alibaba: The Inside Story Behind Jack Ma And The Creation Of The World’s Biggest Online Marketplace (Review)

alibaba book

I have finally finished reading alibaba – The inside story behind Jack Ma and the creation of the world’s biggest online marketplace by Liu Shiying and Martha Avery. Personally, I like this book as there are many takeaways from the book that are useful especially for those who are keen to pursue the journey of entrepreneurship. Book gives a fairly good account of Jack Ma’s journey to alibaba’s success and I get to know Jack Ma better. Because of this book, I also came to know of a documentary named “Crocodile in the Yangtze” which also talks about Jack Ma’s success. I will post the video below for those who are keen to watch the full documentary.

Anyway, here are some extracts from this book that I find useful to share. They are certainly my takeaways and I hope they will benefit you in some way too.

Attitudes and Mindsets

His mantra seems to be that you may have problems, but if they don’t kill you, you can always get up and start again.

Nobody’s life is a straight line, everyone faces forks in the road, and most of life is filled with tribulations. Precisely because of this, people should face forward with optimism and not surprised when they encounter problems. They should recognise that they can ride over these problems, laugh at life with courage, and use their own enthusiasm to create their lives.

“There will be light in your eyes only if there are dreams in your heart.”

He believed that success is an attitude, a state of mind, and that attitude is a function of individual choice.

“Our slogan, in the midst of this wintertime in the business, is ‘just hanging on to life is a victory in itself.’ We believe that the Internet will fire up again. All we have to do is survive. Not dying gives us hope.”

Rather than stand idly by the pond, longing for the fish, far better to go out and make a net.

“Intelligent people need a fool to lead them.”


One factor in his decision was a sense of giving it a try. Ma has always felt that one does not measure success just by the results; instead, he feels that the experience of doing something is in itself a kind of success.

“Success lies not in how much you have accomplished, but in the fact that you have done something, experienced the process, and begun to learn something.”

Ma himself feels that success is dependent on the ability to implement a high degree of efficiency. He regards Alibaba as a team of doers, not a team of thinkers.


He called together all the people in his team. They had accompanied him from Hangzhou to Beijing, and they had worked well together. When Ma announced his decision, they were speechless. He then said, “I am giving you three choices. First, you can go to work with Yahoo! I’ll recommend you and I know that the company will not only welcome you but the salaries will be high. Second, you can go to work for Sina or Sohu; they’ll similarly welcome you and the salaries won’t be too bad. Or third, you can come home with me. However, you’ll just get $95 [RMB 800] in salary per month, you’ll have to rent your own flat and live within a five-minutes radius of where I live, since in order to save money I won’t allow you to take taxis, and moreover you’ll have to work in my home. You make your own decision.” He gave them three days to decide.
Everyone in the room filed out. Within three minutes, they filed back in again. Every single person on the team had decided to “come home” with him. Ma had held himself back until that moment, but on hearing this he started to cry. He later described how a hot wave coursed through his body and in that moment he resolved never to let these people down. “All right, he said to himself, “we are going back, starting from zero. And we are going to build a company that we will never have any regrets about for our whole lives.”

So I said, “Ma Yun, there’s no money in our account.” He didn’t make a sound. He walked a little farther, and then said, “Okay, let’s go back.” Back in the room, Ma told the venture capitalist, “We feel that the total valuation of Alibaba is higher than you feel it is. The distance between us is too great. I’m afraid there is no way we can cooperate.” And that concluded the negotiation. Peng Lei still remembers that one of the investors accompanied them down in the elevator. “You are making a big mistake,” he told them, “You’re passing up a great opportunity.”
Why was Alibaba so fastidious with regard to venture capital? Ma explains it by saying that he wanted Alibaba’s first infusion of capital to bring with it more than just money. He needed non-financial elements, such as access to overseas resources, as much as he needed raw funds. Because of this, it is said that Jack Ma turned away thirty-eight potential investors in the early years.

The two sides came to an agreement: the sum of financing would remain at $30 million with share percentages that were acceptable to both sides… Never greedy, he now felt that the money was not too little but rather too much. Ma called Son’s assistant and told him, “We only want as much money as we need, and that is $20 million. Too much money is a bad thing.”

Many people read Journey to the West for entertainment; Jack Ma reads it for its guidance in business.

Business Strategies

Once he had succeeded in Alibaba, Ma could explain in speeches, “China business is done here, not over there. So those students who return have to spend a lot of time learning the current situation, whereas I was born and bred here and stayed here, and I was therefore able to see a business opportunity that they all missed.”

He believed that all investors were basically the same; if you make money, they try to give you more. If you don’t make money and have to go begging for it, they turn and run.

“The most important thing is to help the customer make money. Most enterprises are thinking of how they can take the five dollars in a customer’s pocket out of there and put it into their own pocket. What we want to do is help that customer turn his five dollars into fifty dollars, and then from that fifty take our five.”

The B2B giant had now also become a C2C giant. Jack Ma was clearly moving in the direction of what the Chinese call “walking on two legs,” or relying on two different income streams.

If for a period you could build up a loyal base of customers, satisfy their needs, and begin to be necessary to their own profitability, then you could blithely charge fees in the future.

Ma often says, “If a person’s mind is always counting money, worried about money, he will never be able to satisfy the real needs of customers. He won’ be putting the customer first.”

Ma emphasises that the first five dollars in a member’s pocket should stay there and help him make fifty dollars.

“Like running water, which you just reach out and use these days, buying things on the Internet will be the same. It will be that convenient.”

As to what he might be intending to do with $1 billion, Ma noted, “It’s pretty hard to digest a huge amount of money. When you’ve just swallowed something enormous, it is a challenge for your stomach. One billion may look good to people on the outside, but it is undeniably a huge challenge to us.”

Ma enjoys discussing weiqi with his favourite author, Louis Cha. It forms his mental landscape when he is thinking about the future of the company. Most people aim for an end result; Ma sees the probabilities in various shifting moves along the way and knows that as the board changes, strategy also shifts. “Those who excel at weiqi look at the overall structure,” he has said. “Those who are bad at it think just about the final result.”

Another saying that has been influential in Ma’s thinking is “No moves trumps having moves.” When everyone thinks there is a great danger in a particular strategy, you have to look closely for there may be great opportunities hiding inside.

Goals and Visions

“I would remind myself every day that the Internet right now is like a hundred-meter dash that is going to be influencing people’s lives for the next thirty years. I have to run like a rabbit. But at the same time I have to have the patience of a tortoise.”

Up to now, Alibaba has consistently been able to achieve the goals set by its founder. These were generally regarded with dismay and disbelief, however when first announced. In 2003, Ma set the goal of an average daily income of $120,000 (RMB 1 million). The previous year, daily income had only been RMB 130,000, so many expressed doubts. Senior managers made a bet against Ma’s optimism but were glad, at the end of the year, to have lost. In 2004 Ma set the goal of a daily profit of $120,000 (RMB 1 million) and achieved that as well. In 2005 he set the goal of a daily tax contribution of the same figure and made that. Under Ma’s constant pressure and his motivational management, Alibaba’s goals have been met.

Ma fully intended to ensure the success of his long-term objective of creating a company that would last for 102 years.

Bill Clinton had told him that in leading a country forward and knowing in which direction it should go, the critical thing was a sense of mission.

Culture and Values

The hard days were not altogether a bad thing, though, for Ma believes it helped in forming a kind of corporate culture, a consciousness of “who we are”, and a sense of values that kept the company intact as a team after Alibaba had become powerful.

“The hardest thing in the world is to have fifty hyper smart people sitting together in one room, trying to get something done.”

“If you can win people’s hearts, you can rule all under heaven,” and “Human talent is the greatest asset; success or failure depends on people”

The first rule Ma tried to inculcate at Alibaba is to be happy in what one is doing. Only if employees are happy can customers be happy. Only if customers are happy can the enterprise be profitable.

Alibaba is not interested in attracting people on the basis of high promises; it wants to attract them on the basis of its corporate culture.

With us, what you see is what we are.

“Like me,” Ma has said, “they are not necessarily the most absolutely intelligent people, but we have all matured over these years.”

“To businessmen and tradespeople, most everything is done in order to make money. Entrepreneurs, in contrast, create value. By creating value for society, they influence society. Making money is a fundamental attribute of entrepreneurs, but it is not your entire capability.”

And lastly, as mentioned, here is the video “Crocodile in the Yangtze”.


Victor Lee is the owner of Passionate in Affiliate Marketing, Personal Development and Training, Victor hopes to equip more people with skills and knowledge not just to make money online, but to have financial and time freedom for the things that matter most.
Click Here if you would like an opportunity to work with Victor.

About The Author

Victor Lee

Victor Lee is the owner of Passionate in Affiliate Marketing, Personal Development and Training, Victor hopes to equip more people with skills and knowledge not just to make money online, but to have financial and time freedom for the things that matter most. Click Here if you would like an opportunity to work with Victor.

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