I’ve just watched A Crocodile in the Yantgze yesterday night, which wraps-up part of the story of Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, China’s e-commerce giant. The director is none other than Porter Erisman, a US citizen who has been Alibaba’s vice-president between 2000 and 2008 (the company was officially founded in 1999), so it’s an insider point of view.

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A crocodile in the Yangtze: the story of a non-US global startup

Of course, it’s fascinating to watch the documentary today, when Alibaba is about to enter its (second) IPO in the US, after a successful one in Hong Kong a few years ago. The different scenes also show – and honestly, it’s a relief in our globalized world – how different will be startups and success stories out of the US and the Silicon Valley.

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For instance, Jack Ma had 17 (yes, seventeen) co-founders the day he launches Alibaba in his apartment of Hangzhou, not far from Shanghai. In a vast country of more than a billion people, where family is everywhere and friends turn into family, it’s no surprise that this number of cofounders is so high. Different parts of a Crocodile in the Yangtze also show the parties at Alibaba, which combines the grandeur of startups knowing they are being successful and an obvious family spirit. Kids run in every corner of the rooms, and employees cries when they hear Jack Ma’s speeches.

Is Jack Ma the product of a China startup ecosystem? No

As we continue our research and world tour of startup ecosystems in emerging startups, I was particularly interested to see in what kind of environment Alibaba had grown. A lot of key insights are visible in a Crocodile in the Yangtze, and emerging markets should really bear that in mind:

  • The ecosystem has an importance, but way less than the entrepreneurial spirit of the founding team. China as a country and administration is not supportive (at all) of Jack Ma’s ideas at the beginning. When he founded China Pages, an equivalent of Yellow Pages, back in 1995, he tries to convince China sports council and many other administration that they should use Internet (and his companies) to showcase China to the world. It’s always no. When Jack Ma raise money, it’s often outside China, with Goldman Sachs, Softbank or Yahoo for instance. And when, in the end, the governor of a China province officially reckons Jack Ma as a potential job provider, the success of Alibaba is already so big it would be weird for him not to crown the founder as a top entrepreneur.

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  • Jack Ma and Alibaba don’t seem to focus too much on the technology side of their business. It’s very common to hear in many emerging markets (and in the developed world) that “this country miss talent” (understand: technical geniuses like Zuckerberg or Page). I’ve always felt it was not a good question, and a Crocodile in the Yangtze shows it perfectly: there’s no genius engineer in the story of Alibaba, just a focused, “scrappy entrepreneur”, former English teacher with a vision of Internet and the role it can play in China which remains the same during ALL of the years of foundation and growth. The incredible footage Porter Erisman managed to get from Jack Ma’s first appearances in the 1990s shows it perfectly. When asked why he doesn’t make money with Alibaba, Jack Ma just answers “That’s the internet!”, and insists on gaining traction first. When eBay tries to set foot in China and beat Alibaba in his own turf, Jack Ma makes commercial and political moves, not technical ones. For instance, he gives two times a three-year period of free fees for TaoBao, his C2C marketplace, arguing that with only (at that time) 8% of Chinese people shopping online, there could be no fee if they wanted the remaining 92% to go online.

China, technology and politics: following the trend to buck it later

Jack Ma’s vision of the internet in all the years covered in a Crocodile in the Yangtze is the one of a revolution and yes, it will help put power into the hands of people using it, whatever the context. But he’s no fool, and he is first respecting the rules. When Yahoo takes a 40% share in Alibaba in 2005, Jack Ma must answer why Yahoo previously helped the Chinese government to arrest a journalist. His words are both wise and again, full of vision, as he says that “we should follow the rules”, and that were he the president of Yahoo at that time, he would have done the same.

It doesn’t prevent him to say that rules evolve, and that Internet is a factor helping it. Today, as Alibaba enters its US IPO stage, Jack Ma has retired from the company where he is an Executive Chairman. His plans are now to run a philanthropic fund of $3bn he co-founded with Joseph Tsai (an early Alibaba employee and previous CFO). The foundation is expected to promote civil society in China, and to solve issues the government has difficulties to solve by itself. For instance, one of the first projects of this foundation is to give citizens a kit to analyze by themselves the quality of the water in their area.

Last but not least, you can now enjoy watching A Crocodile in the Yangtze on Vimeo on-demand, in HD, for $4.95 (rental) or $9.95 (purchase).