(Yicai Global) Sept. 19 -- China first connected to the World Wide Web in 1994 via a dedicated 64-kilobits-per-second international line. Some 23 years later, the national economy is dominated by a select few internet moguls who created one of the world's most dynamic online markets.
Despite their success, like many an entrepreneur, these tycoons also underwent hardships and left a trail of failures behind them. Online media outlet Sina published an article on Sept. 18, recounting the rags-to-riches tales of some of China's best-known businessmen.
Alibaba - Jack Ma
Possibly the most famous Chinese billionaire, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd's [NYSE:BABA] founder Jack Ma, failed four times in his bid to start his own business. At one point, his firm had just CNY200 (USD30.5) to its name.
Ma is now the richest man in Asia and a guest of honor at major international business and political events. Life wasn't always so large. Ma poured blood, sweat and tears into his business until it took off around the turn of the century. He missed out on jobs because of his appearance, his translation agency had to sell socks to stay afloat, and all of his first four business endeavors ended in failure.
The billionaire once met with an investor in Shanghai, who agreed a deal for Alibaba under strict terms. Ma didn't think the agreement was fair, but was keen to close the deal. He left the room to check with his accountants, only to find out that the firm had next to nothing on the books. In the end, he turned down the offer.
During Alibaba's toughest times, most of its sales staff, including Ma, would return late at night to their rented apartments and buy a bottle of hot water for CNY0.2 (USD0.03). They'd use half of the bottle to wash their feet and the other to make instant noodles.
Resilience, Ma once said, is something you will understand only after undergoing hardships, grievances and disappointment.
Tencent - Pony Ma
Pony Ma, founder of tech giant and the world's largest gaming firm, Tencent Holdings Ltd. [HKG:0700], has posed as a girl online in order to attract users to the company's messaging platform, QQ. He also once offered to sell the service.
Back in 1998, Ma had only one aim -- to monetize QQ. The platform is now one of the most popular instant messaging and social media apps worldwide. The founder spent many a sleepless night in his office, pondering how to find investors.
Two years later, Tencent was among the companies worst hit by the collapse of the dotcom bubble. The debt-laden firm almost went broke and struggled to get people to take it seriously. Ma was convinced it was time to consider selling the business.
However, even getting rid of Tencent wasn't easy. Some buyers refused to share ownership, some tried to lowball Ma, others said the QQ app, which is used in many Chinese businesses, was for kids. Ma is thankful now that he was unsuccessful in selling the firm.
"We almost sold the ICQ software for CNY600,000 (USD90,961)," he said. "I feel somewhat lucky now that we didn't rush the decision. 'Gold miners' online shouldn't be tempted by short-term gains, but many talent people didn't pay enough attention back then, and lost out on long-term opportunities.
JD.com - Liu Qiangdong
Founder of online retailer JD.com Inc. [NASDAQ:JD], Liu Qiangdong, first entered the business world as a restaurateur. However, the business fell apart after the chef and his girlfriend, a cashier, skimmed money from the restaurant.
Liu was a college student at the time and couldn't be at the eatery every day, and the couple took advantage of his inexperience. The chef overstocked the kitchen and threw away everything that passed his self-determined three-day shelf life. He then split the profits with his girlfriend and, in the end, everybody at the place was corrupt.
The pair squandered every penny of Liu's first pot of gold. "My hair turned gray in less than a month after that," he said. "I felt fear deep in my bones. I was consumed by guilt and shame toward my friends. I can't describe the pain with words."
Xiaomi - Lei Jun
Lei Jun, who founded Chinese smartphone make Xiaomi Inc., was once shut down by computing giant Microsoft Corp. [NASDAQ:MSFT].
Lei had wanted to build a world-class internet company since he was a university student. He worked at Kingsoft Corp. Ltd. [HKG:3888], a Chinese software maker, for 16 years, taking on roles including general manger and chief executive.
Microsoft entered China with the release of Microsoft Word 4.0 in 1994, and showed an interest in partnering up with the Chinese developer. However, it developed its own product after obtaining enough information about Chinese users' preferences, and spurned Kingsoft on the spot.
"Virtually every morning I found myself on the couch because I really couldn't sleep on a bed," Lei said. He began jogging five kilometers every afternoon and to relieve stress, shouted "I'm the best," to the sky.