Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built by Duncan Clark – Post-Reading Thoughts

The book was good. Well worth the read. Duncan Clark by all accounts seems to have a unique and well informed perspective about the internet industry in China. Especially in terms of breadth, he is well informed, and that shows in the nuances he presents throughout the book.

However, probably he is too close to Alibaba and that colors the facts in a positive light. It wasn’t until the end of the book that he took 1-2 stabs at both the company and Jack Ma. Although the book was about the story of the company, set against the narrative of founder Jack Ma’s life, it could have used a little more heavy criticism.

Most importantly, Clark’s work serves as a solid introductory text to the development of e-commerce in China from the 70s up until 2016. Its coverage and analysis of western firms in China was particularly useful – think EBay/PayPal and Yahoo wars.

Dissecting Alibaba’s business model is useful for understanding the Chinese internet at large. Due to the fact that its a public traded company, occupying multiple internet industry verticals, I learned a lot about China’s digital economy through Duncan’s presentation of facts and corresponding analysis.

I would like to read similar books on Baidu and Tencent, preferring the latter over the former. It would be interesting to compare the management and investment styles of the two companies against one another more rigorously. Those books could be in the same style as this, a company/founder biography, or simply a business book.

These topics and areas are important for those interested in China-related business as well as emerging markets more generally. One of the most interesting points Clark makes is Alibaba’s success in Brazil and Russia. 

Obviously, the company is trying to expand into the US and Europe. But that is less interesting. We can probably guess that they will have sub-optimal success due to the sophisticated nature of competition and competing ideologies. 

Alibaba and other similar Chinese enterprises forays into BRIC countries deserve attention. I think there is a much higher chance that they will be successful in these markets that lack solidified internet players. The people in those countries are more open to solutions that best fit their needs, rather than the specific flags of flown above company headquarters.

Overall, a good entry-level book that offers a broad introduction to one of China’s most important companies. A relatively quick read that is worth a few full days shut inside with plenty of caffeine : ) 

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