This article was published on July 8, 2014

This is how much crazy Jack Ma needed to turn Alibaba into a multi-billion dollar giant

This is how much crazy Jack Ma needed to turn Alibaba into a multi-billion dollar giant
Kaylene Hong
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Kaylene Hong

Kaylene Hong was Asia Reporter for The Next Web between 2013 and 2014, based in Singapore. She is bilingual in English and Mandarin. Stay in Kaylene Hong was Asia Reporter for The Next Web between 2013 and 2014, based in Singapore. She is bilingual in English and Mandarin. Stay in touch via Twitter or Google+.

“Crocodile in the Yangtze” starts off with a shot of Alibaba founder Jack Ma dressed up in an outlandishly outrageous rock star outfit and performing on stage in front of thousands of people.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the first word that popped into your mind was “crazy.”

And Ma was indeed crazy to a certain extent — well, that goes without saying considering that even as an English teacher, he went ahead to chase the dream of starting an e-commerce firm from scratch, taking on global multi-billion-dollar companies including eBay.

“eBay is a shark in the ocean. We are a crocodile in the Yangtze River. If we fight in the ocean, we will lose. But if we fight in the river, we will win,” this quote from Jack Ma is where the film draws its title from. Now that “Crocodile in the Yangtze” is available on Vimeo for anyone interested to purchase and watch it, TNW caught up with Porter Erisman, the director of the documentary, who spent eight years at Alibaba during its early days.

The film is based on 200 hours of archival footage from 35 sources and is an extremely comprehensive overview of Ma’s journey to eventually set up Alibaba. Ma was first fascinated by the internet when he traveled to the US, and decided to take it further in 1995 by setting up China’s first internet company, a sort of “Yellow Pages” for Chinese firms in English. Yet he faced rejection by the government’s media and information department.

It would take another four years before Ma rekindled his dream.

Erisman joined Alibaba in April 2000, just as the company moved its operations out of a small apartment where it started. Up till 2008, Erisman held the post of a vice president at Alibaba, leading its international marketing efforts and corporate affairs.

People pick up on certain things (Jack Ma) says or does, like in the film he dresses up in a rockstar outfit as a way of joking about himself, and they think he’s crazy.

On day one when Alibaba was in the apartment, there were a lot of people who would have thought he’s crazy. But now here we are 14 years later and he and the founders have built potentially the world’s largest e-commerce company. It’s hard to argue that he’s crazy, because there’s a fine line between crazy and genius.

Just like people would think Steve Jobs was crazy in the first day, or people think Mark Zuckerberg was crazy, Jack Ma is the same way. He’s proven that, over time he’s not crazy, though that was the early perception of him.

Looking at Alibaba’s hunble beginnings, it is incredible to fathom how much the company has evolved and grown into a tech titan. Alibaba is well on its way to recording the world’s largest ever tech IPO. The e-commerce giant first filed for its offering in early May with 618 million users and $5.55 billion in revenue for fiscal 2013. According to the filing, Alibaba is seeking to raise as much as $1 billion, though many believe the final figure could be more than $20 billion instead.

Subsequently, the company revealed in an updated SEC filing that its US IPO will take place on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker $BABA — while reports have pinned its IPO date at August 8 this year.

Erisman said that Alibaba’s success has a lot to do with how Ma managed his employees, and how Alibaba managed to cater to the tastes of its audience by taking a different route from Western companies.

Alibaba was never a team of all-stars (referring to people with degrees and a lot of management experience), Erisman noted. “I think one of the strengths of Jack Ma as a manager and a leader is: Jack is great at putting together a team and finding ways to encourage them to work together, so ordinary people could do extraordinary things,” he said.

Ma also reversed the typical strategy of what is typically taught in an MBA course — to build a framework and analyze every piece of data to come up with a perfect decision based on rigorous analysis — by making decisions based on gut instinct instead. Erisman noted how this actually served Alibaba well, as compared to its Silicon Valley peers, Chinese internet startups moved much more quickly, even if this meant making mistakes along the way.

For example, there was a period of internal turmoil when Alibaba still wasn’t earning any revenue, which led to lay-offs of international staff and bringing the company’s headquarters back to China from the US.

After riding out those challenges, Alibaba then had to face intense competition from eBay moving aggressively into China. Eventually, Ma created a consumer marketplace, Taobao, in 2003 to fend off the threat from eBay — and with its chaotic site (that was actually suited to Chinese consumers’ need for stimulation and excitement), it succeeded in doing so.

What I learnt was — Jack always told us: I won’t fault you for making a mistake, but I will fault you for doing nothing. It was more action-oriented and execution-oriented, and people moved extremely quickly. And we would run in one direction, make mistakes, come back. And run in another direction, make mistakes and come back. We did it sometimes without analyzing, we just made the decision and did it…

If you took a snapshot at any time, it looks like Alibaba was full of mistakes and problems. But if you took all the snapshots and lined them up together, you can see the trend was always moving forward.

Erisman took three years to complete the film — and when Ma finally saw it, his first reaction was “lukewarm.” However, Ma eventually invited Erisman to show the documentary at the 10th-year anniversary of its Taobao marketplace.

“I think it’s like this: if anyone sees a portrait of themselves, they will look at the portrait and find things they wish they could touch up a little bit, or that they don’t think is perfect. But it can be a very authentic portrait,” Erisman said.

Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO last year, coinciding with Taobao’s 10th-year anniversary, and marking the end of an era at the internet giant that he founded — though he is still very much involved in the company’s operations.

The public availability of “Crocodile in the Yangtze” comes at a perfect timing for an international audience (particularly in the West) to see what has unfolded at Alibaba since its inception, particularly as it increasingly looks like the company is paving the way to take its consumer-facing marketplace overseas. Its first direct-to-consumer online store in the US, 11 Main, opened up to shoppers last week, but by invitation only.

Erisman noted that Alibaba had learnt the best thing to do to enter a new market was to “empower the local entrepreneurs who understand that market, give them the resources and the freedom to move ahead the way they think is best for the local market,” but stay out of the day-to-day management. And this seems exactly what Alibaba is intending to do.

There is much to learn from “Crocodile in the Yangtze” and it is well worth spending either $4.95 to rent it or $9.95 to purchase it, for an insight into Alibaba’s journey so far.

Summing things up, Erisman told TNW:

I felt like I’d witnessed a very inspiring story, and I felt like I was in a unique position to tell it, because as an American I saw the China side of things and I saw the Western side. So my number one goal was to share it with entrepreneurs to help inspire them. My secondary goal was to share with international audiences what I saw on the ground in China and show that entrepreneurs in Asia have the same hopes and dreams of entrepreneurs anywhere.

Crocodile in the Yangtze: Vimeo

Headline image via Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images

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