Alibaba Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang, who joined the group in 2007, has been the engineer of some of Alibaba’s best-known achievements, such as the annual 11.11 Global Shopping Festival, which generated over $30.8 billion in gross merchandise volume last year. The 47-year-old former accountant is also a key proponent of Alibaba’s push to blend technology and e-commerce to create a “New Retail” model in China. Moreover, he has long been an advocate of cultivating the next generation of talent at Alibaba by offering young people an opportunity to air out and try out their ideas.
At the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Education in the New Era: Challenges and Opportunities conference, organized by Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management, and CEMS, the Global Alliance in Management Education, on Saturday, Zhang shared four Alibaba success stories. He also covered his views on how to identify and capitalize on new opportunities, the true meaning of innovation and why Alibaba has evolved from being a dream-maker to a “future-shaper.” Here are the stories and top takeaways. They’ve been edited for clarity and length.
WATCH: Daniel Zhang’s Full Speech
|Story #1: Finding China’s Opportunities Online
Zhang recalled how Alibaba founder Jack Ma discovered the internet, at a friend’s apartment in Seattle in 1995. When he typed the word “beer,” there were plenty of results. But when he entered “beer” and “China,” nothing came up. That’s when Ma spotted an opportunity. He realized that by leveraging the power of the internet, he could help Chinese businesses find global trading and export opportunities.
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|Story #2: Taobao’s Mobile Migration
Zhang recalled that in 2012-2013, when the mobile internet began to take off, a team of Alibaba engineers were tasked with transitioning Taobao to mobile devices. The result was less than satisfactory. The problem? The engineers had using PCs. So Zhang hired young people with no memory of or experience with Taobao as a PC shopping site. Six years later, one of those young engineers, Jiang Fan, is now the 35-year-old president of Taobao.
|Story #3 – Fulfilling an Unmet Need
Back in 2003, eBay was the dominating player in China’s e-commerce world, with a 90% market share. But the Alibaba team saw that eBay only provided an auction platform with no way for buyers and sellers to interact with each other and build up the mutual trust you want in a transaction you aren’t doing face-to-face. The team immediately built a “live chat” feature for Alibaba marketplaces, enabling dialogue between merchants and their customers for the first time. Live Chat later turned to be more than just a communication tool, Zhang said. It was also great for customer service. And it built up trust between buyers and sellers.
|Story # 4 – From Lunchbox to Food-Delivery Giant
Ele.me, the Alibaba-owned local-delivery service, was created in 2008 to meet the needs of students at Shanghai Jiaotong University, who complained they lacked viable food options while studying. The founder of Ele.me saw the opportunity and created an on-campus lunchbox-delivery service. The service quickly expanded beyond the campus to homes and offices. Now, 10 years later, Ele.me is China’s second-largest on-demand food-delivery service in China. It was acquired by Alibaba in 2018.
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