The Taobao Maker Festival, one of the most-watched events Alibaba holds each year, spotlights the ingenuity and originality of young Chinese inventors, designers and product makers. This year, the four-day celebration (Sept. 13-16) is set to break its own record.
Chief Marketing Officer Chris Tung is the head architect of the jamboree, kindling entrepreneurs’ imagination and drawing global interest. Alizila spoke with Tung about the purpose of the festival, its ballooning appeal for Chinese consumers and innovators, the must-sees of this year’s event and why the world should pay close attention to it. The Q&A is an abridged version of that conversation.
WATCH: The Taobao Maker Festival Explained
What is the Taobao Maker Festival and how did it come about?
The Taobao Maker Festival is a mega event that celebrates the creativity of Taobao merchants, especially among the young generation. Three years ago, we noticed the speed of new, creative and innovative products growing on Taobao. Most of the creations were done by the young generation, and we were really amazed by the concepts and the stories behind the products. It would be a shame not to share these stories. We thought about doing a movie or a variety show, but it just felt it still wasn’t enough to tell the whole story of what Taobao represents. So, we thought the best way is to hold a real exhibition so these merchants can tell their own stories and share their lifestyle directly with the consumers.
Most importantly, the Taobao Maker Festival carries the spirit and essence of Taobao, which is a barrier-free platform for young Chinese to freely express themselves, form a community with like-minded friends and connect with people. Throughout the years, Taobao has evolved from a shopping website to a vehicle that connects people. It is an experience and content-driven e-commerce community that helps glue people together in a very unique way. It is a place where you can really find your own universe in the online world. The festival is an offline version that represents the Taobao spirit.
How is the Taobao Maker Festival different from other big exhibition events elsewhere in the world?
Most of the similar events in the world are like trade shows, with the purpose of pushing new products to sell. The Taobao Maker Festival is very different. There is no transaction and promotion allowed onsite. It is a stage for the makers to share their product concepts and stories. We seek to inspire people. We want to trigger more creativity through the process. For lots of participating makers, they get inspired by other makers, and some of them have decided to work together to create cross-over products after the festival. Some consumers also get inspired and become makers themselves. Many industry experts have produced reports and held forums that generate discussions on the Taobao makers and the value of creativity by the young generation in China. These are the things we’d like to see, and this is what makes this festival so different from the sales-driven exhibitions around the world.
SNEAK PEEK: Taobao Maker Festival 2018
What are the wow factors of this year’s Festival?
Alibaba is an innovative company, and we are always trying harder and being more daring than before. The Taobao Maker Festival is no different. For the first two years, the festival was styled like an indoor exhibition held in a hall. This year, we are making a big move by taking the festival outdoor. We have chosen a very interesting and probably one of the most famous tourist sites and a national treasure—the West Lake. It is a very symbolic place because it represents a wealth of Chinese culture and heritage.
At the festival, not only there will be a main street that showcases the best of makers’ products, we’ll also have a few vertical fairs—a culture fair for designers who infuse different elements of Chinese heritage into their creations, a pet market that will have lots of interesting products for pet owners to have fun with their pets and a “treasure” market that showcases small but cleverly designed gadgets as well as second-hand items.
We have also created a Taobao Museum that showcases products that best represent the evolution of Taobao in the past 15 years. And of course, as always, we have a technology fair, which is an important element each year. Last year, we debuted the Tao Café, which generated lots of buzz. I remember people waited hours to experience the café. This year we created a tech museum with very cool technology, which I won’t disclose now.
WATCH: How Do You Choose the Makers?
The consumers decide. Our big-data technology helps us easily identify who are the hundreds of new makers gaining traction on Taobao over the past 12 months. We also have a sizable panel of experts, who, with their sharp eyes, represents a highly creative lifestyle. It is a mix of expert judgment, plus a lot of data analysis, that gives us a list of recommendations. Then we talk to them, see if they have the passion to showcase and tell their stories. We are glad to see the candidate pool is becoming much bigger, and it is growing very fast as we go. It means Taobao Maker Festival has helped incubate a new market successfully. This is the happiest thing to see.
How does the Festival highlight China’s creative young energy?
It is quite obvious that the young people of China are not only very international, globally minded and forward-looking, they have also demonstrated a huge respect for the Chinese heritage and cultures. We are experiencing a great crossover between the West and the East, the old and the new. This trend has laid a very strong foundation for creativity in China, and it is becoming mainstreaming. You can see a lot of elements of this trend in this year’s Festival.
WATCH: Why Is ‘Making’ So Popular Among China’s Millennials?
By producing this Festival, we have been amazed by the creativity of the young makers, and we want the whole world to see it. This is the future of China, and this could be the future of the world. Chinese young inventors and designers have no fear. They are optimistic about what they do, and they are serious about it because they are doing what they love. Taobao and the Taobao Maker Festival are aggregators of this creative energy in China and hopefully for the world.
On Taobao, there are no barriers, no boundaries. You can really express yourself freely. We’ve found there are hundreds of thousands of makers who are creating new products with the purpose of making friends, forming a community and connecting with people who share the same passion, interests and lifestyle. Here, you can really see the diversity of the Chinese youth culture today.
Why should designers and innovators outside of China care about the Taobao Maker Festival?
Industry leaders and fashion designers around the world should and are paying attention to Taobao Maker Festival because this could have a huge halo effect. This could become a central point for the world’s creativity energy. China is evolving—from “made in China” to “created in China”—because there are lots of good ideas and creators that are developing themselves on Taobao. As a result, people’s view on China is changing. China is no longer just the factory of the world. It is becoming the design center of the world as well.
For consumers that can’t attend the Festival, how can they enjoy the event?
Regardless how many tickets we prepare to offer, it is never enough. Each year, we make the Taobao Maker Festival available on the internet. We will have lots of live broadcasts, online interactive features and tons of interesting ways to engage those who can’t come to the festival in person. It will be like hundreds of million people are sharing the same atmosphere.
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