Jack Ma has triumphed throughout China and on Wall Street. But can he break into middle America?
Later this month, the executive chairman of e-commerce giant Alibaba will decamp to Detroit, hoping to woo more American businesses to use his company's services. During a two-day conference, Ma and other executives will try to familiarize entrepreneurs and farmers with Alibaba, which remains a relative unknown in the U.S.
"Alibaba's existed for 18 years, and we are so influential in China--but nobody in America knows about us," says Ma, who founded the company with 17 friends and family members in 1999, in his hometown of Hangzhou.
His modesty is a bit exaggerated. Wall Street knows Alibaba quite well after its 2014 record-setting initial public offering, which raised $25 billion and remains the largest IPO ever in the U.S. And Ma has been in national headlines frequently of late, meeting with Donald Trump before his inauguration and promising to create 1 million new jobs here within the next five years. The Detroit conference is part of a follow-up to that pledge.
But as Ma points out, his company's name-brand recognition is relatively low among the American business owners that he hopes will start selling their goods to Chinese consumers via Alibaba's online platforms. (Witness a recent Detroit Free Press article about the conference, which began, "You may not know the name Jack Ma.")
Alibaba in many ways is facing the flipside of the problems many American tech entrepreneurs encounter when seeking to do business in China. As I wrote in a November feature for Inc., the world's second-largest economy is home to immense regulatory red tape and a fiercely competitive market.
The government's "Great Firewall" effectively blocks many U.S. tech mainstays, including Google and Facebook, from operating in China. This censorship has helped nurture several homegrown tech giants, including Alibaba and rival Tencent and search engine provider Baidu.
But while it's difficult for Americans to compete with Chinese companies on their home turf, China's biggest tech companies don't have the same market reach here. For example: Tencent, which runs the hugely popular WeChat and WePay services in China, has invested in U.S. companies but is hardly a household name.
Alibaba has fared slightly better, thanks in part to Ma's tireless charm offensive. Often compared with Amazon, Alibaba is known largely for its TMall and Taobao online marketplaces. More than 450 million Chinese use Alibaba to buy everything from socks to cars; $547 billion worth of merchandise was bought and sold on those platforms in the fiscal year that ended March 31. Alibaba also has financial, logistics, cloud-computing, and media businesses; the entire company reported almost $23 billion in revenue in its last fiscal year.
Alibaba says that some 10 million small businesses in China use its platform to sell their goods. Yet to win over American entrepreneurs, the company will also have to convince them that its reputation for enabling widespread counterfeiting no longer applies.
That's a concern that Ma is aware of, and says that his company has made strides in combating phony merchandise. "We're using our technology to fight against this," he says.
Mostly, Ma says, he's hoping the Detroit conference manages to recreate for a new generation the thrill of possibility that he remembers from his own early days as an entrepreneur, after his first trip to Seattle in 1995.
"I knew so little about America--and when I came to America, I realized, 'Oh, my God. There's so many opportunities, so many interesting things here that are happening,'" Ma recalls. "When I knew there was another world, a world outside China, [I was able] to learn and to keep on driving in that direction."