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China’s Alibaba opens up to India

China’s most talked-about but hard to get CEO who rarely speaks to the Indian media, says he has his eye on India and the national elections. Reclusive Internet king Jack Ma reveals how he is leveraging the economic crisis to expand in India. Reshma Patil reports.

world Updated: Mar 22, 2009 09:01 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times

China’s most talked-about but hard to get CEO who rarely speaks to the Indian media, says he has his eye on India and the national elections.

And if you are an Indian IT whiz, send him your CV. This boss, at least, is hiring.

You can call Jack Ma, 44, China’s Narayana Murthy or just Alibaba, after the start-up Ma founded in his apartment in 1999 when most Chinese had not heard of the Internet.

Today China’s online community is almost as big as the entire US population. Alibaba is China’s largest e-commerce company with over 30 million domestic users and Ma, a former English teacher, controls Yahoo! China.

But as China’s growth slows to a historic single-digit low, Ma is strategically turning to India’s unknown traders of
laptops, software, stainless steel utensils, silk roses, chess sets, calendars and clothing, to expand his global reach despite the economic slowdown. From 2007 to 2008, Alibaba’s international marketplace users in India surged by 138 per cent and crossed eight lakh — compared to five lakh-plus users in China.

“This crisis is an opportunity for any nation that lives in the future and a disaster for any nation that lives in the past,’’ Ma, founder and chairman of the Alibaba Group, the world’s largest online marketplace to connect buyers and sellers, told HT.

“For India and China, it’s a great opportunity,” he said.

Ma won’t say when the crisis — it represents the ‘growing pain of globalisation’— will end, but he believes India and China will be among the first to recover. “These elections are being held in trying times and everyone will be keen to know how the forthcoming government will sustain the growth that India witnessed over the last few years,’’ he pointed out.

In this year of downsizing, Ma’s looking for about 5,000 people across his companies, including a ‘significant number’ of core Internet engineers to design future technologies for global e-commerce.

“India is home to one of the best pools of IT talent in the world, so we are of course interested in hearing from anyone who fits that description,’’ he said.

India is now Alibaba’s fastest-growing international market, as more businessmen with budgets slashed during the slowdown need the Internet for cheap e-commerce. “E-commerce is not affected by this crisis,’’ Ma emphasised. “In fact, e-commerce especially in India and China will grow even faster because people will want to use the power of the Internet to cut costs and gain access to more global suppliers and buyers.’’

In Asia, India has the highest users clinching deals on Alibaba’s international English-language marketplace. “We expect to grow as a result of this crisis,’’ said Ma.

Ma, who grew up during China’s economically crippling Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and tried his hand at teaching English among other odd jobs, said India shares ‘many similarities’ to China when he founded Alibaba in 1999.

The lack of widespread broadband access in India still surprises his team that partnered with Infomedia last year. But they have discovered that Indian traders have an English edge over their Chinese counterparts in the global cyberspace. “The Internet has converted my business into a maestro,’’ said Nikesh Rathod, sales and marketing head of Mumbai-based Krish
Exports that exports stainless steel products worldwide.

“Indian suppliers understand international standards and don’t have a language barrier,’’ David Wei, the CEO and executive director of who heads India operations from eastern Hangzhou, told HT. “In China, we have to train suppliers in international trade’’.

Wei predicted that India would overtake the US this year to be Alibaba’s largest user nation outside Mainland China. In 2008, a year that brought bad news for world economies and businesses, Alibaba, Ma pointed out, had one of the best years since the company was founded.

First Published: Mar 22, 2009 02:01 IST