Book Review: Alibaba – The House That Jack Ma Built, by Duncan Clark

Chun Chan, first year undergraduate student at the University of Southampton, gives his verdict on Alibaba by Duncan Clark.
Chun Chan, first year Business Management student at the University of Southampton, gives his verdict on Alibaba by Duncan Clark.

Ma Yun, whose English name is Jack Ma, is one of the most famous entrepreneurs in China. A few years ago, his name always appeared on TV news in Hong Kong because his company’s Initial Public Offerings on the New York Stock Exchange raised $25 billion, the largest stock market flotation in history. A few months later, Alibaba’s shares soared, making it one of the most valuable companies in the world, worth almost $300 billion. Alibaba also became the most valuable Internet company in the world after Google, its shares worth more than Amazon and eBay combined. The soaring value of his stake making him the richest man in Asia. It sounds exciting to me when a company become that enormous. Therefore, I have chosen to read the story or biography about the founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma.

The book I read is called Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built, written by Duncan Clark. This book is about the story of Jack Ma and Alibaba. The author first met Jack in 1999 in the small apartment where Jack founded Alibaba. He was an early adviser to Alibaba. After two decades, he interviewed Jack Ma and chronicled the rise of Alibaba. This book has twelve chapters, there is a saying stated by not only Jack Ma but also other famous entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates on each new chapter page. The most memorable quote that I have read is “Nobody knows the future. You can only create the future” —- Jack Ma. However, most of the sayings are quite deep to understand. Apart from the sayings, I think the book is easy to read overall, because the author tended to use simple words. Perhaps this might make the book a little bit dull in term of writing style. The book consists of many conversations with Jack Ma. There is no any author’s comment or self-reflection in the book which makes sense in a biography.

The book covers the early life of Jack Ma, from a student to an English teacher, and how he became a successful entrepreneur. The part that makes me feel ashamed and admirable is that he never missed any opportunity to practice his English when he was fifteen. He started waking up before dawn and riding his bicycle for forty minutes to the hotel to greet foreign tourists. He would like to give those tourists a free tour, and they taught Jack Ma English. I feel ashamed because I did not even make effort to learn my English. Jack Ma is dismissive of the quality of his English, but he never dismisses how much learning the language has helped him in life. Jack Ma said “English helps me a lot. It makes me understand the world better, helps me to meet the best CEOs and leaders in the world, and makes me understand the distance between China and the world.” This proves that Jack Ma is a very hard working person. My father always told me that English is extremely important for not only my study but also my future career. After reading this book, there is no doubt that my father is always right.

This book talks about the competition between Taobao and eBay. Taobao is a Chinese version of eBay which launched by Alibaba. This story taught me a lesson that we should never underestimate you opponents. When eBay first entered the Chinese market, eBay did not consider Alibaba their rival. They did not even think that Alibaba could be their rival. I agree with the book that eBay’s biggest mistake was in getting the culture wrong. In website design, culture matters. In the West, websites like Google had become popular for their simple display. As I can see for myself by opening, successful Chinese websites most likely includes a lot of information and multimedia graphics, requiring many scroll-downs to see the whole page. Taobao has been a website built by Chinese for Chinese, and it worked.

I think that eBay’s adventure in China could be a case study for business students in how not to go about managing a business in a distant market with different cultures.

This book gives Jack Ma’s own opinion about business school as well. He has always been dismissive off business school. He said that it is not necessary to study an MBA, and most MBA graduates are not useful. In my opinion, it is quite true that schools teach us knowledge, while managing or starting a business requires experience.

The funny part is that the author also describes the look of Jack Ma which I find it funny and objective. In fact, Jack has been described in the media over the years as an “imp of a man,” “alien,” and E.T.” As I am a Chinese student, reading a Chinese man’s life story in English makes me feel that I could learn more than I think. Not only I can improve my English, but also I can see how Chinese translated into English. It is sometimes difficult to express the true meaning with other languages. In this book, the author did explain the name of Taobao which means “hunting for treasure” in Chinese. It is good for readers to understand more about Chinese culture.

Lastly being a business management student, it is very helpful when you read an entrepreneur’s life story. This book provides excellent insight into the world of Jack Ma. Topics covered background on his life and education, and how he began as an entrepreneur from an English teacher. I find it interesting and exciting how an English teacher became one of the most influential people in the world. This book also discusses the business environment, competitor strategies which is quite related to my course. I think this book is very inspirational and I highly recommend that business students read about Jack Ma’s story.


The views of the author is his view alone.

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Book Review: Alibaba - The House That Jack Ma Built, by Duncan Clark, 9.0 out of 10 based on 3 ratings

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