Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built

Front cover for 'Alibaba: The house that Jack Ma built.'

There was once a time when Jack Ma couldn’t catch a break: from applying – and being rejected – for 30 jobs (even KFC didn’t want him), to being turned down from Harvard 10 times. But that was in the days before the Internet transformed our lives – and his. The former English teacher from Zhejiang Province may have started out creating websites for Chinese businesses, but today his e-commerce site Alibaba, founded in 1999, claims to be the world’s biggest retailer, worth nearly $450bn, while Ma has become the richest person in China; a latter-day Rockefeller courted by presidents and CEOs.

A tireless cheerleader for globalisation (“If it stops, war starts, and peace stops,” he says), more recently the eternally optimistic CEO made headlines for warning a tariff-slapping President Trump against starting a trade war with “hostile” China. “It’s easy to launch a war, but it’s so difficult to stop one,” he told the Fortune Global Forum business conference in Guangzhou; adding, “even a wife and husband have problems”. And ultimately, his message to business leaders is simple: don’t wait for trade policies, just grab the bull by the horns. “We have to make sure everybody benefits from free trade and globalisation.”

In his fascinating book Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built, former Morgan Stanley investment banker and head of investment advisory firm BDA China Duncan Clark profiles the man described as the “entrepreneur’s entrepreneur”, his rise from humble origins, and how he outsmarted Silicon Valley rivals, while exploring how a business rivaling Walmart & Amazon has succeeded against the odds behind China’s “Great Firewall”.

An advisor to Alibaba in its early days, Clark (who amusingly once turned down the option to buy shares in Alibaba in 2003 and “this mushroomed into a $30m mistake”) was well placed to observe its rise amid China’s momentous economic and social changes over two decades. For example, in 2005 Alibaba proposed an e-commerce deal with China’s state-owned China Post, only to be told to “stick to its own business”. The postal giant didn’t believe in express delivery… which resulted in the rise of private courier firms across the country. And if a plan to sell things online in China might have seemed a tall order back in 1999, the 2008 crash ironically provided a catalyst for consumerism.

Through personal reminiscences and interviews we learn how the folksy tycoon with the big personality has continually confounded his detractors while staying on the right side of the authorities. It hasn’t been entirely plain-sailing, of course – the final chapter, tellingly, is entitled: ‘Icon or Icarus?’ – and Clark details how Ma faced opposition from state-owned banks after his plans for an online variety, and how Alibaba’s shares sank by 50 per cent after it went public in 2014 with the largest ever global IPO. What will be the future hold for the former English teacher who once topped up his income by selling plastic carpets on the streets? Whatever the outcome, this story-so-far is both riveting and inspirational.

Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built by Duncan Clark is published by Ecco