A new documentary, Crocodile in the Yangtze, explores the founding of Alibaba.com, Chinas first successful Internet company, from tiny start-up to global empire.
A new documentary, Crocodile in the Yangtze, opens with a dreamlike sequence: Packed into Hangzhou’s Yellow Dragon Stadium in the fall of 2009, 16,000 Alibaba employees wave glow sticks in the darkness, singing and chanting their employer’s mantra (Ali-Ali-baba!, Ali-Ali-baba!). A massive dragon dance passes through the crowd. It’s a raucous environment not unlike a Premiership soccer match—only the soundtrack of The Lion King is blaring. Suddenly, Jack Ma, the company’s founder and CEO, emerges from a trap door in the gigantic stage, guitar in hand, belting out the first few verses of Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
“People outside the company assumed he was crazy,” intones the film’s narrator and director, Porter Erisman, in the film. “But those of us inside the company knew better.”
Crocodile in the Yangtze tells the story of the Jack Ma, the flamboyant entrepreneur who launched Alibaba.com, China’s biggest—and first—B2B e-commerce company. Ma founded the business from his one-bedroom apartment at the height of the tech bubble in 1999, and grew it into a massive public company with 20,000 employees.
Porter Erisman, who joined the company’s marketing department in 1999, stayed with the company for nearly a decade, witnessing company’s transformation firsthand.
What’s particularly unique—almost enigmatic—about the film is the breadth of archival footage Erisman was able to obtain and employ. In fact there are no new interviews with Ma or any other company employees—the film relies exclusively on actual clips of company meetings, parties, and speeches. It’s like the real-life version of The Social Network. Only in Mandarin.
I spoke with Erisman recently, and asked him why Ma had chosen to document his company’s interactions since the mid 1990′s.
“Even from that first day when they were in that apartment, they just felt they were creating something that was going to be big,” Erisman tells me, noting that Ma gave him permission to access the company’s archive. “They filmed everything. I had too much footage.”
In fact, the scene in Ma’s apartment is one of the most gripping scenes of the film; the scene is the literal birth of what will become one of the world’s biggest e-commerce companies. It’s strangely prophetic—and still stands as accurate.
“Americans are strong at hardware and systems,” Ma tells about a dozen future employees, as he stands somewhat awkwardly in his living room in February, 1999. “But on information and software, Chinese brains are just as good as theirs. If we are a good team and know what we want to do, one of us can defeat 10 of them. We can beat government agencies and big famous companies because of our innovative spirit. Yahoo’s stock will fall. Ebay’s stock will rise. And maybe after Ebay’s stock will fall, Alibaba’s will rise. The dream of the Internet won’t burst.”
Erisman, who holds an MBA from Northwestern, had no prior experience in film editing. “I couldn’t even open half the files,” he tells me. In 2010, he enrolled in the New York Film Academy to take an editing class, and eventually convinced his editing teacher, Guiseppe De Angelis, to help him edit the film.
The documentary sheds light on the difficulties of establishing an e-commerce company in China, where media and the Internet are controlled by the government. Before Alibaba.com, in fact, Jack Ma sought to create ChinaPages.com, a yellow pages site for businesses. But after multiple attempts at getting approval from the government, Ma retreated in defeat.
“It doesn’t matter if I failed,” Ma says in 1995. “At least I’ve passed the concept to others.”
Then, the film segues into Alibaba’s fight for market-share in China, where media pegged Alibaba’s rise against eBay as a David vs. Goliath fight.
As the company grew, especially after the dot-com bust of the early 2000s, Erisman documents the growing pains of an emerging start-up.
“Inside the company there was increasing chaos,” Erisman narrates midway through the film. “The organization had expended too quickly, and there was a growing division between the Chinese and International management teams. We were losing our way.”
Amidst the turmoil, the company launched TaoBao.com, which was a direct competitor to eBay. And though the company had raised hundreds of millions from venture capitalists, and sold 40 percent of the company to Yahoo for $1 billion, the company was burning through cash.
The film details the company’s war, and eventual victory over eBay in its battle for Chinese market share. But it also exposes the personal struggles of a CEO who is forced to make difficult decisions, and, at points, to confront his own failures and mistakes.
In one particularly emotional scene, Erisman recounts a phone call with Ma after the company laid off an entire American branch.
“He asked me if I thought he was a good person,” Erisman says. “I tried my best to reassure him.”
The film makes its premiere at the Sonoma International Film Festival on April 12, but Erisman is almost self-deprecatingly honest about the film’s chances of achieving any sort of mainstream success. He doesn’t even have a website set up, but the film does have a Facebook page. After Sonoma, Erisman will screen the documentary at the Palm Beach International Film Festival on April 14 and April 19, and then in Eugene, Oregon, on April 27, at the Disorient Asian American Film Festival.
His strategy is to show the film to as many entrepreneurs as possible, hoping to create buzz in the start-up community, which then might propel it outward.
“I’d love to show it at Facebook,” he says, noting the social network’s upcoming initial public offering. “To show them the good and the bad of becoming a Goliath.”