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BOOK REVIEW: Alibaba, The House that Jack Ma Built
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Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built

By Duncan Clark

BT 201705 BOOK 01Coming fairly hot on the heels of Porter Erisman's book based on the time he spent working with Jack Ma and Alibaba comes this new account of life and development of everyone's favorite e-commerce behemoth and its remarkable founder and CEO. Evidently there's strong demand for insights into a company which in 2016 surpassed WalMart as the world's largest retailer - without even having any stock. So how does this book compare to Erisman's narrative? Clark never worked for Alibaba, unlike Erisman, but he clearly had numerous encounters with Ma and his management team courtesy his position at investment advisory firm, BDA China. He also has many contacts in the Chinese Internet sector and puts them to good use.

Clark's book in essence is more of biography of Jack Ma as compared to Erisman's memoir of working in Alibaba. Thus, he has an excellent feel for the context of the development of Chinese Internet - or perhaps his research has been exemplary. It doesn't feel like fact-shoveling as he outlines the broader picture, connecting tech developments with user capabilities. He is equally good on the entrepreneurial culture of Zhejiang province, connecting Ma's business savvy outlook to the enormous wholesale markets in Yiwu and Wenzhou's first burst of private enterprise under Deng Xioaping. Similarly, Clark has done a good job of digging into Ma's early life, uncovering several photos of him with the Australian family he befriended while acting as an unofficial tour guide in Hangzhou.

Our sense of him as a young man is of someone ferociously driven yet without connections who has succeeded by the sheer strength of his personality. For example, after failing the gaokao twice, he managed to enter Hangzhou Teachers College on the third attempt and in his sophomore year was elected president of Hangzhou Student's Federation. When he set up his first enterprise, China Pages, the first online directory of Chinese businesses, no-one in Hangzhou even had Internet at that time. Thus, he had to send company information to a colleague in Seattle who would put the information online, print out screenshots and post them to Ma in Hangzhou. Asking customers for RMB20000 to build and host a website was thus almost impossible. "I was treated like a con man for three years," he said. But Ma always had his eye on the profits to be made by connecting small entrepreneurs with the outside world and this clarity of purpose has paid off spectacularly.

This book is no hagiography, fortunately. Clark spends some time discussing Ma's fraught relations with Yahoo! and his sequestration of Alipay, neither of which show him in particularly good light, though the facts of both cases remain murky. Some stories of Ma's life are now becoming mythic, like him talking to foreign tourists in order to learn English, a business equivalent of George Washington and the cherry tree. This happens when giants arise. We have seen it happen with Jack Ma and here is that story, now more fully told than ever before.


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