Jumat, 26 April 2013

Alibaba and the Fourteen Years

Which is the biggest ecommerce company in the world ? Take a guess. Amazon ? E Bay ? You would be wrong if you guessed either of them. The biggest e commerce company in the world is Alibaba. Its portals handled a sales volume of some $ 170 bn. That is more than the volumes handled by Amazon and E Bay combined.

No, this is not some elaborate hoax dreamed up from 1001 Nights. Alibaba is indeed the largest e commerce company in the world. The reason you may have never heard about it is that it operates almost exclusively in China. It started life as simply Alibaba.com , a business to business portal. It then added Taobao - a consumer to consumer portal, whose similarity to E Bay is, of course, entirely coincidental. Now it has started Tmall, a business to consumer portal, which again, bears a completely coincidental similarity to Amazon. All this in just fourteen years. The last two, if you click on the link, you will see are entirely in Chinese. And therein lies the issue. Can Alibaba really be a global major, while being largely only in China.

One of the trends you may have not noticed is that China has overtaken the US as the largest ecommerce market in the world. Chinese love to shop. And they are merrily shopping online. There is terrific internet penetration in China. And Alibaba, thanks to its visionary founder, Jack Ma, is reaping the rewards.

But then, can it be really the dominant player in the world ? I can't see shoppers of virtually any other country migrating to Taobao or TMall, even if it is in English.  "Open Sesame" worked for the fictional Alibaba, but its hard to see the doors opening that easily for the real Alibaba. There is a huge brand image problem to be overcome, not just of Alibaba, but even of China. As Huawei and a clutch of Chinese companies have discovered, it is not easy going global.

Even in the home market, Alibaba's position will surely be under threat from competition. However big the Chinese market may grow into, its hard to see any company being the world's dominant major, being exclusively in China. As Britain discovered a century ago and the US is discovering now, the sun does set on everybody who thinks he alone can dominate the world.

What of the supposedly more tech savvy India. India does not even have a pipsqueak of an ecommerce company. Why ? The blame for that is squarely on Ramamritham. He has made internet connectivity one of the most difficult things in India to obtain. He has virtually made impossible an Internet Cafe industry. He does not allow easy payment systems to emerge. He goes after those who try, like Flipkart,  and brings his full attention on them by lodging all sorts of cases. And he does not allow the global majors to come in.

And therein also lies the risk for Alibaba. Thus far, the Chinese equivalent of Ramamritham , Li Xiao has left them alone. But then Li Xiao is not a bureaucrat. Li Xiao is from the Party. Ramamritham is completely predictable - he will create every obstacle possible, but do nothing else. Li Xiao is entirely unpredictable. If Alibaba attracts political attention, then its fate is sealed.That's probably why the wily Jack Ma is stepping down as CEO. And he is planning an IPO. An IPO that might even best the Facebook IPO.

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