So, Jack Ma is retiring. The man who epitomizes the modern Chinese enterprise is stepping away from the technology empire he created. Let the eulogizing and speculation begin!
How will Alibaba fare?
The official announcement has only just been made, but I’ve already seen a deluge of articles ranging from retellings of Jack’s rags-to-riches story to ruminations on his new life as philanthropist extraordinaire.
But I’ve seen surprisingly little that addresses the most important questions of all. How will Alibaba fare without Jack Ma at the helm? And what does it mean for the wider sector?
It may sound anti-climactic but, in my humble opinion, Alibaba will do just fine. And this is good news for western firms that are doing business with the Chinese tech giant, or aspire to do so.
During my years in China, I’ve had the great fortune of working with a variety of Chinese tech enterprises, including a number of Alibaba’s tech-related business units. No matter whether I’ve dealt with AliCloud, Cainiao or Ant Financial, I’ve noticed one common characteristic – a core culture that values intellectual curiosity and openness to change. This, above all else, is Jack Ma’s legacy — and the reason I think Alibaba will continue to grow and prosper well into the future.
So, how is Alibaba different from its peers? Compared with other major Chinese technology firms – the so-called BAT, BATX or TMD companies – Alibaba engages tech firms in an open, decent and constructive manner. No games. No posturing. No dithering on pointless minutiae.
With Alibaba, I’ve always felt I’m dealing with a worldly firm that truly hopes to better society. And this attitude makes me bullish about Alibaba’s prospects both inside China and beyond.
I doubt the company’s ecommerce business will win much market share where Amazon already rules the roost. And its cloud and SaaS business will have an uphill battle winning the trust of western governments – as we see with Huawei.
Nevertheless, Alibaba is much more than a delivery company. And, the innovation of its cloud and other technical divisions should quickly win foreign converts. Plus, I don’t see it ceding its top spot in the China market anytime soon.
Besides Alibaba’s unrivalled technical and commercial acumen, the company is striving hard to understand how to bridge the gap between China and the rest of the world. The issue with many other Chinese tech giants is they still act like typical local companies, which is just not sustainable for enterprises with global aspirations. As a result, I don’t foresee many of these companies finding major success outside the walled garden that’s China.
I’m not saying Alibaba’s peers are combative, unpleasant and backwards – at least, not all of them. But the difference in company cultures is palpable, and Alibaba is by far the most business-friendly. In my experience, if a company brings Alibaba a technology with clear value, the technical and commercial teams work quickly to validate the opportunity and draft a fair and measured partnership plan.
When I’m going into a meeting with Alibaba, I know to expect an open, spirited conversation. And even if there’s no immediate opportunity to cooperate, I leave feeling I was given a fair shake and that I better understand the lay of the land.
So, Jack, I take my hat of off to you. You may have started Alibaba off as a copycat Amazon and eBay, but you’ve improved on the original and created a truly innovative business platform to which all other Chinese — and many foreign — tech giants can only look up.
I’ve no doubt you’re leaving the company in great shape and good hands. Enjoy your retirement.
In the meantime, Alibaba continues to represent a great partnership opportunity for western tech firms looking to enter or expand in China. And I look forward to my next visit to the House that Jack Built.