Inside Alibaba's 'kung fu' culture

Inside Alibaba's 'kung fu' culture

As Alibaba's record-breaking IPO grabbed the world's attention last month, Western media raced to spotlight the creative, irreverent - even cool and possibly cultish - atmosphere that spawned China's e-commerce juggernaut.

Behind-the-scenes, according to exclusive interviews, a different scene emerges. As a range of Alibaba's past and current employees told, the truth is more complicated, but just as interesting.

It's true the company's core values are named after a martial arts technique, the Six Vein Spirit Sword, from one of founder Jack Ma's favourite kung fu novels.

Also confirmed is that the former English teacher Ma sent an internal message last October encouraging employees to "invade Antarctica" and "kill penguins" in Alibaba's duel with rival Tencent, whose mascot is a penguin.

It has also been reported that Ma practiced tai chi at economic forum and has let loose at company's annual event - for its 10-year anniversary celebration he was a silver-hair punk rocker, singing a song from the Lion King, and, another year he was blonde Snow White in a puffy dress.

Much circulated stories such as these have deflated Western stereotypes of Chinese companies as tradition dominated, dull and fixated on the bottom line. The Alibaba narrative reads more like your typical Silicon Valley start-up than Sinopec, China's state-run oil company.

In truth, working at Alibaba also has its share of stress and shouting matches, according to past and current employees, and intense pressure comes in equal parts with camaraderie and success.

"Arguing represents a serious work attitude, and overtime isn't overtime in Alibaba, meaning you have to finish your project on schedule," said Li Zhiguo, who worked at Alibaba for nine years before becoming CEO of Wacai, a startup online platform for personal finance.

A current Alibaba employee who requested anonymity said: "I've seen colleagues quit because they couldn't come up with the breakthroughs on projects as they confidently said they could. It's common."

The employee, an ex-technology reporter, was quick to point out that the pressure to perform comes mostly from employees' dedication and an eagerness to impress their 49-year-old founder Ma.

"It's because of one's sense of honour," said he.

Disputes and overtime

As in any high-pressure work environment, tempers at Alibaba sometimes boil over.

"Harmonious meetings would be a disaster to any Internet company in China. But what's rare about Alibaba is that disagreements were only about work issues, no one is targeted personally," said Li Zhiguo, adding that he's been fostering a similar atmosphere in his startup.

"Quarrelling is a must. It means employees want to excel from the bottom of their heart," he added.

Zhang Lei, an Alibaba spokesperson on corporate culture, said the company has its own words for the shouting matches, referring to them as "critical execution." The spokesperson said obeying orders is less appreciated than inspiration and this attitude is expected from all Alibaba employees.

Working overtime, as in most Chinese companies, is very common, several Alibaba employees told China Daily Online.

"The job is more tiring than my last one, but it's more creative and interesting," said a current Alibaba employee who declined to give his name for fear of disrupting his workplace.

"There are no clear off hours," said the source who is a former investment banker.

Li Zhiguo admitted the Alibaba culture is such that most employees rarely think about working excessive hours.

"Alibaba used to have a punch machine [time clock] a long time ago but later revoked it to give employees more freedom," said Li.

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