Alibaba, the company that controls 80% of China’s e-commerce, debuted as a publicly traded company last Friday in New York and climbed 38% in what was the largest IPO in the US. The company, now valued at $231 billion, has made Jack Ma, its founder and current chairman, the richest man in China. Overnight, a few hundred current and former Alibaba employees become millionaires. But who rang the bell on the company’s most glorious day?
It’s not Jack Ma, but 8 Alibaba customers. While most media attention has been on Jack Ma who worked his way from a English teacher to China’s richest man in 15 years, the success stories of these 8 people are just as worthy to tell. Each represents a distinct part of Alibaba’s ecosystem that has transformed how the Chinese sell and buy, as well as how the Chinese view entrepreneurship. Putting a human face behind these individual successes will help someone outside of China understand why Alibaba is such a big deal.
Amazon + eBay?
Alibaba is always likened to China’s Amazon + eBay. In a sense, it’s true. All provide a platform for individuals to sell stuff online. And yet, Alibaba is different.
On Amazon or eBay, there are sellers who have listings of products. On Alibaba, instead of sellers, there are store owners whose online stores have just as many characters as physical stores, with varying store homepage design, section decoration and inventory display.
Lao Lishi, a world champion in diving and an Olympic gold medalist, is now one hard-working store owner on Taobao, the C2C arm of Alibaba’s e-commerce kingdom. “At the beginning, most of my customers were my fans. Now I need to work on offering more and better products because I cannot rely on fans forever.” Lao described her bracelet business. Born in 1987, she was one of the 8 who stood on stage at the New York Stock Exchange last Friday.
The second store owner of the 8 is 36-years-old Wang Zhiqiang, a once migrant worker struggling to make a living in Beijing. He worked as a vegetable street vendor, a construction worker and a takeout delivery man. Starting “farmville” on Taobao was his first stable job. What customers love the most about his store are the realistic and yet colorful pictures of rural farm life by him. His “farmer” face once inspired an online Photoshop troll. He has a very “local” online store.
28-year-old Wang Shujuan started her honey store at Alibaba’s online business incubator in Chengdu after receiving a degree in musical education. Now she is the CEO of several startups, one of which aims at helping fresh graduates “realize their dreams through e-commerce.”
The last store owner of the 8 is a cherry farmer named Peter Verbrugge from the US. Within 48-72 hours, freshly picked cherries from his cherry farm in Washington State can be delivered to the hands of Chinese consumers. In a 2013 promotion by Tmall, Alibaba’s B2C arm, Peter sold 108 tons of cherries to 55,000 Chinese consumers in 10 days, among whom 47,000 left him a good review. “Sometimes I ask myself why I work so hard everyday. Whenever I think about how families and kids at the other end of the world can enjoy the best cherries with excitement and satisfaction, I feel motivated.” Peter commented.
Much more than Amazon + eBay
Alibaba is larger than Amazon + eBay not only in transaction volume, but also in services that are made available. When Jack Ma said that Alibaba has created a whole ecosystem centered around small business, he didn’t exaggerate. Unlike Amazon and eBay which merely provide a channel through which individuals can buy and sell online, Alibaba offers a one-stop package for startups, with services ranging from loan, tech support, logistics to marketing and communications.
College student Huang Biji made her very first order on Taobao in 2008. It was a denim jacket. In 2010, she applied to become a “cloud custom service” at Alibaba who provided support on the fly for online shoppers with limited Taobao experiences. By 2014, she is a 4-star buyer on Taobao and has already served more than 16,000 peer shoppers. Earlier this month, she received invitation to go to the US to be part of Alibaba’s IPO.
Also received the invitation was He Ningning, who is one of the most popular “Tao girls.” Tao girls are amateur models who typically model solely for products on Taobao. She first started to model on Taobao for the good pay after graduating from college. Now she is one of the top. Does she want to become a professional model? Her answer is no, because she also works full-time as a teacher for autistic kids. “My dream is to call people’s attention to autism through the platform of Taobao.” She told.
Delivery man Dou Liguo is also among the 8 invited to New York last Friday. Dou was born into a very poor family – he didn’t even finish primary school. This delivery man with more than 10 years of experience is best known for his devotion to charity. In additional to deliver and pick up packages, he also collects used clothes and books from his customers. He spends half of his monthly income on shipping donated stuff to rural families in need. In 2013 alone, he collected and shipped out more than 200,000 pieces of clothing. He even managed to set up a village library with 4000 used books. “I feel very lucky to be able to take the ride of China’s e-commerce boom.” He said.
Consumers who grow with Alibaba
In the US, Amazon and eBay appeared after a network of traditional retailers such as Walmart or Macy’s has been very well established. A mature middle class view online shopping as either a supplement to or a replacement of shopping in physical stores. In China, Alibaba grows hand in hand with the country’s booming middle class. In a long time, Taobao has been the only place where China’s urban rich can get certain products. In the absence of well-established traditional retailers, online shopping is the only way of shopping for many Chinese consumers.
Qiao Li is the last one of the 8 who rang Alibaba’s IPO bell in New York. She has been buying on Taobao for 10 years, meaning that she is one of the earliest users of the platform. She often tells her friends: “I can live without eating, but not without Taobao.” She calls herself Alibaba’s “chief experience officer,” taking charge of quality control. She is the first to test out all of Alibaba’s new services, and to then publish feedback, good or bad, on Taobao’s online community. She is also the first one to regularly publish an online column of star seller interviews. “I want to be a bridge between Alibaba, online shoppers and store owners.” That’s her dream.