Alibaba flexes muscles before IPO

The Chinese e-commerce website's transaction volume dwarfs that of eBay and Amazon.com, but the company's size could be its worst enemy.

By MSN Money producer Apr 17, 2014 7:07AM

By Juro Osawa, Paul Mozur and Rolfe Winkler, The Wall Street Journal The Wall Street Journal

Alibaba Headquarters in Hangzhou, China © ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Jack Ma still has the spartan apartment in the Chinese city of Hangzhou where the former English teacher started Alibaba.com in 1999. As the e-commerce company grew, executives and employees often hunkered down there for inspiration while trying to come up with the next big thing.


Big doesn't come close to describing Alibaba Group Holding now.


Taobao, a website dreamed up in Ma's apartment a decade ago, has about 800 million product listings from seven million sellers who pay Alibaba for advertising and other services. In 2013, the combined transaction volume of Taobao and another Alibaba-run shopping site called Tmall reached $240 billion, says a person with knowledge of the figure.


The total is more than double the size of Amazon.com (AMZN), triple the size of eBay (EBAY) and one-third larger than the value of all the transactions last year at the two U.S.-based e-commerce giants combined.


Those numbers help explain why Alibaba is nearing another giant milestone: a hotly anticipated initial public offering in the U.S. that could raise about $15 billion from investors, just shy of what Facebook (FB) sold when the social-networking firm went public in 2012.


Enthusiasm grew even more when  Yahoo (YHOO) reported late Tuesday a revenue and profit surge at Alibaba during the fourth quarter. Yahoo discloses the numbers because it holds a big stake in the Chinese company. Alibaba's revenue jumped 66 percent from a year earlier to $3.06 billion, and profits more than doubled to $1.35 billion.


The gains soothed concerns that slower growth in the third quarter was a sign that Alibaba is losing steam. Skeptics still worry that the company's immense size is making it harder for Alibaba to innovate, especially as e-commerce goes more mobile and pits the company against some savvy rivals.


But with the latest results, Alibaba's expected stock sale could value the company "well in excess" of $150 billion, Bernstein Research analyst Carlos Kirjner said, likely vaulting Alibaba into the top 10 technology companies in the world by stock-market value.


Yahoo shares, which are closely tied to Alibaba's prospects, jumped more than 6 percent in after-hours trading Tuesday to $36.62, after a 2.3 percent rise during market hours. Yahoo's stock price is up more than 40 percent in the past year.


Shares of Japan's SoftBank., which has around a 37 percent stake in Alibaba, were up 7.7 percent in early Tokyo trading on Wednesday.


Alibaba is expected to file an IPO prospectus with regulators as soon as late April, analysts and potential investors say. The stock sale could happen this summer. The IPO will be a defining moment for China's homegrown technology industry and booming consumer sector, which Beijing officials hope will offset a slowdown in industrial growth.


If the IPO goes as planned, the 49-year-old Mr. Ma could be worth roughly $10 billion. The tenacious, charismatic leader stepped down last year as Alibaba's chief executive but remains chairman and the driving force of a company often described as a mix of Amazon, eBay Inc. and PayPal, plus bits of  Google (GOOG). He declined to be interviewed for this article.


Nearly a decade ago,  Ma vowed to build Alibaba into the greatest Chinese-made company in the world. Alibaba now handles roughly 80 percent of all online shopping in China, which some analysts say is already the world's largest market for e-commerce, ahead of the U.S. Hundreds of millions of Chinese still haven't shopped online, a sign of future growth potential.


Alibaba has helped ignite the online boom in China with events like its annual one-day shopping festival on Nov. 11, in which spending tops the two biggest online shopping days in the U.S. combined.


David Dai Shu, a 40-year-old public-relations manager at telecommunications-equipment supplier ZTE Corp., stayed up late to start his shopping spree right at midnight. He spent nearly $500 on more than 20 items, including winter clothes from Uniqlo, the flagship brand of Fast Retailing Co.


He says his wife buys everything from household goods to books and stationery on websites run by Alibaba. "She thinks I'm an amateur,"  Dai says.


Merchants have mixed reviews. "It's quite complicated," says Patrick Li, who lives in the southern city of Shenzhen and opened an online store on Taobao in 2012 to sell soap that he makes himself.  Li, 29, has spent about 20,000 yuan ($3,200) on marketing and other services but made just 5,000 yuan so far.


The Wall Street JournalTing Au says revenue from military apparel and other products he sells from Hong Kong to customers in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan jumped to as much as HK$400,000 a month (US$52,000) from less than HK$30,000 after he switched to Taobao from social networks. "Without Taobao, I won't be able to have my own business," says  Ting, 25.


In another sign of Alibaba's sprawl and power, a payments processor launched by the company to smooth the flow of money in online purchases had 70 percent of the mobile-payments business in China last year, according to research firm Analysys International.


The operation, called Alipay, is the world's largest payments processor and so entrenched in China's financial system that a money-market fund called Yu'E Bao and launched last June by Alipay has raised more than $65 billion. Only five similar funds in the world have more cash, says Morningstar Inc.


Alibaba also has been on an acquisition tear, spending more than $3.5 billion since the start of last year on deals that include online mapmaker AutoNavi Holdings Ltd.; an operator of a cloud storage service similar to Dropbox; and minority stakes in Chinese dating app Momo and SinaCorp.'s Weibo microblog, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.


Alibaba is tiptoeing into the U.S. with plans for a new e-commerce site that will offer high-quality products from select merchants in industries like fashion and jewelry. "Shop owners are unpacking and getting settled," says the home page for the new site, called 11main.com.


Still, big questions about Alibaba's future are looming. The company is about to turn 15 years old, taking much longer to go public than Facebook or Twitter, and has ballooned to more than 20,000 employees.


"We look like an 800-pound gorilla," says Joe Tsai, an Alibaba co-founder and the company's executive vice chairman. Some outsiders wonder if Alibaba's sheer size will make it tougher to respond swiftly to rising competition as more shoppers use smartphones.

The Wall Street Journal


Rivals include social-media and online-games company Tencent Holdings, which is using its popular WeChat mobile-messaging application to offer e-commerce services. In March, Tencent fired its most direct shot yet at Alibaba, agreeing to pay $215 million for a 15 percent stake in JD.com Inc., China's second-largest e-commerce company. Tencent says it hopes to make money by charging fees when WeChat users buy merchandise with their phones.


As Alibaba grew bigger and bigger, the question was whether it could continue to be driven by its culture and mission," says David Wei, a former chief executive of Alibaba.com who left in 2011. "On one hand, you need more management policies and rules, but you also need to keep things simple in order to move fast. Alibaba is figuring out that balance."


Alibaba never has been as much of a game-changing innovator as Apple Inc. or Google. Rather than inventing revolutionary products, Alibaba often adapts existing technology to serve China's fast-growing e-commerce market. Taobao, which means "searching for treasure," was created to sell directly to consumers as the Internet emerged in China.


Alibaba doesn't own the merchandise it sells. The company is a middleman, making most of its money from charging merchants for marketing and ad services so they can stand out in the crowded marketplace. Sellers on Tmall and Alibaba.com pay annual fees. The company was in business for three years before it posted its first annual profit: $1 in 2002.


When customers demanded better quality, Alibaba launched Tmall to sell established brands such as Nike Inc. and Gap Inc. Tmall has about 70,000 merchants and charges a commission on each transaction. Those ad services and fees helped Alibaba rake in revenue of $7.95 billion last year, up 62 percent from $4.9 billion in 2012, Yahoo said Tuesday. Net income grew to $3.52 billion.


Alibaba is tiny in revenue compared with Amazon because the Seattle company sells products to consumers. Amazon had net income of $273 million last year on revenue of $74.5 billion last year.


"Alibaba has played the scale game really, really well," says Paul McKenzie, an analyst at Hong Kong brokerage firm CLSA in Hong Kong. "They created a virtuous circle of more merchants attracting more shoppers, which in turn brings in more merchants."


Potential investors are trying to figure out how fast Alibaba can keep growing. Few U.S. investors have used Alibaba's e-commerce sites, and some investors don't like the fact that Alibaba will still be controlled by  Ma and other founders after the IPO.


Alipay won't be part of the deal because Ma took control of the unit in 2011. He said the move was necessary because the Chinese government wouldn't allow a financial business to be controlled by a foreign entity.


Michael Reynal, a portfolio manager at RS Investments, says the San Francisco firm is "very inclined to invest in Alibaba, but we need to look at valuation very carefully because there has been so much speculation. We already know the growth story, and we want to see how sustainable that is."


Alibaba boosters say the challenges are reminiscent of the company's early years, when Alibaba badly trailed a competitor called EachNet. EBay bought EachNet in 2003, promising to spend $100 million to boost its business.


Ma responded by launching Taobao, which allowed sellers to list their products free rather than pay a fee to EachNet. He said Taobao wouldn't try to turn a profit for three years. "I know the Chinese user market and users better than Meg Whitman, "  Ma said about eBay's chief executive at the time.


Hewlett-Packard Co., where Whitman now is CEO, declined to make her available for comment on Alibaba.


Taobao, the online version of a raucous Chinese street market, quickly leapfrogged eBay in China. But Alibaba executives worried that the site would be a turnoff for big, brand-name companies because they wouldn't want to be associated with tiny, unknown sellers.  Ma sent a team of about 30 engineers back to his old apartment to develop a site that would win over the big names.


"Jack's apartment was reserved only for the most important projects," says Wang Yulei, an Alibaba vice president who was one of the engineers on the team. "It's a spiritually important place."


Officials at companies that Alibaba hoped to attract often visited to tell the engineers what they wanted. "When they walked into the apartment and saw our messy rooms, they looked very curious,"  Wang recalls.


 Ma stayed away, but the engineers felt his presence. "When we weren't making much progress, Jack appeared in my dream,"  Wang says.


The revamped site made its debut in 2008. Three years later,  Ma decided its Chinese name needed to be changed to Tian Mao, or "sky cat." Others disagreed. "We thought the name was too edgy,"  Tsai recalls.


 Ma eventually won. Sales through the site, known as Tmall in English, are up nearly tenfold in three years, research firm Euromonitor says.


Many potential investors are closely following Alibaba's battle to woo China's 500 million smartphone users. Online chat services are emerging as a major force in e-commerce, but the mobile-messaging business is dominated by Tencent's WeChat, which has 355 million monthly active users.


Messrs. Ma and Tsai gathered a team of young engineers and asked what Alibaba could buy to boost its mobile presence, according  Tsai. One engineer mentioned Momo, spreading quickly among young mobile users.  Ma noted that Weibo has lots of users on mobile.


Ma isn't reluctant to use the force of his personality. He cajoled and pressured Alibaba employees last fall to increase the use of the company's Laiwang chat app. "Everyone can help build up Laiwang. Don't tell me you can't,"  Ma wrote in a memo.


He told each employee to find 100 new Laiwang users outside the company by the end of November. Anyone who failed shouldn't expect a red packet, he warned, a reference to the envelopes containing employee bonuses that are given out for the Lunar New Year in China.


"They were sending invitations through WeChat, email, just about every possible way," says  Wei, the former Alibaba.com chief executive. A few hundred Alibaba employees asked him to join Laiwang.


He did but uses the chat service to talk to former Alibaba colleagues. He says he is on good terms with the company.


Alibaba said in November that Laiwang had more than 10 million users. In a January memo,  Ma said he was proud of the sign-up efforts by Alibaba employees. Some employees who dropped their WeChat accounts after being prodded by  Ma are using the service again because most of their friends do.


Even after stepping down as chief executive, Ma exerts his influence at Alibaba's headquarters campus in Hangzhou, designed with a Silicon Valley feel that includes brightly colored cafeterias, gyms and recreational areas with pool tables.


No one lives in his old apartment, but Alibaba uses it occasionally to work on new projects.  Ma has said he wants to turn it into a museum someday.


More from The Wall Street Journal





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