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Alibaba and the New Age of Asian Entrepreneurs


It’s time to recognize the Asian continent for more than its enormous market size and manufacturing muscle. It’s also in the early stages of an entrepreneurial boom not unlike the one that spawned Silicon Valley. And Alibaba Group, which recently announced its coming mega-IPO, represents an interesting nexus for that movement.

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With $240 billion of merchandise traded on its sites last year, Alibaba is the world’s largest e-commerce company. It conducts far more business than Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY)combined, and accounts for more than half of all parcels shipped in China.

What makes Alibaba unique is its innovative business model. The company is comprised primarily of two online marketplaces – Taobao, a consumer-to-consumer site, and Tmall, a business-to-consumer marketplace – plus shopping search engine eTao and third-party payment platform Alipay. 

That makes Alibaba sort of a mashup of eBay, Amazon, Google, and Paypal. But, unlike Amazon, Alibaba doesn’t actually sell goods. It operates only as a middleman, collecting annual fees and commissions from larger merchants and advertising fees from small businesses that want to stand out.

While the company’s revenues are relatively modest, it’s enormously profitable. In the quarter ending last September, net profits were $792 million on revenues of $1.78 billion. Its net profit margin of 44% is the highest I’ve ever seen, about twice that of Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

The only question is whether it can effectively scale that model as it continues to grow domestically and internationally. If so, it’ll be unstoppable.

Next stop: Wall Street

The company’s IPO is expected to raise $15 billion on a valuation exceeding $100 billion, making it the biggest U.S. public offering of any Chinese company and close to Facebook’s offering, which raised $16 billion for the Silicon Valley-based social network.

What I find most intriguing about the company, however, is its unique culture that stems primarily from executive chairman and founding CEO, Jack Ma. A former English teacher from Hangzhou, China, Ma represents a new kind of Chinese leader who puts customer satisfaction and employee happiness ahead of all else.

At the heart of Alibaba’s entrepreneurial culture is a value system that seems far better suited for Silicon Valley than mainland China. Its corporate values include having passion to do what you believe is right and continuing to innovate and adapt through changing business conditions.

Unusual as his methods may be, the results are undeniable and the payoff, huge. Ma’s net worth of $12 billion is roughly the same as that of Robin Li, chairman and chief executive of China’s top search engine, Baidu. That would make these two entrepreneurs, aged 49 and 45, respectively, the two richest men in China.

There is, however, one more twist to the Alibaba story. Fourteen years ago, Softbank founder and CEO Masayoshi Son invested $20 million in Ma’s venture. Five years later, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang pumped in another $1 billion, giving Yahoo a 40% stake in the ecommerce startup.

Today, the Japanese telecom and Internet giant Son founded when he was just 24 years-old owns 37% of Alibaba, not to mention 70% of U.S. wireless provider Sprint. Yahoo still owns 20% of Alibaba after selling half its stake in 2012.

After what will surely be a high-profile Wall Street IPO, not only will Alibaba have a real mashup of investor nationalities, I’m sure that, like Son and Wang, it will step up its own investments and acquisitions in high-tech startups.

Alibaba already led a $206 million investment round in Amazon competitor ShopRunner last October. And just today, messaging startup Tango announced that the Chinese ecommerce giant has plunked down $215 million of a $280 million funding round that valued the Silicon Valley company at $1.1 billion.   

It’s that same sort of successful entrepreneur-turned-investor flywheel that helped make Silicon Valley the high-tech mecca it is today. Make no mistake, Asian business is no longer all about enormous, century-old holding companies. These people have definitely figured out how to be entrepreneurs.

What do you think?

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