In 1995, 31-year-old Jack Ma, a former English teacher from Hangzhou, China, who had recently started a translation company, took a trip to Seattle. A friend there showed Ma his personal computer and how to surf the Internet. Ma entered the search terms “Chinese” and “beer” and found nothing, suggesting that the future of global commerce could have been a lot different if there had been at least one early fan website for Tsingtao.
When Ma returned to Hangzhou, a city of 2.4 million in eastern China, he started an online directory called China Pages. Launched at a time when few Chinese owned PCs, let alone had access to the Internet, Ma’s venture failed. Undeterred, he struck on an even bigger idea. In late 1998, Ma and 17 colleagues started a site meant to help small local companies sell their products online. They named it after Ali Baba, the poor woodcutter who discovers hidden treasure in The Arabian Nights folk tales.