Jack Ma ... then and now

One night in 2000, 500 of my Internet industry colleagues and I crammed into a meeting room in Hong Kong's Furama Hotel, which no longer exists, for a meeting of I and I Asia, then the must-attend function of the Internet age. Most of the others assembled that night are probably no longer in the industry. But the speaker had just closed a US$20 million round of venture capital financing, and in 2000, that made everyone in the room all ears. He was here to stay.

The speaker was Jack Ma, who was and still is the chief executive officer (CEO) of the company he founded, Alibaba.com. The diminutive man from Hangzhou was making his biggest public appearance in Hong Kong to date. Closing Alibaba's second round of funding took many as a surprise, because it was only a few months earlier that the company had received $5 million for its first round. Ma's answer was simple: the money was there for us; there isn't that much money around now, so we'll take it while it's there.

He also gave one of my all-time favorite Internet-era quotes. Having just taken $20 million off of Goldman Sachs and others, someone asked, So, Jack, what about revenue to back that valuation? Ma said, "We are running too fast for revenue." I almost ran back to my office to write that story.

Fast-forward a few years. One of Alibaba's staff (thank you, Porter) was kind enough to invite me to a unique event in Alibaba's home city of Hangzhou, the "Weekend with the Warriors." Ma invited three of his fellow Internet luminaries (their star was shining quite a bit brighter at that time than his): Charles Zhang, CEO of Sohu.com Inc.; William Ding, who had founded but was not yet sitting in the CEO's chair of Netease.com Inc.; and Wang Zhidong, who was CEO of Sina Corp. Joining them was author Louis Cha, whose kung fu novels of swordsmen roaming the countryside vanquishing evil have thrilled millions of Chinese readers.

This lovefest compared today's Chinese Internet entrepreneurs with martial arts heroes of the past. It was pure hubris. Ma was always a good interview, charming with his superb English and wit, but now he was demonstrating his ability to put on a show. Within months, Wang was gone as Sina CEO, and Ding had to return to that position to keep Netease from being delisted from the Nasdaq.

Rain this weekend put a dampner on what is now Alibaba.com Corp.'s Alifest. But in public at least, it never seems to rain on Jack Ma's parade. Ma was in the driver's seat when he joined Yahoo Inc. co-founder Jerry Yang onstage Saturday in Hangzhou, trading compliments and speaking about the future of the Internet and of Alibaba. Having negotiated a deal with Yahoo a year ago, in which Yahoo handed over $1 billion and control of its China unit in return for a 40 percent stake in Alibaba, it was hard not to feel that Ma had outfoxed his friend, or at least his friend's company.

On Saturday, despite a full schedule of media, meetings, and events, Ma was as relaxed as I've ever seen him. Unlike that night in Hong Kong, he's got real money in his pocket now, and his company's war chests are overflowing. His English was even better then in the past. He could probably still use a better tailor. It doesn't matter. When he's around, it's his room. Jack, you've come a long way.

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