Alibaba – The House that Jack Ma Built by Duncan Clark
Jack Ma is one of the richest people alive. He is the Internet entrepreneur from China, the man behind Alibaba – China’s equivalent of Amazon. His story has to be worth reading. Especially because we know so little about the ‘world of internet’ in China. We know about its 2-3 big companies. But we hardly know how they came up, how they engaged the Chinese population and most importantly what innovations they did. So, when this book came for review, I immediately picked it up to read.
The book begins by telling you a bit about the stature of Jack Ma in the world. How he hobnobs with the whos who of the world and he is, in fact, one of them – just in case you do not know that. It then talks about what he believes in – the iron triangle of Alibaba – e-commerce, logistics & finance. So far so good, you enjoy reading the insights of a business leader. You can not but agree with him on most points.
China changed because of us in the past 15 years. We hope in the next 15 years, the world changes because of us. – Jack Ma
The next chapter takes you to Hangzhou – the city Jack Ma was born in and that is the base for his business ventures. You get to know the Jack Ma as he grows up. Anecdotes of how he played tour guide to western visitors to improve his English are endearing. You somewhere see his stubbornness to do whatever it needs to be done to get what he wants. And you learn that what set him apart from other Chinese young men of his generation is his exposure to the rest of the world. He made friends with an Australian family who eventually became his mentors and first investors. He traveled to the USA and that is where the idea of an online business was born. Jack Ma became the first person to get a computer in China. His initial forays into business
His initial forays into business are something a lot of Indians of my generation can relate to. And looks like Indian and Chinese realities with regard to online businesses was not very different, to begin with. You see his struggle with finding, training and retaining talent. You see him deal with authorities. And of course with the slowest possible internet connection. And you see his role in making the Internet available to average Chinese.
Somewhere the story of Jack Ma and Alibaba takes a back seat and author decides to introduce you to China. And its business environment and that makes a lot of sense. I assume the average non-Chinese reader needs this introduction to understand the context in which Alibaba was taking shape. So, not just Alibaba, you also get to know a bit about journeys of other Chinese giants like Baidu and Tencent. The author brings in the foray of American companies into China. And how each of them had to go back forced by a combination of restrictive policies and local businesses. They bring out how the outsider, completely failed to understand Chinese market and business environment. He touches upon the classic business battles especially with a case of Yahoo.
Towards the end, the book becomes a manual of financial deals. And businesses seem less about customers but more about financial deals. This is where I got lost. I am not someone who admires the financial acumen of people who know how to clinch a good deal or how to negotiate with investors. This does not mean it is not important or you can do away with them, but I somehow feel this to be an unfair bit of the business. As far as this book is concerned, I missed reading about the scaling up part of Alibaba and its various businesses. How it dealt with the talent availability, how it trained its people on technology, what marketing techniques it used to convert offline users to online. What were the typical challenges of a Chinese start-up etc?
I so wanted to read about the innovations they did on the way – I am sure that can be a book in itself.
To be fair to the author, he presents a very balanced view of the subject – Jack Ma. He does not go overboard praising him for everything he did. Duncan also shows Jack Ma as a shrewd negotiator, someone who can be unethical and can do things not really expected of him like moving the profitable part of the company out without letting the investors know.
Overall, a decent book, but the business student of me was looking for more business insights.