The first time Alibaba’s Founder and CEO Jack Ma used the Internet he was in Seattle.
“I tried the Internet in Seattle in a building called U.S. Bank,” he told talk-show host Charlie Rose during an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos today.
The story is one he’s told before, but now that the Chinese e-commerce giant operates an office within one block of the historical moment it has slightly more meaning.
“I came here for a project to help the local government build a highway,” he said. While he was here, he visited a friend in a small office at the U.S. Bank Centre on 5th and Pike, nearly within spitting distance of Alibaba’s new engineering outpost a block away.
It was in Seattle where Ma said his friend encouraged him to try searching the Internet for the first time. Initially, he hesitated since he knew that computers were expensive, and if he broke it, he wouldn’t be able to afford to replace it.
“He said ‘just search it,’ so I searched the first word ‘beer,” he said. “I don’t know why, but maybe because it was easy to spell? I see beers from Germany, U.S.A. and Japan, but I don’t see any from China, so I searched for the second word ‘China,’ and there was nothing.”
So, he recalls that they made a small, “ugly-looking” page, and three hours after launching it, “I got a phone call from my friend who said, “Jack, you have five emails, and I said ‘What is email?”
Based on the number of responses, he said, “This is something interesting, so we should do it.”
Another good story he shared was how he came up with the name Alibaba. He said he wanted a name that would be globally acceptable and when he asked Americans what they thought he said it resonated. People assumed it was a reference to the folk tale, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
Another reason why the name worked: “It starts with an ‘A,’ so it’s always on top.” Indeed, it’s even above Amazon, which is one notch lower alphabetically.
During the interview, Ma also touched on a number of other subjects, ranging from hosting the largest IPO ever at $25 billion to international trade and the high percentage of women who work at the company. It’s worth watching if you are curious about the company and the charismatic founder.