Power Players

See Jack Ma go back to the apartment where he started Alibaba in 1999

Founder and former chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma attends the 'Ma Yun Rural Teachers Prize' awards show on January 21, 2018 in Sanya, Hainan province, China.
Wang HE | Getty Images

Tuesday, Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, both celebrates his 55th birthday and steps down from his position as executive chairman of the Chinese e-commerce juggernaut.

Ma and his 17 fellow co-founders started Alibaba out of the small, six-room apartment where he lived with his wife in Hangzhou, China in 1999.

Ma still has the apartment and he recently returned to reminisce. Monday, Alibaba Group tweeted a video of how it all went down.

Alibaba tweet - Jack Ma returns to Alibaba's birthplace.

"I remember exactly the first day we came back, we take all the luggage here, and I told everybody: This is the place we're going to work for a year probably," Ma said in the video.

"We're going to eat here. We're going to sleep here. We're going to work day and night here. We will probably achieve something, or probably, we'll have to go out looking for jobs together."

Ma had the idea to start a tech company after his first trip to the United States in 1995. During the trip, a friend showed him the internet, which he had not encountered before in China.

His first internet search was for "beer," Ma told Charlie Rose in 2015. ("I don't know. It's easy to spell," Ma told Rose.) Ma then searched the word "China," but he said there was "no data about China."

"So I talked to my friend: Why not I make something about China? So we made a small very ugly looking page called 'China.'"

It planted the seed for Alibaba, which started out as an "e-marketplace for information," according to Ma.

By the time they began working on the company out of the Hangzhou apartment in 1999, Ma and his team had the goal of becoming one of the top 10 websites in the world, he said.

"At that time, we were ranking like 1 [million] or 2 million," Ma said in the Alibaba Group video from the apartment.

Ma had no business or technical experience, and growing the business wasn't always easy. But says Ma in the video, without those "tough days, we can never be [here] today."

Today, Alibaba has a market capitalization of about $456 billion.

Now, as a market leader, Ma says "the thing that I want this company [to] never forget is the dream, because we are at today's size. A lot of companies, I learned why they fail, because they want [the] next quarter. They want revenue. They want profit. They always forget about dreams," he says in the video.

"It's the dreams that keep us working hard. It's the dreams that keep us never afraid of the mistakes, the setbacks we have. I hope 60 years later, 80 years later, people still remember this apartment. We should never lose the dream we had from the ... the apartment."

Many great companies, including Amazon, Apple and Google, also began in garages. And Ma hopes Alibaba never loses sight of its garage culture, regardless of how large it gets. In fact, CNBC reported in 2014 that Ma sends his most-talented employees there to work with the hope that the experience inspires them to create more great products.

"No matter how big Alibaba is, no matter where Alibaba will be, no matter what industry we are in, we always remember this 'Hupan' culture, this garage culture," Ma says in the video.

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Alibaba founder Jack Ma sees this 1 potential benefit to AI taking our jobs
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