An Insider’s View Of Alibaba

As it prepares for what could be the largest IPO the world has ever seen this month, Chinese Internet giant, Alibaba, is on the front pages of international business media.

At the same time, a documentary made by former Ali-ren, Porter Erisman, is making waves at film festivals around the world. “Crocodile in the Yangtze” makes use of fascinating insider perspectives to record the rise and rise of Alibaba under the inimitable leadership of founder Jack Ma.

Erisman spoke with Talk about the nature of entrepreneurship in China, why Alibaba’s success was so unlikely, and what Jack Ma and Steve Jobs have in common.

As a Vice President of and Alibaba Group, American, Porter Erisman, 43, spent eight years as a first-hand witness of the company’s growth from a tiny start up to a behemoth of the Chinese internet – and then three years making a movie about it.

The end product of all of this is “Crocodile In The Yangtze”, a documentary about Alibaba’s rise, which Mr Erisman is currently showing at film festivals around the world.

Led by enigmatic former English teacher, Jack Ma, and his band of merry computer nerds, the film spans the period from Alibaba’s inception, through its rapid rise and a high profile battle for supremacy in the China market with eBay.

Though ostensibly the story of an internet company in China, the film also has karaoke, some martial arts and an inspirational – if somewhat physically underwhelming – leading man to drive along its David-versus-Goliath-then-becomes-Goliath storyline.

How did you become a filmmaker?
I was leaving Alibaba and wanted to write a memoir about being an American working in a Chinese Internet company. When I was preparing to write the book, I went to the Alibaba team who takes care of the archives because I knew a lot of speeches had been taped, I asked them to give me everything they had, and it turns out they had a lot.

I told Jack Ma I was going to make the book project a documentary film project, and then I disappeared for three years.

Has Jack Ma seen the film? What did he think of it?

Once it was finished, I started submitting it to film festivals and then I very nervously contacted Jack Ma and said, “Hey, remember that documentary I told you about three years ago? I made it”.

I then flew to San Francisco and met with Jack, so I could show him the film out of courtesy, I don’t think he loved everything about it, but I had told him I wanted to show my experiences, including all of the success and the failures, where they happened, and he understood.


Alibaba is now such a huge part of China’s Internet landscape, it’s easy to forget that its success was quite unlikely. Was this one of the compelling parts of the story for you?
Hindsight is 20/20 and people look back now and say, “Of course, it makes sense that this English teacher who failed the math section of his college entrance test will become the head of the world’s largest ecommerce company”.

When I joined Alibaba, no one took either him seriously or the company seriously. The fact that [Alibaba’s success] is so unlikely is why people love it. Particularly in developing countries, people maybe see themselves as a Jack Ma – so maybe they can make it big too.

Jack Ma is such an interesting protagonist, how would you describe him?
I do think at a business level, he’s a visionary on the same level as Steve Jobs.

He has this way of looking ahead, seeing where the landscape is going and building something that matches the customers' needs at any given time.

When we started Alibaba, there were all these business-to-business websites that had all the contacts, all the funding, but they tried to build something that pleased Wall Street and Jack wanted to build something simple that any average guy could use – that turned out to match people’s needs at the time.

How would you describe the atmosphere for entrepreneurship in China – particularly in the digital realm – compared with the U.S. or other Western countries?
From what I’ve seen, entrepreneurs in China move more quickly and spend a lot less time analysing things, they just move based on gut instinct. They may not always go in the right direction, but if you have enough people moving at that speed, someone’s going to come up with a great idea. China is just raw energy and intuition and action.

In China, after 1989, there was no place for young people to channel their self-expression. In politics, you can’t express yourselves, even in the arts it’s hard to express yourself. Entrepreneurship is an acceptable form of self-expression.

A lot of the film revolves around the welldocumented battle between Alibaba and eBay for Chinese market share. Why do you think Alibaba triumphed over its Western counterpart?
Jack is a huge fan of martial arts novels and when we battled eBay, we used some of these martial arts strategies. We used their own strength against them. We engaged them in a very public PR battle, which highlighted this David and Goliath battle and all the buzz created in the media helped us use eBay’s advertising budget to help us educate the market about e-commerce.

A lot of people are talking about Alibaba’s expected IPO. How big of a deal will that be?
Alibaba is kind of a sleeping giant that people aren’t aware of, but once the company goes public, people will understand just how big it is.

After eight years at Alibaba, and another three making a movie about Alibaba, what are the most important lessons you learned from those experiences?
This is going to sound really cheesy, but I really learned that ordinary people working together as a team and sticking to simple values can go out and do extraordinary things.

What’s next for you?
I’ve sold the rights to the story to a Hollywood producer who wants to make a kind of Chinese version of The Social Network. It would be bilingual, with the Chinese audience as a core audience. I believe in serendipity. If you are relatively smart and okay with people, opportunities come up.