Book notes: Alibaba’s World

Alibaba’s World by Porter Erisman


Synopsis: In September 2014, a Chinese company that most Americans had never heard of held the largest IPO in history – bigger than Google, Facebook, and Twitter combined. Alibaba, now the world’s largest ecommerce company, mostly escaped Western notice for over 10 years, while building a customer base larger than Amazon’s and handling the bulk of ecommerce transactions in China. How did it happen? And what was it like to be along for such a revolutionary ride?

In Alibaba’s World, author Porter Erisman, one of Alibaba’s first Western employees and its head of international marketing from 2000 to 2008, shows how Jack Ma, a Chinese schoolteacher who twice failed his college entrance exams, rose from obscurity to found Alibaba and lead it from struggling startup to the world’s most dominant ecommerce player. And he analyzes Alibaba’s role as a harbinger of the new global business landscape – with its focus on the East rather than the West, emerging markets over developed ones, and the nimble entrepreneur over the industry titan. As we face this near future, the story of Alibaba – and its inevitable descendants – is both essential and instructive.

Initial thoughts:

Just like when I purchased The Automatic Customer during the Audible BOGO sale, this was the only other book in the list that caught my eye. I was largely ignorant to what Alibaba was exactly, but I knew its founder Jack Ma was one of the wealthiest men on the planet and had a reputation for being a business Titan.

I figured this would be a great opportunity to educate myself on one of the most influential companies in history. I figured I would learn a lot just like when I read Age of Amazon, the story of Jeff Bezos and his company.

Key ideas:

  • A wrong decision is better than no decision in internet speed
  • Not every skilled specialist makes a good manager
  • Solidifying its values helped the company grow large while still maintaining its culture
  • The SARS epidemic actually accelerated the adoption of e-commerce
  • Taobao wasn’t initially focused on making money, but figuring out e-commerce for the consumer and help them
  • Unlike their western counterparts, they focused on consumers and encouraged buyers and sellers to develop relationships
  • Free, contrary to the belief at the time, is a business model
  • Jack was still a teacher at heart and wanted others to learn from their experience and inside story
  • “Today is tough, tomorrow is tougher. But the day after is beautiful. Most people die before they see the sunrise the day after”
  • Jack Ma loves Forrest Gump. Be yourself, despite changes around, you’re still you
  • Alibaba’s ecosystem shows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts
  • E-commerce can affect people’s wallets, but film/media can affect people’s minds
  • Only the paranoid survive. In tech, an app or new platform can result in massive industry shift
  • Dream big, really big. If you don’t imagine it will hapoen, it will never happen
  • Never underestimate yourself. The best place to look for talent is in the mirror and on your existing team
  • Never overestimate your competitor
  • Make sure you have a great idea
  • Build a company to last 102 years. People’s mindset changes when looking long term rather than short term
  • The bigger the problem, the greater the opportunity
  • The only way to build something great is to go through a lot of struggles
  • Focus on customers first, and the rest will follow
  • Customers first, employees second, investors third
  • Learn from competitors but never copy them
  • Business models don’t always work in different markets. Focus on building product/service that caters to customer first
  • Don’t change rabbits. Focus on one rabbit an change yourself to catch it
  • Don’t lose track of central business mission
  • Be fast as a rabbit but patient as a turtle. Have long term vision but be able to move quickly and adapt during the day to day operations
  • It’s more important to be best than first
  • Buy an umbrella when it’s not raining
  • Find opportunity in crisis. The Chinese character for “crisis” combines the characters for “danger” and “opportunity”
  • In a crisi, remaining calm and looking for an opportunity is key
  • Use your competitor’s strength against it
  • In the spring, prepare for winter
  • An IPO is like stopping at a gas station to fill up for the long road ahead
  • Put yourself in position for luck
  • Entrepreneurs don’t complain about problems, they solve them. Habitual complainers fail to see they have the power to solve the problems they complain about
  • Don’t dwell on mistakes. Two great traits of an entrepreneur: resilience and amnesia. Mistakes are a bi-product of mistakes to be learned from
  • Have the team work for the goal, not the boss
  • Don’t disregard the technical dummies. “Alibaba survived because I know nothing about technology” -Jack Ma
  • Don’t let things get personal
  • Assemble a team, not a collection of stars
  • Gather employees once a year
  • Spread the wealth, people will be motivated by having a part ownership of what they do
  • Integrate company values into HR system
  • Getting in the game and trying something is better than over analysis paralysis
  • Allow for sabbaticals to alleviate burnout
  • Hire the right people at the right time
  • Honor and respect the work of those before you; building a startup is like a relay race
  • Action should not involve exessice struggle that goes against nature; going with the flow was a Taoist philosophy utilized by Chinese entrepreneurs
  • Move first, ask for forgiveness later
  • Love the government but don’t marry it
  • Do the right thing for customers, employees, and community. Make sure people are aware of your good deeds
  • The relationship a company has with its customers is the relationship that matters most

Closing thoughts:

So glad I read this! Such an inspiring story about a David beating Goliath, and how a schoolteacher created on of the largest e-commerce companies in the world. I absolutely love that the last section of the book covers the 40 lessons the author learned from working at Alibaba. It definitely made my job of finding the nuggets of wisdom from the story much easier 😁 My favorite nuggets were the emphasis on long term vision, moving quickly to adapt, and focusing on adding value to the customer above all else. I think these three things really encompass how Jack Ma himself is portrayed.

In a nutshell:

Great business book that covers the rise of Alibaba and valuable lessons in entrepreneurship and building a tech giant.

Rating: 4.5/5

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