THE BLOG

Open Sesame - How China's Alibaba Is Set to Break Records as It Lists in the US

12/09/2014 13:02 BST | Updated 11/11/2014 10:59 GMT

From humble beginnings in a small apartment in Hangzhou in 1999, the Alibaba website is considered by many to be the golden technology company of China, embodying all of the positive and none of the negative stories of China's phenomenal growth.

This little start-up from China, with a $20 billion float on the New York Stock Exchange, is set to become the largest initial public offering in history. It would value the company at over $US160 billion. In the process, it will profoundly disrupt Western perceptions of innovation and entrepreneurship.

So what is it all about and how did founder, Jack Ma, make this amazing journey? And more importantly for those looking to invest, what are the inherent risks when a Chinese company goes global?

From a website that initially connected Chinese manufacturers with overseas buyers, the Alibaba group now accounts for over 60 percent of all parcel deliveries in China, and growing. The group includes Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of eBay which today lists around a billion products, and Alipay, the Pay-pal of China which processes almost half of all online transaction payments with China.

Doubtless Ma's vision, drive and leadership were key, but it has to be said that the success of the business also comes down to one of his central tenets "customers first, employees second, and shareholders third."

Just like Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook, Jack Ma's measure of success was not financial, it was the desire to grow Alibaba's number of users and site visits. This is a challenging concept for many traditional Western business leaders, but for new online businesses it is the mantra that is driving their success. This also explains why Jack Ma made Taobao free, and only after being prompted by others, generally investors, did he look to commercialise what he had created - primarily through advertising and support services.

How is it that a tech start-up from China is set to out-do Facebook, Twitter and Silicon Valley and become the biggest IPO of all time?

Trust is a central issue. Potential investors weighing the pros and cons of the Alibaba offering see that there is a level of trust that the business exists, trust that you will get what you pay for and trust that you will not be put at risk. The trust Ma has established in Alibaba and its group of companies is exactly what the global markets have valued.

More broadly, potential investors and analysts alike look to China's business and economic environment. What they see is President Xi Jinping's sustained, aggressive, far-reaching and public anti-corruption drive which started at the end of 2012 and shows no signs of abating.

It is clear that China's government views corruption as a threat to business confidence and economic prosperity. The President is acting and his tough stance is delivering the sort of economic and social reforms which engender the trust needed for domestic businesses, like Alibaba, to go global.

There is no doubt that trust and confidence are behind the substantial shareholdings of Yahoo and Japan's Softbank. Post IPO they will hold around half of Alibaba.

At its core, this is a story of big dreams and entrepreneurship and what I see during my travels around China is amazing talent and the continuing emergence of true innovation.

Inspired by the spirit of entrepreneurship so synonymous with America and Silicon Valley that has seen Hewlett-Packard emerge from a California garage and Facebook from a Harvard dorm room, industrialised countries like Australia and the UK continue to grapple with strategies to spur innovation and entrepreneurship in their own markets.

That the latest iteration of the 'American dream' has manifested itself in a sub-provincial city in eastern China, rather than London, Sydney or New York, says much about the realities of the Asian Century and the competitiveness challenges confronting Western economies.

Whatever happens with Alibaba's Big Apple listing, it remains a motivating success story, illustrative of an evolving new world order where the West's stranglehold on ideas, innovation and commercialisation is a thing of the past.