If you’re familiar with e-commerce in the slightest, you’ve heard of Alibaba. This Chinese company is one of the world’s largest e-commerce platforms, connecting millions of buyers and sellers worldwide and dealing in almost every product conceivable. And if you’re in the process of setting up an online business or scaling up, there is a high chance you’ll look to source your products from Alibaba.
In 1999, a former tourist guide-turned-English teacher, Jack Ma, founded Alibaba in Hangzhou, China. The company facilitated trade between small businesses. Ma was inspired to name his company after the Arabic folktale Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves and its popular catch phrase “Open Sesame”, which opened up a treasure trove. “Ali Baba is a kind, smart businessperson,” Ma said in a 2006 interview. He felt the name resonated with people across the world. “People from India, people from Germany, people from Tokyo and China... They all knew about Alibaba,” he said.
Alibaba’s journey was no less fairytale-like. It rose quickly. In 2005, American Internet company Yahoo! paid $1 billion to acquire a 40% stake in the Chinese firm. Less than 10 years later, Alibaba's IPO at the New York Stock Exchange raised $25 billion, the world's biggest public stock offering at the time. Ma – who bought his first computer when he was 33 – has regularly been voted China’s richest man. It’s not uncommon to hear of Ma being called the “Steve Jobs of China” and Alibaba the “Amazon of China”.
Today, the Alibaba Group houses cloud computing and digital media and entertainment brands along with its core e-commerce businesses. Its main e-commerce platforms are:
Alibaba.com – A wholesale B2B platform and the group’s first venture, Alibaba.com started off with seven employees and, in 2020, by the company’s own account, had more than 20 million buyers from 190 countries.
Taobao – Continuing with the Alibaba theme, the word “taobao” roughly translates to “searching for treasure”. It is Alibaba’s business-to-consumer (B2C) shopping site where the merchants are primarily small retailers and individuals.
Tmall – Another B2C platform from Alibaba’s stables, it targets consumers looking for luxury branded products. Unlike Taobao’s small retailers, Tmall hosts multinationals and large companies.
Alibaba has several other businesses under its umbrella, including:
AliExpress – This B2C platform is similar to Taobao and sells similar products. But there’s one difference. Taobao is entirely in Chinese and ships within China. AliExpress ships globally and is available in 17 languages, including English, Russian, Spanish and French.
Alibaba Cloud – It is the world’s fourth largest cloud infrastructure market by revenue, trailing Amazon, Microsoft and Google but outpacing IBM.
Youku – Acquired by Alibaba in 2016, Youku is a popular video platform that helps users search, view and share video content. Alibaba uses Youku to drive customer loyalty towards its e-commerce business.
South China Morning Post (SCMP) – The Hong Kong-based English language newspaper was acquired by Alibaba in 2016 along with its magazine, digital media arm and all its events.
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