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Alibaba’s World: A revolutionary ride

This insider account describes in vivid detail the rise of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba from a struggling start-up to the mammoth it is today

Alibaba’s World: How a Remarkable Chinese Company is Changing the Face of Global Business
Porter Erisman
Macmillan
Pp 242
Rs 499

YOU NEED to appreciate scale in order to see its importance. So in the name of research, I conducted a quick hunt on the Alibaba website for bathroom fittings. The site threw up a list of roughly 1,94,000 products. That’s a lot of taps and showers!

Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant, started as a B2B (business to business) platform only, but soon branched out from its roots, with retail channels, finance companies, advertising and marketing agents and electronic payment processing. The company basically puts retailers in touch with wholesalers and wholesalers in touch with manufacturers. From giant tractors to toys, electronic components to sewer pipes, Alibaba has it all. In fact, it’s one of the biggest e-commerce sites in the world—in September last year, it filed the largest IPO (initial public offering) in history, larger than Google, Facebook and Twitter combined.

Alibaba’s World: How a Remarkable Chinese Company is Changing the Face of Global Business is an insider account of the rise and culture of the company. Author Porter Erisman joined Alibaba in 2000 soon after its founding by Jack Ma. Erisman was Alibaba’s first western employee and rose to be vice-president before leaving the company in 2008.

The most interesting character in Erisman’s story is Ma. A short, diffident man, Ma is unusually driven, says the author. Erisman writes about the successes and failures of the company that came about because Ma wasn’t a conventional businessman and did things his own way. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, of course—Ma had many falls and rises. The global financial crisis was just one of the events, which nearly destroyed the company. But it survived—and how.

This is not a stereotypical business book. It’s brisk and jargon-free, giving an insight into the way Chinese business works and how it relates to the western world. Also, unlike most such books (Hatching Twitter, The Facebook Effect, The Everything Store, etc), this one is authored by somebody who was actually an employee at Alibaba, making it a much more insightful and enjoyable read.

While the story itself is very interesting, the book perhaps is most useful for the 40 lessons gleaned from Alibaba, which have been listed in the last section of the book. The lessons offer wisdom, which will not only be helpful for businessmen, but for common people as well.

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