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Founder of China's Alibaba has global ambitions

Alibaba has expanded into personal finance, games, video and other services. In March, it was one of 10 companies picked by Beijing to set up China’s first privately financed banks since the 1949 communist revolution.
By JOE McDONALD, AP Business Writer Published: May 10, 2014
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— Even before Alibaba went online, its founder talked about making the fledgling e-commerce company a global player.

At Alibaba Group’s first staff meeting in 1999, a video shot by an employee shows Jack Ma rallying a workforce of 17 of his friends. They met in a cement-floored apartment in Hangzhou, a city southwest of Shanghai, at a time when few Chinese were online. Ma was an English teacher with no training in business or computers.

“Our competitors are not in China but in Silicon Valley,” says Ma in the video, which is included in a documentary about the company, “Crocodile in the Yangtze,” made by a former Alibaba vice president, Porter Erisman. “We can beat government agencies and big, famous companies because of our innovative spirit.”

Such Silicon Valley-style bluster was new to China. Over the next 15 years, he helped propel Alibaba through technical and financial challenges and a battle with eBay Inc. to become the world’s biggest online bazaar. The company is now planning to list in the U.S. and analysts say its initial public offering this year may raise up to $20 billion.

Last year, 231 million customers spent $248 billion with merchants on Alibaba’s platforms, more than Amazon.com Inc. and eBay combined.

Alibaba had to develop e-commerce infrastructure. Few Chinese used credit cards, so it created Alipay, a payments system that helped online sales win acceptance by allowing wary customers to receive goods before releasing money to sellers. The company worked with shippers to improve their reliability and held trade shows to persuade entrepreneurs to go online.

“Alibaba really created the e-commerce market in China,” said Edward Yu, president of research firm Analysys International.

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