Chris Reed
Jun 25, 2013

A challenger brand’s story of how crocodiles do eat sharks in rivers

Porter Erisman’s engaging and compelling documentary “Crocodile in the Yangtze” on the rise of Alibaba.com in China is a gripping tale of a true David and Goliath battle for supremacy in the world’s largest ecommerce market, China.

A challenger brand’s story of how crocodiles do eat sharks in rivers

Porter is giving personal presentations of the film to selected parties on request. I was lucky enough to attend one of two he gave to the mig33 teams in Singapore and Jakarta, under the “mig33 inspires” banner. Anyone interested in the launch and development of a brand against a giant, better funded competitor, the Chinese market or just business in general would really benefit from seeing the film.

“Crocodile” is a inspiring story told in a very modest way by Porter in his role of CMO of the Alibaba Group where he started working very early on with the Alibaba.com and later the Taobao.com brand. It charts his 10 year association with founder and inspiring leader Jack Ma who makes Richard Branson seem a beginner by comparison.

Ma’s companies make significant profit and capture massive market share in vast markets and are not just brands marketed with clever PR. Many tricks that Branson uses Ma also used to promote Alibaba.com against the might of one of the largest companies on earth and one of the most powerful and well funded brands, eBay. He also inspired a team to defy all odds, work as if nothing else in the world mattered and never flinched from unswerving belief and optimism that his vision (set out in the early stages of the film) would come true. It did, and then some.

The film follows China's first Internet entrepreneur and former English teacher, Ma, as he builds China's first global Internet company, the Alibaba Group. East meets West in this tale of the realisation of potential, a truly gigantic battle of the brands, mistakes, the Yahoo! alliance, over expansion, IPO, the seizing of opportunities and the eventual defeat of the enemy eBay.

In many respects Ma shows that the art of war is all about having an enemy, eBay, to focus an entire company’s energy on. Without an enemy to rail against and motivate his team to defeat the film subliminally tells us that Alibaba.com and the B2C version TaoBao.com would not have been nearly as successful. Having a target to aim at and for was pivotal to the way Ma energised his team.

Both brands together now generate more sales than Amazon and eBay combined. Some 60% of all parcels in China are in some way linked in the company. That in itself is an amazing stat considering that the company started in Ma’s bedroom as an idea, an incredible vision and nothing more.

The film doesn’t duck the issues of China and the cultural sensitivities that buying Yahoo! China threw up and is a very candid and at times funny film that is utterly gripping. Almost a combination of The Social Network and Boiler Room it is equally inspiring and because it is a true life story a real lesson on marketing brands.

I especially liked the way that employees were having fun and believed in Ma, a god like figure of immense charisma. In contrast when Alibaba took over Yahoo! their employees look beaten and depressed. As Ma says in the film, you need to have fun at work!

My favourite parts include the way that Ma/Porter deliberately dictated how eBay should react to things by being provocative and outrageous as a challenger brand can be. Also the way that they saw the SARS virus (which almost crippled the company) as an opportunity to create Taobao.com which is not only many times larger than Alibaba.com now but one of the most profitable websites in the world. If SARS hadn’t happened and the team weren’t all confined to a room together would Taoboa.com have ever been created?
 

Starting with the film's sold-out World Premiere at the Sonoma International Film Festival in April 2012, the film has travelled to 15 film festivals around the world garnering critical acclaim and winning the awards for "Best Documentary" at the San Francisco United Film Festival and "Best Film on Entrepreneurship" at the Silicon Valley Film Festival. In the fall of 2012 the film travelled to screenings at Stanford, Harvard, USC, Berkeley, UW, NYU, Babson, MIT and Wharton.

 

 

Contact Porter for a screening and he’ll be happy to share the inspiration – his linked in profile is

http://cn.linkedin.com/pub/porter-erisman/0/59/648

In case you’re wondering why Porter called his film “Crocodile in the Yangtze” it came from one of Ma’s many inspirational speeches. He said that eBay was a shark in the ocean. Alibaba was a crocodile. In order to compete they must make eBay come to their River and not try and compete in the sea. eBay did indeed try and compete in the River Yangtze, Asia’s longest river and the 3rd longest in the world. In 2006 eBay closed their China operations. The crocodile had defeated the shark. 

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