SMEs turn to Alibaba for business 'magic'

People who are keen to find out how they can say "Open Sesame" to business success, like China's e-commerce giant Alibaba, can do so via a course starting this month.

The six-day entrepreneurship and e-commerce course is being offered here for the first time by the Alibaba Business School, jointly set up by the Alibaba Group and Hangzhou Normal University.

The school, whose chairman is Alibaba Group's founder Jack Ma, runs programmes in e-commerce, marketing and international business, mainly in China. The course it is offering in Singapore is its first outside China.

The programme, which costs $8,800, consists of three days of lessons at the Singapore Management University campus and three days at Hangzhou Normal University. The fees do not cover flight and accommodation costs.

Students in the course, which will be conducted in Mandarin, will be taught by Chinese professors from Alibaba Business School.

50 little-known facts about Alibaba and its founder Jack Ma

  • Alibaba was founded in 1999 by former English teacher Jack Ma (pictured), who started with a platform for Chinese manufacturers to connect with foreign buyers.
  • Jack Ma started Alibaba in his one-room apartment in 1999 and has since branched out into markets as diverse as e-payments and financial investment.
  • Mr Ma, his wife and 16 friends pooled together US$60,000 to set up Alibaba.
  • The dial-up connection was so spotty in the early days of the company that it took three hours to load half a web page.
  • Alibaba means "opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies", Mr Ma told CNN in 2006.
  • The company founder said the name came to him at a coffee shop in San Francisco. He asked the waitress and 30 people on the street, if they knew it, and they all did. He chose this name also because it is easy to pronounce in all languages.
  • In 2002, Alibaba had only enough money to stay in business for 18 months. It turned things around by creating a product to let Chinese exporters meet US buyers online.
  • The company fought off eBay with its online marketplace Taobao by offering free listings to sellers. Mr Ma told Forbes magazine in 2005: "eBay may be a shark in the ocean, but I'm a crocodile in the Yangtze River. If we fight in the ocean, we lose, but if we fight in the river, we win."
  • Unlike US giant Amazon, Alibaba connects small- and medium-sized Chinese sellers with a wide audience.
  • Alibaba has made thousands of farmers millionaires. One told AFP he now roars to work in a black Jaguar and flies with his wife on holidays to Paris, thanks to his online bag store that rakes in S$6 million each year.
  • He launched Taobao in 2003, just in time to tap into Chinese consumers connecting to the Internet and eager to spend their rising salaries.
  • Rural Taobao stores employ more than 10 per cent of the local population and take in revenues of more than 10 million yuan a year.
  • Taobao villages often produce their goods - ranging from T-shirts to wicker baskets.
  • Alibaba is now responsible for 80 per cent of online sales in China.
  • Alibaba makes most of its revenue from fees and commissions that it receives from Taobao and the smaller but more up market Tmall.
  • It also has stakes in Chinese payment services, video streaming and cloud computing.
  • Together, Alibaba’s marketplaces sold US$296 billion worth of goods in the 12 months through the end of June, which is estimated to be more than Amazon and eBay combined.
  • In the second quarter, Alibaba made a staggering 43 cents of operating profit for every dollar of revenue.
  • Japanese Masayoshi Son (picture) made billions of dollars from his investment in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
  • The company remains largely unknown in the United States with an Ipsos poll finding that 88 per cent of Americans have never heard of it.
  • But that could change as Alibaba ramps up its investments in the US. Recently it has invested hundreds of millions in US start-ups, including Uber ride-sharing competitor Lyft, delivery service ShopRunner and video-gaming venture Kabam. It has recently invested in mobile browsers, social media and film production. This year, Alibaba launched the invite-only shopping site 11Main.com, aimed at American buyers.
  • Mr Ma was in Singapore recently, speaking to investors at a roadshow ahead of Alibaba's IPO. A team from the company also visited Hong Kong, New York and Boston.
  • Alibaba is poised for a record-breaking stock market debut on Friday, by raising $21.8 billion in a US initial public offering. This could rise to US$25 billion if options are exercised for additional demand, breaking the 2010 record of China’s AgBank of $22.1 billion.
  • The shares were priced at US$68, which is at the top end of the range announced earlier this week.
  • Alibaba would have a market value of around $168 billion based on the price, making it bigger than Amazon.
  • Among the beneficiaries will be current and former employees, many of whom will become instant millionaires as Alibaba like other tech giants such as Google and Microsoft had given stock to staff.
  • Alibaba also struck one of its largest deals with a US e-commerce company, agreeing to help Amazon.com rival ShopRunner expand into China. The move would offer a new way for US retailers to tap the world's second largest economy.
  • The Chinese e-commerce giant has burrowed its way into the Valley's exclusive investment circles, snapping up sizeable stakes and board seats in fast-growing start-ups that could provide strategic advantages for when the company challenges Amazon or eBay on their home turf.
  • By acquiring minority stakes, Alibaba's playbook has differed from what's typical of large tech firms like Google or Facebook, which prefer to buy startups outright.
  • In a letter included in the IPO prospectus, Mr Ma said: “Customers first, employees second, and shareholders third."
  • Picked up English as a teenager in Hangzhou by cycling 40 minutes every day to the city centre to act as a free tour guide to foreigners. Mr Ma said: "I practised my English every morning, no matter if it snows or rains."
  • Found himself on Hangzhou TV in 1995, after he was the only person brave enough to take on some burly men stealing well covers. The TV station staged the theft to find chivalrous passers-by.
  • Dreamed of studying at Peking University but didn't make it to the prestigious university
  • Flunked his college exams twice and had to settle for a low-ranked teacher's institute in his hometown.
  • After graduating, he taught English at a university for five years. His pay was a meagre 100 to 120 yuan (S$20 to S$25) a month.
  • Once applied to be secretary to the general manager of a KFC outlet, but was rejected.
  • His first two start-ups, a translation business and an online Chinese version of the Yellow Pages, flopped.
  • Got the idea to start a website in Seattle, where he was a trade delegation's interpreter. Exposed to the Internet for the first time, he searched for "beer", and found that there was no data about China.A
  • t that point, he had never touched a keyboard, and didn't know anything about computers or e-mail.
  • From the looks of it, he still isn't a tech whiz. Mr Ma said in an interview that he "knows nothing about technology", and that he only uses his computer for e-mail and to surf the web. He even gets a colleague to help him load American television shows into his iPad.
  • See himself as a cross between Feng Qingyang, a reclusive master swordsman from a martial arts novel, and iconic Hollywood alien ET.
  • Mr Ma wrote in an e-mail before his 2013 resignation as CEO of the company: "Succeeding a founder CEO is a difficult job, especially taking over from a CEO with such a distinct personality who is very ET-like; this requires great courage and the willingness to make sacrifices."
  • Has been inspired by stars on the big screen. Mr Ma said in 2009: "Forrest Gump is not a smart guy, but he is focused. He's not talented, but he is very, very hardworking, and he's very simple and opportunistic."
  • Belted out hits from The Lion King to staff at major company events, in full rock star regalia, complete with a flowing white wig and leather jacket. He has also dressed up as the Terminator, with Arnold Schwarzenegger on his arm.
  • Probably gets his sense of showmanship from his parents who were performers of the traditional musical storytelling technique of ping tan, which was banned during the Cultural Revolution.
  • Founded a taiji school with actor and martial artist Jet Li in May 2013. He was photographed demonstrating taiji at the school's opening ceremony.
  • He is the first mainland Chinese to make the cover of Forbes magazine.
  • Forbes described the 1.62m-tall Mr Ma as a "Napoleon-like person". The magazine must have heard that Mr Ma, in his youth, wished that he was born during wartime. "I could have been a general," he said.
  • Mr Ma's journey with Alibaba has been the subject of a film. Crocodile In The Yangtze was written, directed and produced by an American who spent eight years at the company.
  • Alibaba will last 102 years, according to Mr Ma who wants the company to thrive for three centuries.
  • Mr Ma will reap US$867 million by selling a portion of his shares with the IPO Friday, and his remaining holdings in the company are now worth US$13.2 billion

Mr Nick Zhou, chief programme executive for Alibaba Business School, said interest in the course, which targets executives in local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), has been strong. Close to 50 students have signed up for it.

About 80 per cent of them are Singaporeans. They come from industries such as food and beverage, logistics and retail. They will receive a certificate from Alibaba Business School after completing the course.

Many students have asked if they can meet Mr Ma, but Mr Zhou said the school cannot promise them that at the moment. "But we could arrange for that in the future if this programme becomes very successful in Singapore," he added.

Those who signed up for the course said they were drawn to the Alibaba brand.

Mr Chan Wai Sun, 33, director of a tuition and enrichment centre, said: "I would love to know more about the company culture of Alibaba as it is one of the greatest successes in e-commerce."

He plans to start a platform offering digital educational products like e-books and online education.

Madam Elaine Koh, one of the directors of Yikowei, a local SME that makes pineapple tarts, wants to learn about new business models.

Her 33-year-old company had to restructure its operations in the last three to four years after foreign worker restrictions kicked in.

"We reduced the number of physical retail outlets, purchased semi-automatic machines and are focusing now on exporting products overseas," said Madam Koh, who is in her 50s. The firm also set up its website at the end of 2014.

"I appreciate Jack Ma's vision - that we need to keep up with e-commerce strategies which will replace traditional business models."


This article was first published on May 3, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

SERVICES