Photo credit: SupChina illustration
In the spring of 1999, Jack Ma (马云 Mǎ Yún) huddled with a group of 18 friends in his apartment in Hangzhou to found Alibaba.com, a business-to-business online marketplace. The company quickly took off, and branched out into more services for consumers, similar to its American counterpart, Amazon.
Under Ma’s leadership, Alibaba became a stock market darling, first in Hong Kong (though it later delisted there), and then on the New York Stock Exchange, where the company made the biggest IPO ever in 2014. Since then, the company has leaned even more heavily into consumer services, like digital payments, and made a splash each year with its made-for-media-attention “Singles Day” — think Black Friday shopping frenzy times ten — every November 11.
After 20 years, Jack Ma is handing over the reins of Alibaba to soft-spoken Daniel Zhang (张勇 Zhāng Yǒng). In contrast to Ma, Zhang is no celebrity — Bloomberg reported that at Alibaba’s headquarters, an “employee’s parent mistook him for the janitor.” In that same Bloomberg profile, Zhang also spoke of his drive to expand Alibaba’s reach into more and more kinds of services: “Every business has a life cycle. If we don’t kill our existing business, someone else will. So I’d rather see our own new businesses kill our existing business.”
We’ll have to wait and see if Zhang continues, or kills, one of the defining characteristics of his predecessor: a knack for flashy attention- and investment-grabbing initiatives. One sign that he might continue this trend? He is the one who came up with the idea for Singles Day in the first place.