These three CEOs feel thankful for their Alibaba years, and here’s why

Alibaba “graduates” look back at the company cultures and values, and reflect on how they paved the way for their own business’ success.

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  • Customers first, employees second, shareholders third
  • Trust makes everything simple
  • Change is the only constant
  • If not now, when? If not me, who?

These are the corporate values behind the success story of Alibaba, China’s major e-commerce titan founded in 1999 that has since then shaped the country’s e-commerce reality and become a role model for domestic internet startups.

“A company should depend on a system for leadership. It’s the culture. It’s the people. It’s the system that keeps a company alive for 102 years. It’s not only one person,” founder Jack Ma was quoted as saying by CNBC in October, one month after his official retirement.

“You should never have a copy of Jack Ma. One Jack Ma is too much for the company,” he added, ensuring that his former company has built up a strong leadership system in the past 10 years, and therefore, the firm is now able to steer into the future even without his leadership.

Of all the new economy companies, only Alibaba has a “competent organizational capability. The others don’t, not even Meituan,” acknowledged Wang Huiwen, co-founder and senior vice president of Meituan Dianping, China’s largest on-demand services provider that offers takeout delivery to hotel booking. Wang made the comment at a forum in November last year.

Well then, what is it about Alibaba’s corporate culture that makes it stand out? How is this keeping the company competitiveness? And how has it influenced the people who have left the company, and gone on to establish their own business or take up leadership at other companies?

The top tech firm in China by market capitalization had nearly 104,000 employees worldwide as of June 30, according to the company website.

Three entrepreneurs talked to 36Kr about how Alibaba has influenced them during their tenure at the company, and how the experience helped them pave the way for launching their own business.

1. Zhao Chen, founder of Hipac, an online shopping platform for baby and maternal products:

“Alibaba has shaped many people and had a certain influence on the culture of the whole internet industry.”

I worked in Alibaba for nine years. I was in charge of Tmall International before leaving the company and starting my own business. I led the team to establish Tmall International from scratch, and the sales reached RMB 2 billion (USD 283 million) before my departure in 2015. In short, Alibaba has greatly influenced me in two aspects.

One is the “starting from zero” experience, which is invaluable. Kicking off new projects inside Alibaba is like starting up a business, just more simplified. Alibaba provides you with the traffic, funds and other resources, making you feel like you have a rich dad. With this experience, venturing into your own business is just an upgraded version with a wider scope. Perhaps you only had to take care of five things in the past, but now there are 10 more on your mind.

The Alibaba experience helps you understand what entrepreneurship is about. If it’s your first time launching your own company, you get anxious. It just doesn’t feel right if you’re idle at any time. But if you’ve had already savored that experience, it helps with your mindset, or else you may be easily frustrated. Also, you will have a better command of the rhythm.

There are a lot of things to do when you first start a company, such as choosing the business field, building the team, deciding on the details, etc. It’s very easy to mess up the priorities: whether you should go first with the financing, recruiting, or business development? It requires the Alibaba experience to back up your judgment.

The second influence is obviously my personal character and way of thinking. The founding partners of Hipac all came from Alibaba, and so we can now rapidly come to an agreement on what to do first, what comes next, what we can do and what we can’t. The culture of Hipac is rather similar to Alibaba’s: clients first, integrity, embracing changes, teamwork, all having sunk into our blood, which is very important to entrepreneurship.

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For example, when we first started, we cooperated with a chain whose boss had great conversations with our salesperson at the beginning, but later kept avoiding commitment. Sensing something was wrong, we chased him for an explanation, and it turned out that it was because we hadn’t paid the kickback. Unspoken rules exist everywhere. Should we follow them? We made our decision in one minute: no, even if it meant we would lose the business.

Alibaba has given us so many precious lessons. You might not feel it when you were in there, but you would be extremely grateful after you leave. Equality, simplicity, openness, transparency, the values we gained from Alibaba are just wonderful.

The internet culture is something I didn’t have a grasp until I started working for Alibaba. The company is a lot different from other traditional firms I worked for in the past. In those companies, there was a strict hierarchy: the executives, the middle management and the employees got different colors for their staff cards. But in Alibaba, you call the bosses by their names or nicknames, no matter their positions. Whatever thoughts you have, you can talk to them directly. The executives don’t own individual offices, and they live in the same hotel rooms as the employees on business trips.

Alibaba has created a whole new era and shaped many people in its underlying characters and methodologies. We can say that Alibaba has influenced not only its employees but also the whole China’s internet culture—by and large.

2. Wang Ying, founder of cross-border online procurement platform KKS:

“Alibaba showed me the limitations of my personal abilities.”

I joined Alibaba in 2009. First, I participated in the transformation of 1688 [Alibaba’s domestic wholesale platform for industrial goods] from an information platform to a transactional one. Later, I worked on the formation of Cainiao [Alibaba’s logistics arm] and was the chief designer and head of the last-mile delivery, also in charge of Cainiao’s self-pickup stations currently adopted in the market.

Suffice to say that I witnessed the growth of Alibaba from one to 10. Alibaba’s values are key to its success. There are a lot of cheesy catchphrases in Alibaba’s values that bring positive energy to people. Not until I started my own business did I realize how powerful these catchphrases are. For example, “change is the only constant,” and “customers first, employees second, shareholders third.”

But for your own business, you can’t just copy the values and expect them to fit into the mold. If you don’t have big company names backing you up now, and you rely completely on yourself for resourcing—it’s a different starting point. So when we set our values for the KKS, we drew something from Alibaba but adjusted them to fit into the style of our people.

Alibaba is a company that advocates “two heads are better than one.” What you had gathered in the past might not work in Alibaba, and even those high-flyers had to rely on teamwork.

Alibaba has deeply influenced me. Of course, I learned a lot about how to do things, but the most important thing I gained there was self-recognition. Many of us tend to magnify our weaknesses but there is goodness in us that we should not forget. Especially for startups in the early stage, CEOs are the soul of the company.

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Alibaba has made a very pivotal part of my life experience, and I have deep feelings for it. But now that I’m running my own business, I want to get rid of this label [that I was an Alibaba employee] and move forward. To succeed in my business, I should look for partners with the same goal, eager for success and that are willing to put in the continuous effort, regardless of our backgrounds.

When we seek a partner, what’s important is to see their achievement in a certain period of their life, what they’re good at, and whether it’s something that we can utilize when setting up a new business. Successful people may have many things in common, but you have to look at the special characteristics that set them apart.

3. Yang Renbin, founder of AI-based online education company Intelligent Learning:

“Don’t make investors think that we will be highly successful because we are formerly from Alibaba.” 

I was the chief product manager of Taobao mobile app before leaving Alibaba to start my own business. I was in charge of various product lines of the Taobao app and created a personalized search and recommendation system for our users.

Bearing the label of being a former executive from Alibaba, first of all, I would constantly remind myself not to blindly copy and paste Alibaba’s management, nor to dwell on the past experience. If I didn’t understand the thinking process behind Alibaba’s methodologies, my business would have probably failed.

Second, I don’t want job applicants and investors to have overly high expectations on my company because of our “Alibaba halo”—in case of any unrealistic hope from people that want to become an overnight millionaire.

Instead, we emphasize more on the difficulties and risks of entrepreneurship. I also don’t promise to candidates that our startup is going to offer great financial rewards. To each potential candidate, I would repeatedly stress that the best chance we’ve only offer a 10% success rate, and sometimes I would say that the rate has dropped to 5%.

But what I would definitely emphasize is that, over here, you would have the opportunity to work together with a group of people who strive to make progress every day, to achieve something from zero to one, to help you gain back your footing after you face setbacks, and of course, offer a big applause if you achieve a great height.

READ MORE: 12 facts you might not know about Jack Ma

In Alibaba, I learned that the seemingly impractical, such as missions, visions, and values, are actually very practical. From the beginning, we have set the mission at Intelligent Learning to be “empowering every child to lifelong learning.” To achieve this, we set up a research and development team to build an artificial intelligence adaptive algorithm to help students improve their learning, which I think is a very purposeful cause.

Our company has undeniably inherited some Alibaba’s DNA, such as “today’s best performance is tomorrow’s baseline.” But we have our traits: “open-mindedness” and “speak with results.” While we think that speed is critical to success, “acceleration” matters more. And also, we encourage our employees to constantly seek feedback from their supervisors.

A company’s culture is not the slogans hanging on the walls, but the “cheesy catchphrases” blurted out by the employees now and then in the internal meetings. That means such a culture has deeply rooted in everyone.

The original article was published on 36Kr, KrASIA’s parent company.