Opinion

A Chinese original

Prince Mathews Thomas | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 15, 2016

Book Title: Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built; Author: Duncan Clark; Publisher: Harper Collins. Price: ₹599

Duncan Clark, Founder, BDA China, an investment advisory firm

The way he ideates and operates his business makes Jack Ma a unique phenomenon

One of the most striking stories from this book on Jack Ma, Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built, is about the author Duncan Clark. A former Morgan Stanley investment banker, Clark was an adviser to Alibaba, the company Jack had founded in 1999. As part of the remuneration, Jack and Joe Tsai, one of the other co-founders, offered Clark the right to buy a few hundred thousand shares in Alibaba at just 30 cents each.

But the investment banker wasn’t convinced. This was in 2000 and by early 2003, when the deadline of the offer was up; the dotcom bubble had burst. “In an error of colossal proportions, I decided not to buy the shares,” writes the author who has lived in China for over 20 years. He adds: “In the weeks after the company’s September 2014 IPO, this mushroomed into a $30 million mistake.”

To be fair to Clark, who has found cathartic release in writing the book, many have erred by underestimating Jack. The list is long and includes the local police and KFC branch at Hangzhou, where a young Jack had gone in search of a job. While the police told Ma that he was no good, at the KFC outlet, the future billionaire was the only one among 24 aspirants to be turned away.

Years later, when Jack was in business, illustrious names such as Goldman Sachs (they did just a little better than Clark, but sold their early stake in Alibaba too soon) and eBay (it underestimated Alibaba as a rival) have blundered when it came to Crazy Jack, the nickname Jack earned for his “outsize ambitions and unconventional strategies”.

Outlandish success

These instances of rejection, or low confidence in his abilities make the Chinese entrepreneur’s success even more outlandish. In about 17 years since he founded Alibaba, Jack became among the richest persons in his country with a networth of $23 billion as on April 2016. Alibaba’s September 2014 IPO is the biggest in history and by then, the company already had more sales than Amazon and eBay combined. Alipay, the online payment service of Alibaba, accounts for nearly half of the online transactions in China.

Jack’s success is not limited to changing the way Chinese shop. His Alibaba has units that range from mutual fund to messaging service akin to WhatsApp, from private equity to film production, and even a newspaper. The guy who thrice failed at university entrance exams, can today claim to be the most influential person in his country.

Jack’s life story makes for a compelling read, and Clark makes admirable use of his access, both to Jack and rest of the influential class in China, to pepper the book with anecdotes. Stories of Jack’s Australian penpal who later helps him buy his first apartment, or the one about his eagerness to learn English, make this a page-turner. Aspiring entrepreneurs will be inspired by Jack, whose zeal and confidence kept him going despite failures. Businessmen, be it in India or elsewhere in the world, will find quite a few answers to their entrepreneurial questions in this book.

E-commerce tangle

The entrepreneurial story apart, Clark’s book is also about the e-commerce sector. Jack’s early struggles, his competition with peers and Alibaba’s own run-ins with investors and government machinery will sound familiar to Indian readers following the local dotcom companies.

Flipkart and Snapdeal, two biggest e-commerce companies have often duelled for the claim of being India’s Alibaba. Their business models, especially Snapdeal’s marketplace strategy, more often than not mirrors Alibaba’s. It is not coincidental that Jack has invested in Snapdeal. There is another connection between the two.

Snapdeal’s other marquee investor, the Masayoshi Son-led Japanese multinational Softbank, was one of the earliest backers of Jack. The two had first met in 1999, when Jack was one of the several Chinese entrepreneurs invited to meet Son in ‘speed-dating’ sessions. The two hit it off immediately and as Clark notes in the book: “Son’s backing of Jack, coming just months before the dotcom crash, transformed Alibaba’s fortunes.”

It is too early to say if their bet on Snapdeal, over its bigger rival Flipkart, will pay off. Snapdeal was Jack’s second buy in India, where he had entered by buying into Paytm, the mobile payment and e-commerce platform. He also plans to bring Alibaba to India, to make a direct presence in a market that is becoming a hotbed of competition among home-grown and multinational companies, especially Amazon and eBay.

It will hearten the money-guzzling Indian e-com biggies that Alibaba has been profitable, reporting profits of $1.92 billion in the 2015 December quarter. Little wonder that Paytm, with the backing of Jack, hopes to break-even by 2017.

But for the flagbearers of Indian e-tail — Flipkart and Snapdeal — the road to profits seems to be long and debt-ridden. Even as debate flares on gross merchandise value and falling valuation of some of the ecommerce unicorns, the Bansals and Bahls of Indian e-commerce will find pertinent lessons to learn from Jack’s experience.

One of the lessons would be on Jack’s fight against fakes that allegedly sell on Alibaba’s platforms. Chinese regulators have blamed the company for selling fakes, allegations that have hurt Alibaba’s valuation. Jack has rallied to break that perception, removing up to 90 million fake products from his sites in the run-up to the 2014 IPO. But the fight is still on. Recently, Alibaba became the first e-commerce company to join International Anti-Counterfeiting Organisation, an international agency.

Indian companies, especially Flipkart which has recently been airing commercials focusing on the subject, will do well to learn from the Jack experience. He is an original.



MEET THE AUTHOR

Founder, investor and leading advisor on China’s technology and consumer sectors, Duncan Clark has been based in China since 1994 where, after four years as an investment banker with Morgan Stanley, he founded BDA China, an investment advisory firm.

Published on May 15, 2016
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