Friday, May 16, 2008

Alibaba’s Forty-four Hundred

We arrived at the world headquarters of Alibaba.com in Hangzhou to a fanfare of music--music that could have come from the soundtrack to the original Super Mario Bros. Across the less than 1,000 sq. foot office floor, the 115 employees stood inside their 4x4 ft. cubicles and stretched their arms in the air. Then, in unison, the entire mass of twenty-somethings began doing jumping jacks. They continued their group exercises while our group of MBA students was escorted past the cube-clusters into a large meeting room.

The calisthenics are but a small, visible piece of the unique corporate culture of Alibaba Group, an English language web-based business-to-business eCommerce and eAuction service specializing in connecting international buyers and small- to medium-sized Chinese sellers. Our guide quickly made us aware that the company knew it was unique. “For most companies,” he said, “employee culture is like a cliché or a joke.” Well, it is not that way for the employees here. “Everybody is happy,” he continued. “It is our environment.”

We were then given a rough translation of a company joke that concerned a stubborn donkey in a mill that refused to work for his master. The master enticed the donkey to do his work at the mill by threatening to send him to work for Alibaba.com. “Here we all work like donkeys!” he announced as the punch line. Indeed, the word “work” actually appears in 2 of the 6 points of their printed company motto. So, are hard work and teamwork the strong points that make Alibaba such a successful company? Or is there more to this unique start-up’s corporate culture?

The lobby of HQ is decorated in orange scarves and bright orange hanging plastic fruit. And one other ubiquitous decoration—photos of company founder, Jack Ma. Ma is the poster-child of the New Chinese, the modern entrepreneurial self-made success story that this newly-capitalistic nation adores. And he is on posters. Giant reprints of the man’s photo adorn 2 out of every 4 walls in the building and line the staircase up to the top floor. In ’88, Ma was an English teacher fresh out of college. 11 years later, after a visit to Seattle and a crash course in computers, Ma was founding his own eBay-esque business. Then, 8 years later, he took his company public on the HKSE to raise $3 billion USD and become the IPO with the greatest increment in stock price at first trading in 2007.

Jack Ma’s influence is everywhere and his success is a model to the employees of his company. “He has us call him Kwai Chang, from the TV series Kung Fu,” our guide told us. During our tour, every action and idle quip of the 43-year-old founder was revered as holy writ, and even offered as justification for the “spirit” that prevailed there at the company. When asked what he thought Alibaba would do to maintain its growth and close the gap on rival companies Google and Baidu, our guide’s response, stars nearly visible in his eyes: “I can’t answer that. I’m not Jack Ma.” --Shawn Butler


Alibaba.com's oddly unrecognized logo, and CEO/Founder Jack Ma

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