Developer of Alibaba film in talks for US TV screening

Updated: 2014-06-16 07:15

By ELIZABETH WU in New York (China Daily USA)

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In 2008, Porter Erisman left his job as vice-president of Alibaba Holdings Group Ltd, now China's No 1 e-commerce site, and traveled around the world.

Before he left, Jack Ma, Alibaba's founder, gave Erisman his blessing to write a book about the company. But he never wrote it because he found out that someone else was writing one.

"After I left, I was determined to tell a story," Erisman said in an interview with China Daily. "I had witnessed something inspiring. I wanted to share the successes and mistakes Alibaba made with entrepreneurs around the world."

The result: The Alibaba Story - Crocodile in the Yangtze, a 75-minute documentary that draws on 200 hours of archival footage filmed by 35 different sources. The documentary's title comes from a quote Ma used to describe his company: "We are a crocodile in the Yangtze River."

The film was completed in 2012, and has had 50 screenings on six continents. On May 28, it was released on the video-sharing website Vimeo.

Now Erisman is in New York for talks to get his documentary on US television.

He said he wants people who watch his film in America to feel as if they were dropped into the middle of a Chinese Internet startup, and to see it through his eyes.

Alibaba's story was well told by media outlets before Erisman's documentary came out, and that story has been getting even more media attention since Ma announced that his company will go public. Alibaba's IPO is expected to be held later this year and could exceed $20 billion, according to some estimates.

"I came at the intersection and joined many of the sources that had documented Alibaba," he said. Some of the footage came from a German documentary about eBay, another about Erisman as a foreigner in China quarantined in an apartment during the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

Ma started Alibaba in 1999 at his apartment and the documentary explains the company's rise from a makeshift office with 17 employees to today's Alibaba, which has 24,000 employees, more than Facebook and Yahoo combined, according to Business Insider.

Erisman said he had told Ma he would make a documentary instead of writing the book, but when he called Ma to show him the film, he said Ma didn't remember that he would make it.

"The first time Jack saw the film I couldn't tell whether he loved or hated it, but over time I think the film has grown on him," said Erisman. And apparently it did. Ma showed it to his the 10th anniversary of, the website for online shopping in China that is similar to eBay and was founded by Ma.

Erisman said another reason he wanted to make the documentary was that in the West, people often misunderstand how a Chinese Internet startup works, and he wanted the film to show the difference between US and Chinese startups.

"I've been in the middle of those misunderstandings. I wanted to show both sides, the nuanced side of the innovative sector in China," Erisman said. "These Chinese startups share the same hopes and dreams as American Internet companies and startups."

And he said he hopes the documentary "reflects a positive corner of the world, and challenges Western perceptions on China".

Erisman received a BA in political science from Stanford University and an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, and taught leadership workshops to high school students in Washington.

He first went to China in 1994, just as Ma was on the verge of his first Internet company — China Yellowpages — in 1995. The two didn't cross paths until 2000 when Erisman joined Alibaba.

"Jack started out as an English teacher, he measures his success through changing lives; to him it's not about the money," Erisman said.

He said that in China bookstores have a whole section with management books selling Ma's business philosophies.

"To them, he is the Steve Jobs of China. Jack always said to `Never give up'. "99 percent of what Jack says makes perfect sense; 1 percent is an off-the-wall comment." said Erisman "Jack speaks his mind, in a stream of consciousness style."

As for Alibaba, Erisman said it is a Silicon Valley startup with Chinese characteristics.

"The corporate culture of the company was unlike anything I have ever seen or heard of in Silicon Valley," he said, explaining that at Alibaba co-workers are like family — "together all the time after work, with strong bonds and a team mentality".

Developer of Alibaba film in talks for US TV screening
Former Alibaba vice-president Porter Erisman.Elizabeth Wu / For China Daily