erisman, the filmmaker. "From a Wall Street investors' perspective, he was willing to run Alibaba into the ground to defeat eBay — the only thing worse than a smart competitor is a crazy one who is willing to just spend all their money with no hope of making profit."
It worked. At a news conference in October 2005, Mr. Ma told reporters that Taobao had gained nearly 70 percent of the market share for online shopping in China. "Pretty soon we'll be the only one left. EBay's days are numbered," he said. In 2006, eBay announced it was effectively leaving the China market and folding its operations into an Internet company controlled by Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong billionaire.
"I had always wished that I was born in a period of war. I could have been a general," Mr. Ma once said of his youth. "I thought about what I could have achieved in war."
Mr. Ma has had his share of boardroom battles. In 2011, an initial partnership with Yahoo formed in 2005 was briefly derailed. Mr. Ma transferred one of Alibaba's most profitable businesses, the online payments unit Alipay, into a separate business under his control without formal approval from Alibaba's board, where SoftBank and Yahoo had seats. When news of the transfer broke in May 2011, it brought an angry response from outside investors in Alibaba and Yahoo.