I still vividly remember the last time I visited Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou. It was the summer of 2016. I was in town for the G20 Summit and happened to have another unrelated meeting with one of Alibaba’s original co-founders, who functioned as Jack Ma’s chief of staff at the time – an “old Alibaba veteran” (“老阿里人”).
The office building I went to was not one of the large, modern, steel-and-glass structures that are commonplace on Alibaba’s vast campus (or really any tech giant’s corporate campus). It was a brand new building, architecturally styled as a traditional estate befitting a wealthy family in ancient China. It had rooms for conducting tea ceremonies, playing Go or Chinese chess, and practicing calligraphy, along with several spacious courtyards to do Tai-chi. It’s where Jack Ma, his most senior lieutenants, and closest personal staff work – the true HQ within the HQ.
The building was not only the polar opposite of the typical look and feel of a tech company, but of any kind of corporation formed under a capitalist market economy. It was the newest “old” building I’ve ever been to, beautiful and understated in some ways, but unnecessarily extravagant and self-indulgent in many other ways.
While I no longer remember anything about that meeting, this building where the meeting happened clearly left an impression on me. I remember thinking at the time: is Alibaba no longer a fast-growing company, but a “mature” one? After all, that building is the kind of thing that big companies with lots of money with no good place to invest that money spend money on.
A few weeks ago, a thought-provoking op-ed published in the Financial Times’s Chinese language edition by two seasoned observers of China's tech industry, Yang Fangxi and Wang Yingliang, more or less confirmed my suspicion since stepping out of that building six years ago. (Yang also used to work for Alibaba’s North America division.)
One observation from this op-ed, aptly titled “The Conflict Between Alibaba’s ‘Maturation’, Innovation, and Corporate Culture”, that most viscerally illustrates Alibaba’s “maturity” is in 2019, during Alibaba’s 20th anniversary celebration, the company introduced color-coded badges to all employees. Different colors correspond to different people’s seniority, so who is new and who has been around for a long time is completely obvious.
According to Yang and Wang, these color-coded badges have this effect:
"In a large company where being an ‘old Alibaba veteran’ carries unique sway and privileges, allowing everyone to easily see a person’s ‘employee age’ can quickly help determine that person’s true level of seniority and ‘soft power’. This type of system further calcifies the existing power structure and institutionalizes a bureaucratic culture, where seniority automatically confers authority. Under this environment, employees’ need for psychological safety is hard to satisfy." (This translation is my own, not official)
Implicit in this argument is that without “psychologically safety” – which in the corporate culture context means a mental state where employees of any level feel safe to express their opinions without fear of punishment – innovation, creativity, and the growth that comes with them will cease to exist.
Alibaba’s color-coded badges are not necessarily unique in tech. Amazon has had a similar scheme for longer. As much as Jack Ma hated being called the “Amazon of China” and tried hard to highlight differences between his baby and Jeff Bezos’s, there are many eerie similarities between these two tech giants. Even on the “unnecessarily extravagant HQ” front, before Jack Ma built his traditional Chinese courtyards to practice Tai-chi, Jeff Bezos built the “Amazon Spheres” – essentially three giant greenhouse domes that contain a nice coffee shop, some meeting spaces, and every single rainforest plant from every corner of the world. Why? Because…Amazon the rainforest?
I wouldn’t be surprised if Alibaba referenced the Amazon Spheres before greenlighting its traditional Chinese courtyards. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Alibaba referenced Amazon’s color-coded badges before rolling out its own.
If the ultimate goal is to grow and mature at the same time, Amazon is not a bad example to follow. But is it working for Alibaba?
A Lost Decade or Switching Engines?
If we use its stock price alone as a barometer, it certainly looks like Alibaba is heading towards a lost decade. In 2014, Alibaba’s IPO on the NYSE was priced at $68. Fast forward to 2022, the stock is currently trading at around $80. If you are an investor who was lucky enough to get a chunk of Alibaba at its IPO, but unlucky enough to have held every share until today, you would’ve made a paltry 17% return.
Of course, it’s not at all true that Alibaba did nothing right in the last eight years, as its current stock price may reflect. What is hard is building and maintaining a creative and cohesive corporate culture, no matter how many good (or bad) things a company does, or how favorable (or unfavorable) the market reacts to its actions at any given time.
Perhaps having color-coded badges is not such a bad idea! Knowing who has seniority and thus the institutional knowledge about a product or business unit can be quite helpful in accelerating new employees’ learning. Perhaps having a HQ building that’s architecturally symbolic of both the company’s cultural roots and ambitious longevity of lasting 102 years to produce some workplace unity is not so bad either. After all, Alibaba has never been shy about experimenting with quirky activities to build a unique corporate culture. My personal favorite is where Jack Ma officiates an annual mass wedding for every employee who got married that year – building a literal “Alibaba family”.
There is a popular airplane analogy often used in the tech startup world. Every early-stage startup is basically “building a plane while flying it”. Most of these “startup planes” struggle to fly and eventually crash. Only a small handful of them successfully take off and keep flying.
Alibaba is one of them.
Mature or not, growing or not, Alibaba is now in the “flying a plane while switching engines” phase, as Yang and Wang accurately identified. It is a rarified phase, because few tech companies make it this far to begin with. And it is not a foregone conclusion that a company can survive this “maturing” phase, just because it survived the previous “startup” phase (see Yahoo). So it's very hard to know if the color-coded badges, or the HQ with traditional architecture, or something else that Alibaba may try in the future will be the right “engine” or not.
The only honest answer is perhaps what every mindful westerner’s favorite Chinese farmer would say: maybe.
(本篇中文版文章是读者 Ben Yu 做的编译，我做了一些修改后发表。非常感谢Ben的贡献！)
2016 年的夏天，我去阿里巴巴在杭州的总部，直到今天我依然记得那天看到的场景。我当时参加 G20 峰会，碰巧也约了阿里的联合创始人之一开会，他直接向马云汇报。在阿里内部习惯于称呼他们为“老阿里人”，而且都有金庸小说人物的代号。
几周前，FT 中文网发布了一篇发人深思的专栏文章，作者是两位资历深厚的中国科技行业观察家杨方曦和王英良。这篇文章或多或少证实了我在 6 年前的怀疑。（杨方曦也曾在阿里巴巴北美部门工作过。）
这篇文章的标题是《阿里的“成熟化”、创新和企业文化的矛盾》，文章中提到的一个观察是在 2019 年阿里 20 年会大庆之际，阿里推出全新的工牌体系，通过不同的颜色标记在职年份。谁的资历深，谁的资历浅在这个新的体系下一目了然。
如果我们仅看阿里的股价，那么它似乎在进入一个“失去的十年”阶段。2014 年 阿里巴巴在纽交所 IPO 的股价是 68 美元，现在则是 80 美元左右。如果你是一位有幸在阿里首次 IPO 的时候就得到了一大笔股份，但又不幸的一直持有到今天的投资者，只获得了 17% 的回报。
也许有颜色标记的工牌体系不是坏事。知道谁的资历更深，可能有助于新员工加速学习，可以更快了解到有关产品或业务的背景知识。或者有一座象征公司文化和表达持续发展 102 年的总部楼也是有意义的。毕竟，阿里巴巴从不羞于尝试新奇事物，从而建立一种独特的企业文化。我很喜欢的一个例子是马云为每年新结婚的每一位员工主持一场年度集体婚礼——某种意义上建立了一个名副其实的阿里巴巴大家庭。