China’s “Big Three” internet giants are sometimes grouped together as BAT – Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. What’s remarkable is that all of them are just a little older than this century. With such vertiginous rises, there are great stories to be told – of fortunes gained, competitors bested, rivals co-opted, new markets conquered, and even the odd crashing failure. So far, the literature of their stories from the inside has been insubstantial, leaving the financial papers to give the figures rather than the personalities. But now we have the story of Alibaba Group’s rise from within. Porter Erisman was one of the very first foreigners to join Alibaba, back in 2000, starting as corporate communications manager and working in various senior roles alongside Jack Ma and his team, and now he has written about Alibaba’s rise and what it means for business around the world.
Erisman’s story takes him through Alibaba’s various bumps and challenges in this fast-paced story, from the SARS epidemic to besting eBay, from a post-dot-com bubble retrenchment to partnership with Yahoo! Through it all, we see how Alibaba adapted with remarkable speed and adeptness, always seeking new ways to simplify business and to satisfy its users.
Erisman’s story is often exciting, giving a real sense of the characters involved. Naturally, Jack Ma springs most vividly from the page, his tenacity, inspirational leadership and startling ambition coming into vivid color. The battle with eBay is quite gripping, and the deal with Yahoo! gives a great insight to high level deal making. (Most memorably, when a Yahoo! executive says that if Alibaba performs well maybe they will buy out the rest of the company, Jack Ma retorts that he will buy out Yahoo! Alibaba’s market cap is now five times that of Yahoo!).
One would like perhaps to have read more about the day-to-day culture and workings of Alibaba, rather than a selection of its greatest challenges. Jack Ma’s ability to inspire the culture of the company are several times mentioned but not thoroughly described. It would also have been nice to hear more about the regular staff of the company rather than the top level executives, important though they doubtless are. But nonetheless, this is one of the first stories from the inside of China’s internet giants, and it’s an absorbing read.
Published in Business Tianjin