Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things

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Dec 8, 2018

A founder is like a special breed of people - they live and breathe heartaches, can be laughing one moment, screaming the other, can survive on very little sleep and lots of coffee. Different from your usual corporate and development workers, founders know there’s a lot more on the line if they make mistakes. When I saw the inconspicuous email sitting in my inbox at the chance to attend an eFounders course at the Alibaba business school hosted by Alibaba and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, I jumped at the chance. Before I knew it, I was off to China.

Being a first-time entrepreneur, working with a marginalized segment of the population as I do at Cookups comes with its’ set of challenges. No matter how much they achieve, nobody wants to believe in the women that we work with, including themselves. My objective for the two weeks was to be inspired and learn how Alibaba created and fostered a platform that empowers small businesses so I could replicate the same. The milestones China has achieved in the last few decades is unimaginable, building up their internet penetration of only 10 million in 1999 to 802 million in 2018 - out of whom, 569 million are consumers in China’s booming ecommerce.

The program started off with us being divided into teams and a few icebreaker exercises. Immediately it was apparent that they take a philosophical view of hardship at Alibaba when we were treated to an inspiring quote by Jack Ma to keep us going when things got tough, “today is difficult, tomorrow is more difficult but the day after tomorrow is beautiful.” On the very first day of the program, I actually started living that very quote as I managed to get myself an extremely painful ear infection and that too, on the day of the Double 11 gala.

Imagine a massive arena full of flashing lights in every hue, thumping music and a horde of thousands of Chinese consumers watching the show through their phones to get points and coupons to shop online. This year’s Double 11 broke records of previous years, accumulating a GMV of $30 billion and the most packages ever delivered at 1 billion. From a country where 97% of the population was considered below the poverty line not so long ago, it is amazing to see how the internet has heralded a new age and also apparent why perhaps the culture of buying is so strong - it comes from a place of having been deprived.

Now, for those people who have lived in America and experienced Black Friday, I can tell you that Double 11 is basically Black Friday on crack! It is the craziest, most over the top expression of consumerism one can ever imagine. Double 11 was started as a Single’s Day promotion back in 2009 on Alibaba’s C2C platform Taobao, which in a legendary battle ousted eBay from China. Double 11 has now become China’s largest online sales during which time Chinese online shoppers stay up in a frenzy purchasing goods from global and local brands at unbelievable prices.

This is accompanied by a highly overstimulating gala or concert with the kinds of lights and performances that make you feel like you followed the White Rabbit right down the hole into a Wonderland of chaos. The likes of Miranda Kerr, fake Beyonce, and even Mariah Carey took to the stage along with Cirque De Soleil along with various Key Opinion Leaders and influencers for a show geared towards making people buy.

Imagine a massive arena full of flashing lights in every hue, thumping music and a horde of thousands of Chinese consumers watching the show through their phones to get points and coupons to shop online. This year’s Double 11 broke records of previous years, accumulating a GMV of $30 billion and the most packages ever delivered at 1 billion. From a country where 97% of the population was considered below the poverty line not so long ago, it is amazing to see how the internet has heralded a new age and also apparent why perhaps the culture of buying is so strong - it comes from a place of having been deprived.

The program started off with us being divided into teams and a few icebreaker exercises. Immediately it was apparent that they take a philosophical view of hardship at Alibaba when we were treated to an inspiring quote by Jack Ma to keep us going when things got tough, “today is difficult, tomorrow is more difficult but the day after tomorrow is beautiful.” On the very first day of the program, I actually started living that very quote as I managed to get myself an extremely painful ear infection and that too, on the day of the Double 11 gala.

The pain from my ear infection continued throughout the three-hour bus ride from Shanghai to Hangzhou but I kept myself going thinking of a beautiful day after tomorrow. The Double 11 was going to close that day at midnight and the mood at the Alibaba headquarters was celebratory. All of the employees were in their red t-shirts ready for battle as we were led through a museum tour harking back to the first days of Alibaba when Jack Ma was just a regular English teacher with a big dream - him and his team made a vow on the Great Wall that they would build an internet company to rival the giants of the world - this was memorialized in a famous picture that still hangs in the museum. Aside from smashing records at Double 11, Alibaba has also empowered millions of small businesses and grown to a team that’s larger than 60,000 people - and this was all possible because of the dreams of a simple man. How did he achieve all this? I was yet to understand.

What was apparent already though is how the entire team really seems to be totally on the same wavelength. They compare their employees to bottles of wine, considered aromatic after a full year of service and emitting their “own aroma”. After five years, they are mature and intoxicating for others. Classes started and the next few days were chock-a-block with back to back classes starting at 8:30 in the morning all the way till past 6 pm in the evening. Even after going without any sleep during Double 11, the Alibaba employees did not seem to stop or take any rest. We would be dead tired by the end of each day and come out of the buildings to see that most of the rooms were still lit with people continuing their work at the stations.

We learned about customer retention and financial inclusivity and how Alibaba thinks about its’ people every step of the way with every decision they make. Their entire team follows the mantra “customer first” and through extensive data analysis, they can even predict which consumers are in their third trimester of pregnancy to how many single people there are as opposed to couples and exactly what they would be buying at the grocery stores. Speaking of grocery stores, I cannot write this without talking about Hema.

Hema is Alibaba’s ambitious foray into a brick and mortar grocery store where it fully merges the online and offline to create an experience straight out of The Jetsons. It looks like a regular grocery store with a whole section dedicated to fresh seafood in tanks, but the difference is in the little details. You’ll see the shoppers browsing the aisles with their Hema app, where they can get all product details such as recipe ideas to exactly which sea a large eel has been sourced from. There are aisles dedicated to meat, dairy products and local produce that is optimized for consumption on that very day after which they will be moved to the discounted aisle. You can even choose to buy items and have them cooked on the spot. And instead of heading to checkout counters and paying in cash, shoppers simply scan all the goods and pay using facial recognition.

While the first week of the program was dedicated to learning about the whole Alibaba ecosystem with its’ different platforms such as Alimama (marketing), Cainao (logistics), Fliggy (travel) and Alipay (mobile wallets) etc - the second week was all about culture and people. Alibaba’s mission is to make it easy to do business everywhere and this is ingrained in everything they do, including the eFounders program for entrepreneurs like us.

Hema also knows exactly what each customer has purchased and they have the option to quickly just order the same things and have it delivered to their homes within 30 minutes. This new retail concept does not try to change consumer behavior, it only enhances it through digitization. Similar to Bangladesh where food adulteration is rampant, China faced many problems regarding this in the last 20 years. Hema combats this through their transparency and quality guarantee, reinforced by the information on the app which is why shoppers are flocking to these stores.

Aside from shaking up the grocery scene, Alibaba has also given livelihoods to those living in rural areas. On a cold and grey day, we drove for about an hour and a half to a sleepy village called Bainiu. Upon disembarking the bus, we were greeted by the sight of a giant QR code, which upon scanning takes you to a browser window that says “Love”. We crossed over a cobblestone bridge and marveled at the sight of a stone lion while hearing the story of rural Taobao. Before the advent of e-commerce, families used to be split apart in villages such as Bainiu. The men would have to leave for the cities to find jobs and the women and children would stay back. Village inhabitants realized they could make a living by processing hickory nuts grown in neighboring villages and then selling them on Taobao. Now it is a booming business for these families, some earning up to a GMV of 300 million RMB in a year.

While the first week of the program was dedicated to learning about the whole Alibaba ecosystem with its’ different platforms such as Alimama (marketing), Cainao (logistics), Fliggy (travel) and Alipay (mobile wallets) etc - the second week was all about culture and people. Alibaba’s mission is to make it easy to do business everywhere and this is ingrained in everything they do, including the eFounders program for entrepreneurs like us. Something that struck me, was when Jane one of the first 18 founders of Alibaba came and shared with us her tales. She told us how Alibaba was flailing, losing money left right and center and then after days of deliberation the new Management team came out and shared the company’s mission, vision, and values. Only in the coming years would it show how invaluable that was to where the company is today and how it pushed ordinary people into doing extraordinary things.

On the second last day, Jack Ma entered our classroom to much anticipation and fanfare. He laughingly told us, “from reading the papers, even I admire Jack Ma.”

A founder is like a special breed of people - they live and breathe heartaches, can be laughing one moment, screaming the other, can survive on very little sleep and lots of coffee. Different from your usual corporate and development workers, founders know there’s a lot more on the line if they make mistakes.

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About the author: Namira Hossain is the Co-Founder and CEO of Cookups Technologies Limited, a homemade food delivery service that connects home cooks of all socioeconomic backgrounds to diners who want a taste of home. She can be reached at namira@cookupsapp.com

Cover photo: Namira Hossain along with other eFounder program participants | Courtesy


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Namira Hossain is the Co-Founder & CEO of Cookups Technologies Limited.

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