Duncan Clark: New Alibaba book chronicles rise of China’s Internet, private sector and its largest e-commerce company

Duncan Clark and Alibaba's Group's founder and chairman Ma Yun, also known as Jack Ma. (Credit: Duncan Clark)
Duncan Clark and Alibaba’s Group’s founder and chairman Ma Yun, also known as Jack Ma. (Credit: Duncan Clark)

BEIJING, Aug. 25 (Xinhua) — At first glance, little may set Duncan Clark apart from other foreign business executives in Beijing’s CBD, with his dapper appearance and Mandarin-peppered English. But in fact, he has worked as an adviser for Jack Ma, the maverick founder of Alibaba Group, when China’s largest e-commerce company was founded in a small apartment back in 1999.

Now Clark, who comes from Britain, has written a book about Ma and his monolithic company, “Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built.”

Clark, in a crisp blue business shirt, sat down with Xinhua recently for an exclusive interview in the office of his consulting firm next to the CCTV “big pants” building to talk about his book on the eve of the G20 summit to be held in the Chinese city of Hangzhou — incidentally, Ma’s hometown in Zhejiang Province. Ma, who chairs the B-20 SME Development Task Force, is expected to attend the summit.

So what is the book about? Clark put it in a nutshell. “The book is really about two things: the Internet coming to China, the rise of the private sector. The combination is like an explosion, and Ma Yun is the guy with the match,” Clark said.

Then of course there is “Jack” himself, as Clark mostly referred to Ma Yun, Alibaba’s larger-than-life founder and chairman. After all, what good would a book on Alibaba be without mentioning Jack?

“His sense of humor is the first thing you notice,” Clark said, adding that Jack would say “crazy things,” for example that his company would be bigger than Amazon’s or that he would rule the world — all big visions while sitting in a little room. “You had to laugh. But somehow you didn’t laugh at him, you were laughing with him … but somehow, there was something about him that just seemed different.”

Though he appeared to be a bit of an oddball, Clark said Jack proved himself to be “a team leader and a great communicator.” Also, Jack had a knack for telling stories and “making people feel relaxed … he makes you feel like he’s talking to you, even if you’re in a room of 3,000 people.” Yet behind his Forrest Gump-like facade, Jack is actually “very strategic,” a man who is always “looking, learning, building ideas.”

In fact, Jack is a pragmatist at heart. Born into a modest background in China’s Zhejiang Province, one could say that Jack was also born right into China’s merchant culture. Bad in math, he “turned to his sense of imagination and his ability to be a performer” while hawking plastic carpets to supplement his income from teaching and translating. “He understands what it is to be a small merchant,” Clark said. Also, he said, Jack understands his customers. “The success of Alibaba is really Taobao (Alibaba’s consumer-to-consumer portal). The key to understanding Taobao is understanding the customer.” A true-blooded business tycoon, “he’ll do anything to get the deal.”

And Jack is ambitious. “The strongest thing about him is ambition. The weakest thing about him is his ambition,” Clark said, citing Alibaba’s massive money market fund, Yu’e Bao, as an example, which shocked banks and had people turning against him. Still, thanks to Jack’s strong communication and motivation skills, others “follow him into battle.”

Clark mentioned Tencent as a foil to Alibaba. “Tencent is much more strategic, is much more cautious, and more focused. Alibaba is doing big things in finance, in media, in global… so ambition is the strong point and the weak point of the company.” A double-edged sword indeed. “Investors sometimes love too much ambition, sometimes they’re afraid, so it’s a balance.”

Clark said he was brought on board to advise Alibaba on its international expansion during the company’s infancy as a contractor and “foreign friend.” Clark also indicated that Alibaba was to a certain extent supportive in his writing the book, yet he emphasized he had worked independently on it.

“I did not have that sit-down with him,” Clark said. In other words, he didn’t conduct lengthy interviews with Jack, but he did have some time with Jack’s number two, Joe Tsai.

Clark said he talked to current and former Alibaba employees as well as competitors. It was hard to find critical voices because Jack has “a very different management style” than Steve Jobs, Clark said, referring to the founder of Apple who wasn’t known for his people skills. He wanted to steer clear of gossip about Alibaba’s founder while making sure he was not producing a “puff piece.”

Clark said his book is now being translated into 14 languages. “Brazil, Russia, Ukraine, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mongolia — a lot of people actually buy stuff on Alibaba’s websites, so they are interested in the company and also his story,” he said.

Yet his book is not only about technology. “People don’t love technology, they love people,” the author said, and as such, a story about Alibaba’s charismatic leader would attract more readers.

Clark aims to both entertain and inform. “I think Alibaba is a window into a deeper understanding of China,” he said, hoping his readers can learn more about what is going on in China, for example as regards the Internet, its entrepreneurs and Zhejiang Province. Clark said that Jack had helped make Hangzhou, China’s Silicon Valley, a major tech hub and further raised commerce in Zhejiang. “I hope one of the things of this book is it kind of opens people’s eyes to the power of Zhejiang. The G20 will do that even more.”

Duncan Clark with Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang holding a copy of Clark's new Alibaba book. (Credit: Duncan Clark)
Duncan Clark with Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang holding a copy of Clark’s new Alibaba book. (Credit: Duncan Clark)

For Clark, finding some old Australian friends of Jack’s — the Morley family who had come to China in 1980 — was a highlight. To track down David Morley, who is now running a Yoga studio in Australia, Clark conducted some “investigative journalism.” “Nobody had told that story,” Clark said. Now, Jack’s friend David is also Clark’s.

“The most fun part was building a friendship with David Morley. Actually, we’ve never met, but we send messages all the time,” he said, adding that Jack has now started talking about the Morleys as well.

Another surprise that his book had in store for him after its publication was receiving a call from Wall Street Journal that a pirated copy of his book was available — on an Alibaba marketplace. “The funniest thing was when my book was copied on Taobao,” Clark said, amused. Alibaba later removed the links.

When asked how Jack benefited from the development of the Internet and China’s opening-up, Clark suggested that Jack was born in the right place at the right time, as Hangzhou opened early to tourism and has a long tradition of commerce. Moreover, Jack “has benefited from certain crises. Actually, if you look back, crisis has been his opportunity.”

Clark cited SARS as an example, when many people had to stay home and used their new broadband connection to shop online. That was exactly the time when Taobao was launched in 2003. The 2008 global financial crisis helped open up the Chinese market for him, as a lot of factories could not export to the United States.

Now, Clark said Jack can help facilitate China’s shift from a manufacturing to a consumer-driven society. “Jack is offering a solution to China … how to move from a made-in-China to a consumed-in-China or designed-in-China,” he said. “Ma Yun can sell Alibaba as a way to actually move up the development of the middle class, give them more choice … and create more innovative products. That’s a dream.”

Clark also addressed the subject of innovation and said that there has always been a history of copying among nations. He said while the private sector has to lead innovation, governments can create the conditions for it, such as education and intellectual property laws. “People in the West want to understand what is happening in China that might be original, or might be not just copycat,” he said. Actually, he said Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall platforms are themselves innovative to a certain extent.

As for Alibaba’s foray into overseas markets, Clark said there would have to be a wait-and-see approach. Although its e-commerce website AliExpress has taken off in Russia without Alibaba’s even opening a single office, Clark is not so sure that success can be replicated in the United States with its highly sophisticated retail sector. He mentioned Amazon.

“Amazon is doing things differently from Alibaba. Amazon buys products and sells them, so they have inventory; Alibaba is just a market place, so they just connect buyers and sellers.” However, Clark said that Amazon is now building its own products, which might pose a threat to its biggest customers yet harbor opportunities for Alibaba to compete with Amazon.

Looking forward, Clark said Alibaba’s top future challenge is human resources, so it is trying to recruit its own foreign talent for its expansion through the Alibaba Global Leadership Academy. Young foreigners work for Alibaba in Hangzhou, become immersed in the company culture and are then dispatched overseas.

Ironically, Clark called Jack, the homegrown Hangzhou entrepreneur, “more of a global player” than Baidu’s U.S.-educated Li Yanhong and said Jack has been actively involved in the globalization debate. Alibaba’s founder has also been visiting Davos. “Jack was one of the earliest to start talking about corporate social responsibility, environmental responsibility because he tends to be ahead of where other people are,” Clark said. So far, this has been a smart move for Alibaba’s PR.

“For Alibaba going overseas, we will learn do they make the same mistakes that the West made coming here (to China),” Clark said. He suggested that a key to Alibaba’s past success lies in Jack’s flexibility, which may also serve him well in the future. “He tries to be all things to all people, and he’s doing pretty well.”

(Xinhua reporter Chen Xuelian contributed to the story.)

Originally by: Tamara Treichel, Source: Aug 25th, 2016, New China