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    TechnologyThis was the private meeting in the apartment of Jack Ma, founder of AliExpress, in which he planned to confront all of Silicon Valley

    This was the private meeting in the apartment of Jack Ma, founder of AliExpress, in which he planned to confront all of Silicon Valley

    Jack Ma stood at the front of the room and clapped his hands. “Okay, everyone. Time for our afternoon meeting.”

    It was January of the year 2000, my first month in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang, in eastern China.

    Alibaba’s energetic leader was holding a meeting at our headquarters, one of 2 apartments we occupied in a residential complex on the edge of the city’s well-known West Lake.

    In one of the apartments, Jack, Lucy Peng and a group of managers worked alongside the company’s engineers. In the second, the product, design and customer service staff worked. I was sent there, assigned to a small desk that had just been cleared out.

    At Jack’s call, the staff gathered in what had once been a sitting room, huddled on mismatched sofas and chairs in a rough circle. Most of the 30 or so people in the room had notepads on their laps, waiting to hear what Jack had to share.

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    “I have great news today,” Jack began. “We have finally raised money from international investors that will allow us to become the global company we want to become!”

    Applause filled the room.

    “We have officially closed a $5 million financing from Goldman Sachs! We are going to start hiring new staff in Hangzhou and setting up our new office in Hong Kong so we can build a company that is as strong as Yahoo or eBay! It’s time for the world to know that Chinese companies exist. Our mission is to help the world trade with China. And we will do it using the Internet.”

    Those were big words for such a small company. As wonderful as this news was, I couldn’t help but wonder if our expectations hadn’t gotten out of hand.

    It was already clear that my young colleagues had a great work ethic, but they brought little or no first-rate training or experience, which I thought would be essential in challenging the titans of Silicon Valley. Those companies recruited talent from top US universities and had easy access to funding and other resources.

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    Our motley crew consisted of some of Jack’s former students, a few English professors, some employees from commercial companies, a journalist, and computer science graduates fresh out of college.

    Not many had internet experience and only a few had traveled outside of China. How were we going to beat the dominant tech companies? We didn’t even have room for all the chairs in our makeshift office.

    Jack ended his victorious speech by repeating the most immediate goal for little Alibaba: “Today we have 30,000 members. Next year I want our goal to be to reach one million members. We can do it”.

    Verisimilitude had no place in this room, I thought. Everyone’s enthusiasm stemmed from their strong identification with the company’s mission and Jack’s vision, and if the goal was part of our mission, they all believed, it was because it was indeed achievable.

    In the months that followed, I realized that this collective belief system was contagious. That ended my initial skepticism. In fact, over time, I would come to understand even more than many and more deeply embrace Alibaba’s mission, vision and values ​​and how they motivate our people.

    As Jack finished the announcement, everyone dispersed back to their desks and I went to settle in a company apartment where I was transferred after my brief stay at the hotel.

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    It was a nearby ground floor facing a busy highway. Peeling paint was falling off the walls. Beyond the basics, there was hardly any furniture.

    I sat on my new bed to take it all in. At that moment, a construction truck roared past my window, kicking up a whirlwind of dust that poured into my room through an open vent. I covered my mouth when coughing.

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    A mission: aim for the moon

    Brian A. Wong, close to Jack Ma and author of 'The Tao of Alibaba: Inside the Chinese Digital Giant That Is Changing the World' ).

    Alibaba’s first generation of employees generally shared Jack’s idealism and, to put it simply, your naivety.

    Jack had charisma and a powerful ability to motivate his team to imagine a complex and expansive future that had no apparent connection to what we saw around us.

    We used to joke that one important trait we all shared was being hensha, hen tianzhen (in Spanish, “simple and innocent”). We believed that anything was possible if we tried our best.

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    Despite our optimism, reality loomed from time to time. Some nights, I would look at the furniture in my apartment and wonder how I ended up there. I questioned if I was getting the most out of my life.

    We spent countless sleepless nights putting together projects that were sometimes shelved at the last minute, like the website builder that never got off the ground and other plans that required a lot of work but never came to fruition.

    Sometimes it seemed like our million member goal was just a dream. Was it remotely possible?

    Jack’s energy carried some of us past those moments of doubt. But having a vision, although it is important, only goes so far point in the practical world of day-to-day business.

    At some point you have to put it into practice with a plan. That’s what Savio Kwan, Alibaba’s first COO, did, codifying Jack’s insights into the company’s mission, vision and values. Savio can still pinpoint the exact moment when, for him, the breakthrough occurred.

    “It was January 13, 2001, a Saturday,” he recalls. “We were 6 people standing outside Jack’s office, chatting.” The group included the rest of the four O’s, Jack the CEO, Joe the CFO, and John Wu the CTO, as well as 2 co-founders, Lucy Peng, CPO of Alibaba, and Jin Jianhang, who would later become Chairman of the company.

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    They decided they needed to review Jack’s notes and speeches thus far to identify the most important ideas and use them to develop a coherent mission and action plan.

    Their efforts would form the foundation of Alibaba’s mission, vision, and core values ​​statement – ​​the driving force or beliefs that would guide Alibaba’s development then and now.

    The mission gives a purpose to the company and defines the reason that unites everyone. Vision provides a window through which to view the future. The values ​​define the principles that underpin the company and direct the behavior of the team. Collectively, these concepts occupy the tip of the pyramid of the Tao of Alibabathe lighthouse that illuminates the right path to move forward.

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    While we recognized the importance of each of these components, it took years of trial and error for us to figure out how to fit the pieces together to form a framework that would drive sustainable and reproducible development.

    Since then, we’ve shared this knowledge with thousands of entrepreneurs and provided lessons to apply to their own businesses, in China and many emerging markets. Alibaba’s Tao has helped many of them transform their organizations and become much more productive.

    This article is excerpted from The Tao of Alibaba: Inside the Chinese Digital Giant That Is Changing the World by Brian A. Wong. Copyright © 2022. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


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