Friday, December 08, 2017

Startups of China

For the past few years, I've been generally curious about Alibaba, and Jack Ma, and the other Asian companies and their founders of the internet era. Much of this interest has been generated by the kind of billion dollar investments these organizations are pumping into the Indian startup ecosystem right now. FWIW, I've worked at Ibibo in the past, which had Tencent as one of its shareholder. But so far, the kind of narratives I had come across were the same stories of individuals retold by different persons. Getting the bird's eye view of the whole ecosystem while understanding the general environment had been hard.

I was finally spurred into action when I saw the trailer for Jack Ma's movie, Gong Shou Dao.

Now anyone can start a company, but it is completely another thing to turn it into a $500 billion business. And, amongst all the $100 billion business creating first generation founders I know of, I can't recall any other who starred in his own movie. But that is not the point. What I realized was that there was much more to Jack Ma than the press would tell. So far, every article I've read about him would mention for sure that he used to be an English teacher. But nobody ever wrote that the he is a master of Taichi, or commended him for the master networker he is.

So this time, curiosity got the better of procrastination, and I began researching books on Jack Ma. After carefully going through reviews on Amazon and Goodreads for many of books on him, I decided to get a copy of Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built, written by Duncan Clark.

At best, what I had hoped for was a thorough account of Jack's life, and the eulogising content that biographies usually have. After reading the book, I will admit that I had set my expectations far too low.

The book tells an excellent narrative of not just Jack Ma's life, but of the whole startup ecosystem, since the early internet days in China. It has ample sections on many other entrepreneurs, who were running some of the hot ventures of their time, before Alibaba became the hottest venture of all time out there. And of course, how the Chinese government initially struggled to classify internet as a communication tool, the strategy they adopted, and the impact these companies have had on businesses and consumers in China. The Taobao feature of haggling over chat was a real eye opener - every feature is worth building if the customers need it. The message, that customer is the king is hard to miss, chapter in, chapter out.

It is one of the best books out there for getting a 10000 feet view of the ecosystem. I learnt more about the other internet companies of China - like and tencent, than I've learnt so far from the news article and other profiles. Some other lessons, like the humiliation faced by ebay China, are worth remembering for future executives when entering a new geography. The perspective that many a investors, including Masayoshi Son, used to hold in those days are well documented.

Having read the book, its clear the kind of strategies the trio of Softbank - Alibaba - Tencent are now employing in the Indian ecosystem. Tag teaming for many investment opportunities, the kind of consolidation they are aiming for and the general parallels in the trend to China is hard to miss. This is a must read book for anyone who wants to get the hang of Indian startup scene over the next 5-10 years, and where the direction mid to large players are going to move in.

PS: I've one advice for any future reader - the book, at a lot of places tries to underplay the kind of numbers that Alibaba was achieving. While it looks unintentional to me - it could be done so as to maintain a modest or underdog-ly narrative, or because Alibaba is so successful today that the milestones seem small in comparison - I'm pretty sure many startup founders today would be shouting their mouths off if they achieved one such metric. 

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