In the Internet world he is known affectionately as Crazy Jack Ma. What else could you call someone who says: I am proud to tell investors I have no plans to make money for the time being? But with an injection of $20 million from Japanese Internet funder Softbank, Ma must be doing something right. The 35-year-old Hangzhou native with sunken cheeks and a perpetual grin is one of the most energetic boosters of the Internet in China--no conference on the mainland's wired future is complete without him. A former university lecturer, Ma began designing Web pages for government agencies in 1995 and set up his own company, , in March 1999. His idea--at least the latest version of it, given his belief that to keep changing is the best plan--is to run a global business-to-business (B2B, in e-biz parlance) website for small and medium-sized companies. The site focuses on providing firms from developing countries with a way of marketing their products around the world. We have the information, and suppliers can rely on a platform like Alibaba to export to developed countries.
Big ambition--but then, Ma is a big thinker. American B2B sites are whales. But 85% of the fish in the sea are shrimp-sized. I don't know anyone who makes money from whales, but I've seen many making money from shrimp. He already has 200,000 users--from Brazilian paint manufacturers to makers of packaging equipment in South Korea to sunglass factories in China.
To put up the site and keep it running, Ma employs 40 young graduates (Not the 40 thieves, he laughs) in two crowded offices in Hangzhou. He pays them about $50 a month and stipulates that they cannot live more than 10 minutes from the office--and still they work 16-hour days for him, seven days a week.
And believe it or not, we don't even have a business plan, he says. Sound crazy? But of course.