While Amazon and eBay get the press, Alibaba is measurably the world’s biggest and most successful online commerce company. Between its three primary sites, Alibaba hosts millions of businesses and merchants. It manages hundreds of millions of users and handles a greater flow of business than any other e-commerce company in the world.
Take that, Amazon.
Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built examines not just the media monster, but the company's impact on Chinese culture, and on the West’s mostly under-acknowledged impact on the Internet revolution.
Overall, this country has giddily taken credit for the Internet and PC evolution. Not surprising, when we tend to view the giants of tech -- Apple, eBay, Microsoft, and yes, Amazon -- as the biggest influencers and primarily American.
Duncan Clark’s book about the extraordinary rise of Alibaba challenges that thinking. It doesn’t simply tell the story of an unassuming man creating one of the most powerful e-commerce businesses, it shows how this herculean feat was accomplished in a country that discouraged such feats, and how Alibaba shifted a political mindset.
Curiously, even today, the Chinese government strives to control its citizens’ access to uncontrolled speech (the Internet’s fueling asset). Though the government certainly wasn't too concerned with the Internet in the 1990s. It’s fascinating to hear that Ma, a tech geek born in the East in 1964, hadn’t accessed the Internet until 1994 while visiting the states. Admittedly, the Internet was still a fledgling commodity at the time. Less than 25 percent of American homes had a computer (compared with nearly 80 percent in 2010).
At the time, Ma had already created “Hope,” or the Hangzhou Haibo Translation Agency. Its mission was to help local companies in the East find overseas business.
The five member staff was in a financial stranglehold. Seeing the Internet as an answer, Ma convinced an American friend to code a website for Hope. This website would be the seed that grows into Alibaba, a site offering Chinese vendors and businesses connection to export buyers and channels. This revolutionary thinking reminds us of Benjamin Franklin in his biography book:An American Life by Walter Isaacson.
Ma went home and used the code to launch China Pages, one of the first registered Internet businesses in China. This venture leads into insight concerning the Eastern government’s determination to control all forms of media. A battle that has made recent worldwide headlines.
China Pages had some difficulty acquiring funding and customers as most of its prospects had no idea what “online” or “Internet” meant. Ma, in fact, was accused of conducting a scam.
The obstinate stance taken by Chinese business isn’t too surprising. And not simply because they were governed by a political body that essentially controlled private business, as well as public access to information. The Internet may have embedded itself in mainstream America, but Chinese business remained weary of it.
Ma attempted the impossible. In a country where the majority had no Internet, in many respects had no idea what the Internet was, he dared to launch a startup which offered web services that no one could verify existed. And he wanted thousands of dollars from potential customers to do it.
Ma eventually turned his modest venture -- an e-commerce company -- into a global giant. It, in turn, ventured into entertainment, logistics, cloud computing, finance, healthcare, and so much more. Another book on building great companies would be Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't by Jim Collins.
Pay attention and you’re going to find Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Builtto be a teachable moment. While there are a many books about entrepreneurship and how to succeed, Clark -- an obvious admirer of Ma -- lets us see Ma as the dogged pursuer who knows (and shows) the keys to success. Understand and address problems, hire the best team, make your product a market fit, accept all feedback, localize and then take the global market at a slow pace, work with investors you want to have relationships with, and lastly, take risks are evident throughout the read. Zero To One by Peter Thiel is another book for startups like this.
Sure, the entrepreneur has heard it all before. But between the lines of Clark’s story, we see it in action through the strength, beliefs, and hard work of a humbled, driven individual locked in an oppressive society who’s perseverance made him a billionaire.
If this book is a lesson, it’s a lesson worth learning.