At Alibaba’s Gateway 17 recruitment event in Detroit, founder and chairman Jack Ma discussed why those that compare his company to Amazon are getting it all wrong, the cancer that threatens to topple his empire and his $1 trillion aspirations.
When Ma launched Alibaba in 1999, his vision was to help China sell products to the world, especially the U.S. Since then, his perspective has changed. “In the past 30 years, USA domestic consumption was the engine of [the] global economy. I told people at that time, if you miss the opportunity of selling your products to USA, to Europe, you may miss the chance,” he said during a conversation with journalist Charlie Rose. “Today ,I want to tell the people, if you miss the opportunity of selling your products to China, you will miss the opportunity. You will miss the future.”
That was the message at the two-day event, which was designed to recruit U.S. companies onto Alibaba marketplaces. Ma, who sees himself as a small business hero, wants to drive sales to China’s booming consumer market in a big way. In January, Ma met with then President-Elect Trump to discuss his plan for creating a million new jobs in the U.S.—one entrepreneur at a time.
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But those potential clients might be scared away by Alibaba’s reputation on intellectual property. The company’s Taobao marketplace wound up on the U.S. Trade Representative’s Notorious Markets list last year for allegedly allowing the sale of a large volume of counterfeits on the site. And Ma himself has been quoted as making comments that seemed to downplay the importance of stringent controls in this area.
More recently, though he’s seemed to recognize how truly detrimental these products could be—if not to his clients’ or their customers, at least to his own business. “We know there are three things that will make our site die, that will be the cancer of our business: counterfeit, IP and cheating,” he said in Detroit, adding that he recognizes that consumers have to have faith in the transactions that take place on the site.
Along with IP vigilance, Alibaba has focused on payment security as well, which is where Alipay comes in. “We’re using all the ways we do to try to make sure SMEs can easily sell and receive the money and customer service is good,” he added.
Though Alibaba offers its sellers a host of services—and has even expanded its reach into brick-and-mortar through investments and strategic partnerships—Ma says to draw a direct comparison between his company and Amazon, is a false equivalency. “Amazon is a great company. They did a fantastic job in America and the world. But they’re an e-commerce company. We’re not an e-commerce company. We help others to become e-commerce,” Ma said, adding his goal is for every business selling on his platforms to become the next Amazons. Alibaba’s payment, logistics and marketplaces are all in service of helping companies grow, he said. “We think, we’re not [globalizing] Alibaba. We’re globalizing e-commerce.”
While the parallels between Amazon and Alibaba will probably still prove too tempting for most, Ma goes further in differentiating the two. “We don’t think we’re a company,” he said. “We think we’re an economy.” In fact, Alibaba’s GMV for 2016 was $550 billion—roughly the size of Argentina’s GDP. “We’re ranking No. 21, 22 country GDP-wise. In the next three years, we’ll cross $1 trillion. We hope in 20 years, by 2036, we’ll be the 5th largest economy in the world [behind] America, China, Europe, Japan.”
It’s that kind of thinking that lead Ma, a professor at the time who’d never touched a computer before, to quit his job to pursue his vision. For other would-be entrepreneurs, he’s convinced the Internet can do for them what it’s done for him—if they act now.
“For small businesses, [in the] next 10 to 20 years no matter where you are, if you don’t try to globalize your business through the Internet, you may not have an opportunity.”