Lessons From Alibaba
Today marks a little over a year since my return from Hangzhou, China where I participated in the Alibaba E-founders fellowship. You may be wondering “why is she writing about it now?”? Let's just say after you experience a company that has a *gross merchandise value (GMV) of $1Bn (KES103 Bn) in 85 seconds and GMV of $30.8 Bn (that is a little above KES3 Tn) in 24 hours, it really makes you rethink everything you thought you knew. Needless to say, upon my return, I realised how much I needed to do to put my house in order and I guess that would explain why this article has taken this long.
A cornerstone of the fellowship is community impact and this requires participants to share journeys, experiences, and learnings with their communities. So, moving forward I will be sharing my journey and my experiences on this platform and what better way to start than with a few lessons I learned from Alibaba.
Lessons I learned from Alibaba:
1. Focus on solving first and the money will follow:
Opportunities lie where there is a problem/difficulty. Where there is a problem then there-in lies an opportunity for a solution to be provided. Each of us is born into a certain environment to fulfill our intended destiny. Infrastructure challenges, lack of knowledge and skills, financial challenges all form part of the story.
2. Communicate the organization's purpose to every employee in the company.
Throughout the organisation, employees should be clear on the purpose of the organisation and how they fit into the bigger picture. As uncanny as it sounds, there is a book written about this called, Ali Iron Army: Alibaba sales of iron army evolution, fission and replication by Song Jinbo.
Let me quote a story I read once on JFK and the Janitor. The story goes like this, President John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA headquarters for the first time in 1961. While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. “I’m helping to put a man on the moon”.
The janitor, understood the vision, his part in it and he had a purpose.
3. Know your values and do not compromise, even for profits.
In the earlier years of Alibaba one of the sales manager who had the highest sales of the year was giving a presentation on how he managed to hit such huge numbers. It came to light that one of the means he used was unscrupulous. The said manager’s presentation was immediately cut short and he was demoted. Fast forward to Alibaba class, the demoted manager was the one telling us the story.
4. Hire people who have the same passion, drive, “flavor” or juice that you have. They call it the “Ali flavour” in Alibaba. People you resonate with. People who are experts in their fields. People who not only challenge you, but also believe in you. Employees should know the culture and should be passionate about it. They determine how far the company will go.
5. Set outrageous goals and know you WILL achieve them. Be ambitious! The mystery of a towering fruit lies dormant within a tiny seed.
6. Trust the process; respect time.
It may not happen in a day or a year, but eventually it will happen. There is a popular Chinese maxim taught in school to children, it says “Try it again. After you fail once or twice try it again. It will increase your determination. It will strengthen your endurance. Don’t be afraid, be courageous, try it again”
7. Have a magic place and take time out to think alone or as a team.
“Any Alibaba product or idea goes through an incubation stage where team members hurdle up and live in Jack Ma’s apartment, where Alibaba was birthed.” And yes, we visited this apartment. :-) Hoping that **Ma Yun’s magic rubbed off on me!
Outside Jack Ma’s apartment with from left to right Niel Sangho (Uganda), Myself, Olugbenga (Nigeria) Leah (Rwanda) Chinedu (Zambia) and Hatem (Egypt)
8. Do the hard part yourself so that it is easy for your customer. Take on the difficulty:
Service delivery, training, process automation...whatever it takes so that it’s as easy as possible for your customers to interact with you and make a final purchasing decision. Then use your data to better understand your customers behaviour.
9. Always keep striving. It is only in doing the current thing that the next thing unfolds. Sometimes the growth path isn’t clear. “Dripping water, in time will cut a hole through the stone” All good things come to those who strive with patience. Build the core business, build a big ecosystem and then use your ecosystem to expand.
Alibaba’s growth has been a journey: E-commerce – Logistics – Fintech – Offline Stores.
10. Always be curious and ready to learn more. Be hungry for knowledge. It’s ok not to know, but you should believe that you can figure it out. Always try to find the why behind the action. Don’t get comfortable with goals attained. In the process always have fun, celebrate goals achieved and then aim higher.
11. You must give back. To whom much has been given, much is expected. The true reward is in sharing what you have. Alibaba have used their platforms to improve their society, this is not only visible in the physical surrounding in the Alibaba campus, but even to the extent that they use their networks to report missing children.
Alibaba’s vision is to last for 102 years. No employee will be highly functional and productive for such a long period, and therefore they believe that the company will outlive them all. Alibaba’s existence and therefore the company is not defined by anything limited. They believe that for as long as society exists the company will continue to exist.
12. Get good partners with high reputation to collaborate with. People who share the same vision, people who are innovative and creative. You can go far alone, but together you can go further.
Caroline Kuria with Jack Ma in Hangzhou, China.
*Gross merchandise value is the total value of merchandise sold over a given period of time through a customer-to-customer exchange site.
**Ma Yun is Jack Ma in Chinese.