We talked to the man who knows more about Alibaba’s beginning than any other American


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We talked to the man who knows more about Alibaba’s beginning than any other American
Image Credit: Andy Mitchell

The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is expected to start trading on the New York Stock Exchange on September 19.

Most people know next to nothing about the huge company (which employs more people than Facebook and Yahoo combined), but American manager-turned-filmmaker Porter Erisman watched it struggle through its most pivotal early years.

After working for Alibaba and directly with its charismatic founder Jack Ma for more than eight years, Erisman started working on a documentary, “Crocodile in the Yangtze.”

The documentary tells Alibaba’s incredible story through old footage and photos, and highlights how it managed to beat out eBay in China despite being the underdog in almost every way. The film is an excellent, entertaining watch and was recently released for purchase, so Business Insider touched base with Erisman to ask him about his experience putting it together.

Even though he left the company over five years ago, he’s incredibly proud of the company as its IPO looms.

“I always knew this day would come, and I knew that it would wake up the world to just how strong innovation is on the internet in China right now,” Erisman says. “There’s this misconception that a lot of Chinese internet companies just copy the US model, and take it to China. But Alibaba’s businesses are so different than any eBay or Amazon model.”

Erisman started working at Alibaba right after the tech bubble burst, and stayed there for more than eight years. He asked for Ma’s blessing before embarking on his journey to make the film, with the stipulation that the film would tell Alibaba’s story totally from his point of view, with no involvement from the company, highlighting not just its successes, but all the mistakes as well.

Ma gave him the green-light and over the next three years Erisman traveled around the world tracking down more than 200 hours of footage from 35 different sources and stitching it together.

When he eventually showed Ma the finished product, his old boss was hard to read.

“I really couldn’t tell what his reaction was,” Erisman said. “I felt like he didn’t love it but that he didn’t hate it. I think that he thought it was fair.”

About a year later, Ma called him up and asked if he would be willing to show it at the 10th anniversary of Taobao, Alibaba’s eBay-esque e-commerce site. 

Erisman says that Ma could see the value in having the company’s new employees learn from its early ups-and-downs. In general, Erisman says that working with Ma was an inspiring experience.

“In the film you see him dressed up in a costume, or dancing around, but you don’t get to see him as a day-to-day manager,” Erisman says. “His greatest skill is as a coach. He brought together a team of ordinary people with no special backgrounds, and he managed to get them to work together to do extraordinary things.”

In the beginning, back when he started Alibaba in his apartment with 17 friends in 1999, Ma told people that he would resign in four years, because he wasn’t trained to be a CEO. He would have to bring in an expert. But by the time that Erisman left the company, Ma had realized that successfully leading a company didn’t necessarily take any special background or skills.

“He was a very demanding leader,” Erisman says. “A manager would set a goal and then he would triple it. Everyone would push back and say ‘That’s impossible!’ but he’d tell them that it was possible, and that they could find a way. He has this reality distortion field where he can make you think that something is possible that you would never have imagined.”

Erisman has shown the film all over the world, and that he loves the opportunity to show it to entrepreneurs, who can connect to the struggles of starting a business.

“I haven’t really made any money from the film, but I get paid in experiences,” Erisman says. “For the last year and a half, my travel has been covered. I get these emails, out of the blue, to come show the film that I can’t turn down. I’ve been to six continents, and 50 cities in just the last year alone. My life has been flying around, meeting entrepreneurs, going to places that I’ve never expected. I’ve been having the time of my life.”

Erisman’s film “Crocodile in the Yangtze” finally is available on Vimeo to rent or to buy.

This story originally appeared on Business Insider.

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