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Duncan Clark

Based in Beijing, China

  • Founder and Chairman, BDA China, a leading investment consulting firm.
  • Author of “Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built”
  • Founder, investor and leading advisor on China’s dynamic technology and consumer sectors.
  • Recipient of the 2016 Book of the Year award by The Economist for ‘Alibaba
  • Founder and Chairman, BDA China, a leading investment consulting firm.
  • Author of “Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built”
  • Founder, investor and leading advisor on China’s dynamic technology and consumer sectors.
  • Recipient of the 2016 Book of the Year award by The Economist for ‘Alibaba

Duncan Clark is a recognized expert on the Internet and entrepreneurship in China, where he has lived and worked for more than 20 years. Duncan is chairman of BDA China, which he founded in 1994 after working as an investment banker with Morgan Stanley in London and Hong Kong. BDA China is an advisory firm serving investors in China’s technology and consumer sectors, employing over 100 mainland Chinese professionals in Beijing.

An early advisor to leading China Internet entrepreneurs, Duncan is author of Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built, the definitive work on China’s e-commerce and technology giant, its founder Jack Ma, and the forces and people that propelled its rise. Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built, published in the spring of 2016 by HarperCollins/Ecco, has received glowing reviews from The New York Times (“breezy”, and an “engaging” biography), The Economist (“fascinating”), and The Wall Street Journal (“Duncan Clark tells the story with flair… A fine writer”).  ‘Alibaba’ was named a Book of the Year by The Economist magazine and short-listed for ‘Business Book of the Year’ by the Financial Times/McKinsey.

A senior China policy advisor to institutional investors, corporations and governments, Duncan is also a cofounder or early stage investor of a number of technology ventures including AppAnnie, and Radish Fiction. He is an independent director of Bangkok Bank (China) and an advisory board member of WildAid – dedicated to ending the trade of illegal wildlife products in our lifetime – and the Digital Communication Fund of Pictet et Cie.

A UK citizen raised in the UK, US and France, Duncan is a graduate of the London School of Economics and a former Visiting Scholar at Stanford University. After serving as Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in China, Duncan was awarded an OBE in 2013 for services to UK-China trade and investment.


A Most Important Company

Adam Lashinsky
May 15, 2017

I write this morning with a book recommendation, and not the book you might think I’d be recommending.
In March I wrote a profile of Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma that focused on his leadership qualities. For that piece, I interviewed Duncan Clark, a China hand who has known Ma for years and in 2016 published a biography of the Chinese entrepreneur, Alibaba: The House That Jack Built. It is this book, which doubles as an account of Ma’s life and a corporate history of his important company, that I strongly encourage you to read. (I’m often a slow reader, and I just finished it; that’s why I’m talking about it now.)
Ma’s story is fascinating. Unlike much of the Chinese political leadership, he comes from neither a well-connected family nor from a top university. Instead, through his wily ways and attention to the changing world around him, he cobbled together an e-commerce monolith that is unlike anything in the West. Clark tells this story clearly and objectively, though he clearly admires Ma and the people around him.
As I wrote in my feature article, for all its fame and the success of its 2014 initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, Alibaba remains poorly understood outside China. Compared with its home market, its businesses are nascent everywhere else, but they won’t stay that way. Clark’s book is a one-stop shop for beginning to understand one of the most important companies in one of the world’s most important markets. Because Alibaba’s story involves one-time U.S. Internet giant Yahoo as well as Softbank, the still-relevant Japanese telecommunications, and investment firm, Clark also does a good of job reviewing some dot-com history that had become gauzy in my mind.
Clark’s admiration for Ma has its limits. He recounts, for instance, the 2011 spat between Alibaba and its investors, Yahoo and Softbank, over Alipay. In that largely forgotten episode, Ma transferred ownership of Alibaba’s critical payments arm, now known as Ant Financial, into a new entity he controlled, effectively taking it away from Yahoo and Softbank. Clark describes Ma’s defense, that the Chinese government wouldn’t grant a license to a payments firm with such high foreign ownership. What he doesn’t explain is why Ma didn’t bother telling Yahoo and Softbank, whose principals were furious.
Alibaba (BABA, +1.24%) is on a trajectory to be an important global company for years to come. Understanding its story—and that of its charismatic and quirky co-founder—is important for anyone who needs to know about the future of business.

As China’s second richest man, Jack Ma is the global face for the country’s innovative tech entrepreneurs. While he recently met with US President Donald Trump to discuss ways to create more than a million jobs in America, Ma’s mighty e-commerce empire Alibaba famously began in a modest Hangzhou apartment 18 years ago.

Ma’s journey from an English language teacher to global power player is chronicled in Duncan Clark’s Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built . An early advisor for the company, Clark credits its success to “the consistency of Ma’s vision.”

“In 1999, [Ma] said he would take on the giants of Silicon Valley and indeed he did. He was driven by an unwavering faith in the power of entrepreneurs and the Internet to transform China,” Clark explains. “Back then in the humble surroundings of his apartment, it all sounded quite impossible, but his self-effacing and humorous personality made me want to believe he could do it.”

While Alibaba began with a focus on business-to-business e-commerce and became profitable within two years, the company exploded with the 2003 founding of its business-to-consumer platform, Taobao. Its AliPay function was spun off into its own separate business a year later.

“Ultimately Jack’s biggest success in the early days was using his charisma to raise the capital he needed to start Taobao,” Clark says. “His reputation was secured by 2006 with Taobao’s humiliation of eBay in China.”
Now Ma uses his engaging personality to charm world leaders, such as his famed appearances at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, where he routinely undercuts his growing power by noting that he had been rejected 10 times by Harvard. Looking through his archive Ma’s speeches over the last two decades, Clark laughingly points out that the Alibaba founder “has been giving the same speech [over and over again]!”

“Not exactly, of course, but he often repeats some stock stories or jokes,” Clark explains. “But if you look at the faces of his audience, you will see that Jack has an incredible ability to make people laugh and keep their attention. Like a stand-up comedian, he knows how to tailor his performance to suit any particular crowd.”

With a purported 80 percent share of China’s e-commerce market, Alibaba is turning its eyes abroad. Its USD25 billion initial public offering (IPO) three years ago on the New York Stock Exchange was the world’s largest. It recently struck a deal with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, showing its bold intentions to infiltrate Hollywood.

“Alibaba has no choice but to diversify,” Clark says. “China’s e-commerce market is changing in line with the country’s consumers, who are demanding [not only better] quality of goods, but also services and cultural content – from financial services to sports and entertainment.”

“Big data is the driving force for Alibaba’s diversification. All the information flowing through its e-commerce, finance (especially AliPay) and logistics businesses give it a unique opportunity to anticipate, and perhaps even shape, consumer demand.”

An underexplored aspect of Alibaba’s expansion is its focus on emerging markets. While competitors like eBay and Amazon may rule the West, Alibaba Express has become an increasingly popular site for consumers “keen to buy ‘factory gate’ priced products, made in China that are not available through other channels.”

As a result, Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built has been greeted with keen global interest with editions available in 15 languages and counting. While Alibaba’s rise to global prominence is seemingly on a smooth course, Clark examines a growing challenge that Chinese entrepreneurs like Ma will face in his Shanghai Literary Festival talk, Pragmatism vs. Populism, that explores rising anti-trade sentiments abroad.

“It’s useful to speculate on how individuals like Jack, who famously met President Trump just before he took office, will be put to the test in the current global disorder,” Clark says. “They succeeded against the odds, but now they need to go global. Can they meet this challenge?”

Originally by: Andrew Chin, March 6, 2017 in THAT’S


Duncan Clark, Author of “Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built” and Founder and Chairman of BDA China speaking at ChinaEU in Brussels. Read more here.



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

Alibaba Book Review


Duncan Clark has narrated a highly entertaining story about not only Alibaba and the man who created it, Jack Ma, but also about entrepreneurship in China and the creation of the Chinese Internet.

Clark is a consultant who lives in Beijing. He has worked in China for more than 20 years and has seen the birth and development of the Internet in China from up close. As an advisor to Alibaba in its early days and with access to company insiders over the years, Clark manages to provide a unique insight into both the company and its founder, Jack Ma.

There have been plenty of books written about tech legends, from Steve Jobs to Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos that give detailed accounts of their extraordinary talents and the great companies they have built. Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built chronicles, almost for the first time, the journey of a tech entrepreneur and a company that are not American and are “one hundred percent Made in China.”

Unlike, Jeff Bezos, who went to Princeton and worked on Wall Street, Jack Ma came from a very modest background, was not good at Math and barely made it into a local college. While at times adulatory, the author provides a lively account of Jack’s rags-to-riches story, which started in Hangzhou, a city 200 km Southwest of Shanghai. His mother was a factory worker while his dad was a photographer. He was not a good student in a conventional sense but he was passionate about learning English and he did that by showing tourists around his hometown as a tour guide. He established a special bond with an Australian family on one of their trips to Hangzhou. The family not only helped him hone his English skills but also helped him financially during his college years.

According to the Clark, this friendship was instrumental in unlocking opportunities for Jack that have made him what he is today. Jack Ma began his career as an English teacher but he was inspired to become an entrepreneur during Deng Xiaoping’s famous “southern tour” in 1992 where the Chinese leader made the famous statement that “to get rich is glorious.” Jack started a small translation company to help local Chinese companies that sought to do business with the West. One of his projects led him to visit the US where he was introduced to the Internet for the first time. Jack was very intrigued and the idea for an online yellow pages for Chinese companies was born.

For aspiring entrepreneurs in India, looking for inspiration and start-up gyaan, this book would be a very rewarding read. The book is peppered with quotes from Jack, which in themselves provide great entrepreneurial lessons. Jack’s famous quote “Today is brutal, tomorrow is more brutal but the day after tomorrow is beautiful. However, the majority of people will die tomorrow night”, teaches an important lesson of perseverance that tech entrepreneurs would do well to remember especially given the tough times they are currently facing.

The book also gives the reader a good sense of the challenges faced by Jack and other Chinese internet pioneers along with the reasons for their success. In a country where internet penetration was low when Jack started his first online venture and where the government was grappling with the dichotomy of encouraging the growth of the internet while still maintaining government control, the challenges were especially daunting. One of the big reasons for the success of some of the homegrown internet ventures in China was the failure of global internet companies to make any impact in the country.

For readers who are curious to learn about Alibaba, which in 2014 raised $25 billion in the world’s biggest IPO ever and who want to understand how the Internet evolved in China, the book is well worth a read.


Originally by: Dhruv Agarwala, Source: August 10th, 2016, BW BusinessWorld

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The house that Jack Ma built
The House That Jack Ma Built

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