On learning about non-Western businesses

I love reading interesting business books. I’m not an entrepreneur myself, but there’s something about reading honest stories about the development of companies (there are plenty of books that are simply PR brochures for specific companies and I have little patience with those) and lessons from their mistakes and successes that interests me. Some favourites of mine include  Starbucked, Delivering Happiness (about the shoe company Zappos), and “One Click” about Amazon.  I work in the nonprofit and education sector and I think there is a great deal that public and private sector can learn from each other.

Recently I read “Alibaba’s World” by Porter Erisman and I loved it. I didn’t know a lot about the company before reading this book, and hearing how Alibaba went from a scrappy company in an apartment in China to the giant it is today was a learning-filled experience.

At the same time as I was reading “Alibaba’s World” I read “Two by Two” by Nicolas Sparks (I confess, my first time and likely last time reading Nicolas Sparks) and in that book, the main character leaves the company he has spent his entire professional life at to start his own advertising firm. To do that, he rents office space, hires a receptionist, buys furniture, orders business cards, the whole works. He acquires all of these things before he has a single client, and it is months and months before he gets any clients. In the meantime, he is still paying a staff salary, his savings are dwindling, and he calls his receptionist several times a day only to discover that the phone hadn’t rung once.

In comparison, Alibaba started in the apartment of Jack Ma (its founder) and its start-up phase and its initial years were governed with a spirit of stretching resources as much as possible, and making personal sacrifices with the intention of building a company that would last 80 years. In that apartment engineers and other staff lived, ate, slept and worked together. In sharing the determination and verve that built Alibaba, Porter Erisman de-centers the narrative that the West is the source of global business excellence. And in a time when there is global rhetoric about “places stealing jobs” and “threatening the West” these stories are key.

This theme of Alibaba being a non-Western company is important.  Erisman goes at length in this book to stress that Alibaba success is due to its ability to build products and an overall ecosystem that uniquely speak to and address the environment in which it is situated. In addition, he stresses throughout the book that Alibaba is not the eBay of China, or the Amazon of China, it’s just Alibaba. It doesn’t need to be understood in reference to something in the West.

Hear hear!

Thoughts on some of my specific take-aways in the video below. Don’t forget to subscribe!

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