Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built
Author: Duncan Clark
Publisher: Harper Collins, nonfiction
In the 1980s, a Chinese teen approached an Australian tourist in Hangzhou, China, and asked for his help to practise English.
The chance encounter would turn out to be the catalyst for that teenager to go on to build an online empire called Alibaba that, when it went public in 2014, was the largest IPO (initial public offering) in history with US$25bil (RM100.5bil).
It might sound like the stuff of fiction, but Ma Yun – better known as Jack Ma – and his real-life story of chance, opportunity, hard-work and shrewd entrepreneurship transformed e-commerce in China, and turned a mediocre student into one of the world’s richest men.
In his book, Duncan Clark charts Ma’s unexpected rise and explores the early friendship that helped Ma found China’s biggest e-commerce company.
Through correspondence with the young Australian tourist, David Morley, Ma was able to hone his English skills, and it was his language studies that led him to visit the United States, where he was introduced to the Internet and inspired to start an online business.
Impressed by the young Ma’s zest and enthusiasm, Morley’s father, Ken, helped Ma to buy his first apartment in Hangzhou. Later, after Ken died, Morley recalled his father’s fondness for Ma, saying, “I think Dad saw something in him”.
In the unfolding of Ma’s extraordinary story, Clark’s portrayal of the businessman confirms Morley Senior’s early intuition. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Alibaba’s meteoric rise has played a key part in China’s emergence as an economic power: Alibaba’s payment tool Alipay accounts for a third of the US$2.5tril (RM10tril) global online payments market.
Clark provides a unique insight into the development of Alibaba, having been an early adviser to Ma in helping the company’s expansion.
However, his account of the company’s founding and subsequent success focuses more on the business side, exploring China’s economic development, than it does on Ma himself.
The humble, reserved entreprenuer with a fondness for martial arts novels and the movie Forrest Gump might appear unassuming – however, in 2015 during a summit in Manila, US President Barack Obama broke protocol by interviewing Ma, a move that cemented the driven CEO as one of the giants among today’s global leaders.
When we think of Internet revolutions, it’s easy to think of companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon. There’s a tendency to view e-commerce advances through the lens of Western progression, and yet Ma has emerged from an unprivileged background to perch himself alongside fellow giants of business who received the kinds of advantages the young Ma Yun could only dream of.
For readers with a keen interest in the economic landscape of China and the business development of the Alibaba model, Clark’s book would fall under the “must-read” category.
Even for the uninitiated, it provides a valuable, albeit ponderous, insight into one of the least expected triumphs in the history of business.
The Chinese Government might continue to maintain its tight grip on Internet access within its borders but if the story of Ma and his empire offers any message it’s that, if you have a decent idea and the dedication and drive to seeing your vision through, not even one of the world’s most restrictive governments can keep you from achieving immense global success.