Sep 08, 2020dixithanoop rated this title 3 out of 5 stars
I picked up this book because I was starting to get very curious about the new era Chinese tech companies like Pinduoduo, GSX Tecchedu etc that have been dominating the growth stock category. But these are very new, and obviously are riding on the shoulders of giants like Alibaba, Tencent, Sina etc. So, to understand the meteoric rise of Chinese economy and becoming the global supplier of goods, what better way than to read about the practices within one of the pioneers in the game - Alibaba.
My thoughts on this book are sort of mixed. In a lot of chapters, the book just comes across as hagiography. Although it does dedicate a lot of pages to talk about the problems and mistakes of Alibaba, it does it in a way that it's almost taking pride in that as well, showing Jack Ma almost as a superhuman. It's all about Jack Ma, Jack Magic. (I believe Jack Magic would have been a better title for the book though)
That said, there's no way we could discount the way Jack built this behemoth. The book is obviously about Alibaba, its beginnings, its growth, IPO etc but it also dedicates a substantial number of pages to talk about the general Chinese atmosphere for business, the three portals - SOHO, Sina, and NetEase that ruled the pre-Alibaba era business, other contemporary Chinese companies like Tencent, Baidu, 3721.com, EachNet etc. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to see my Professor's name Srihari Sargur, who also happened to be the advisor for Robin Li, the founder of Baidu.
The book is full of interesting facts about Chinese culture, and Alibaba in general. Alibaba was named so because of what Jack Ma experienced when he was at a restaurant in San Francisco, that everyone around him had heard of Alibaba and Open Sesame, and that the name was truly global. I liked that idea because it's much better for international customers (which is its business) compared to Baidu, Pinduoduo etc. Interestingly, Tencent's name is also interesting because that's how much it used to cost to send a text back when it was launched - ten (Chinese) cents! Talking about mistakes of Alibaba, Jack Ma used to say it was almost "Alibaba and 1001 mistakes". I liked that humbleness.
But truly one of the highlights of the book is the partnership between Jack Ma and Masa Son of Softbank. The story of collaboration between these two Asian giants could easily be the subject of a docudrama, or even a biography movie - Ma and Son :) Other than that, the book is also filled with some interesting stories like how Jack Ma was the tour guide to Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo when he visited the Great Wall of China; stories of TaoBao and Tmall, the actual websites of Alibaba, and more curiously, the fact that Alibaba had held Taoboa secret and many in Alibaba raised concerns about this new competitor, until it was revealed to grand cheers that TaoBao was in fact Alibaba.
Book is a treasure house for learning how Chinese culture is different from the Western, and how their habits shape their spending. One instance is that while in the West, most websites are simplistic, like Google, Chinese LOVE a cluttered webpage that's loaded with details, popups, offers etc. And that is why Taobao's website comes across as so busy, but it works. Loved the line - "Website design is cultural". There's also a good deal of explanation about the dreaded Wenzhou Model, that initially led to the boom in capitalistic policies in a communist country.
Overall, although the book is just all praise for Alibaba and Jack Ma, it certainly gives the reader amazing insights about the Chinese start-up culture. Was worth a read.