11.11 Unity in Diversity

As one of Alibaba’s goal, globalization is playing an increasing role in the company’s operations. Not only that the company is opening offices in many parts of the world, but it recently started a program called the Alibaba Global Leadership Academy: a transformational talent development program dedicated to fostering the future 32 international leaders of Alibaba and of the new economy.

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7 of us, clearly representing the diversity of individuals in the AGLA class, were selected to perform a dance and a song for the promotion of the 11.11 event this year. The Organizational and Cultural department of Alibaba put together a team of professional dancers, choreographers, videographers, photographers and sound engineers to guide us through this entertaining process. The performances spanned over 2 days and was a clear representation of Alibaba’s globalization goals, happy and friendly approach to business, understanding of the Chinese culture and devotion of its staff to realizing the company’s goals.

Front and Centre, You Get What You See

On October 23, Dean and I went to a fashion show in Shanghai sponsored by TMall, Alibaba’s Chinese B2C e-commerce arm. To be honest, neither of us are particularly fashionable people – we’d rather be labeled “classy”, a.k.a. boring and old-fashioned. However, this was no ordinary fashion show; it was so much more than that.

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Before we even entered the seating area inside the stadium, we saw many beautiful young women walking around us, live-streaming to their online audiences on their smart phones. Live streaming has recently become extremely popular in China, and was also the central theme of the entire show that evening.

How did live streaming connect a fashion show with an online shopping platform? It enables the “See Now, Buy Now” experience, a first-of-its-kind concept successfully demonstrated by the TMall marketing team that evening.

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Everyone at the show was “multi-tasking”, and that was intended. We not only followed the show live in front of us, we were also on the TMall app watching the event being broadcast live. From one click-away, the live chat room was flooded with funny comments from all over the country, and we could immediately get a sense of how every minute of the show was received.

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What’s more, as the model walked down the stage, the exact items she was wearing were getting pushed onto the TMall page on my phone. I was able to immediately find out the details of the items I was interested in, including the prices, availability, and close-up pictures.

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Even when I dived deep on my phone, going through the item detail page closely, I wasn’t losing track of the show at all – a small screen with the live feed was just on the lower right corner of the item page. Never once during the show did I feel that I was distracted by my phone; in fact, the live streaming component only completed my viewing experience. A fashion show was no longer just a show but a full shopping experience – it attracted an audience and guided the audience to the exact items, converting our “offline attention” to online traffic and eventually sales.

The show was innovative and a huge success, but most importantly, it was a demo of what our future shopping experience will look like. Offline is not going to go away but play a very different role. Retail stores may no longer carry inventory but become a place for consumers to try on things, and to experience things. Consumers then place orders on their phones, which may well be delivered to their doorstep before they themselves get home. After I arrived at Alibaba, I have realized that this vision is becoming reality at a faster speed than we think. Well, guess which company is right in the center of all this transformation?

A Night to Remember – The 2016 Singles Day Live Event in Shenzhen

I did not know what to expect when I found myself volunteering to be one of four representatives from the AGLA class to assist with the 2016 Singles Day Gala in Shenzhen. While I knew that this event was huge (150 – 200 million viewers expected in 2016), my previous private equity experience in China had been more of a “fly-in, fly-out China expert”, with a theoretical understanding of China rather than a practical one. For example, I had never ever shopped for anything on Singles Day (which might also be a function of not being, well, in need of retail therapy for the sad state this event is supposed to treat).

From the start, our role in the event was shrouded in secrecy—with good reason. When we were finally briefed on what we would be doing in Shenzhen, one could practically feel the excitement build among us. We would be acting as liaisons to the personal assistants/managers of several of the international celebrities, essentially using our flexibility in English and Chinese to bridge the gap between the Chinese teams executing the event and the celebrities’ English speaking staff.  While my three AGLA classmates had specific celebrities assigned to them, I seemed to have drawn the short straw as the “roving backup” who would come in to plug any gaps or support any additional needs. While a bit disappointed to be not assigned to Scarlett Johansson or Kobe Bryant, my role turned out to be a great way to get to see more of the event than I might have, if I had been focused on assisting one celebrity.

The two days I spent at the event were a whirlwind of controlled chaos. It seemed that everywhere I turned people were moving quickly, rushing from one place to the next speaking quickly into their phones or walkie-talkies, typing at breakneck speed on their computers, or viewing footage or stage sets with the same fierce concentration that one might expect in the middle of a life-or-death operation. One frequently saw David Hill, the veteran Hollywood producer in charge of this whole gala, walking around the venue confirming that everything was going according to his plan. As newcomers to this event, it was a little (okay, a lot) intimidating, but the team led by Jessica quickly made sure that we knew where we fit into this gigantic project.

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An event of this scale, with international celebrities such as David and Victoria Beckham, Kobe Bryant, One Republic, and Victoria’s Secret Angels, as well as Chinese celebrities such as TFBoys (a very popular Chinese boy band), Coco Lee, and Hua Chenyu (a Chinese rap singer), would normally be the work of three to five months of planning, negotiation, storyboarding, stage designing, and rehearsing. From what I understand, the team put this together in far less time, probably closer to two months. It’s a testament to the skill and dedication that Alibaba brings to everything it does that this event was possible in such a compressed timeframe.

I could write several posts about the performances during the live event. I could write about a very odd performance by TFBoys (a famous Chinese boy band) that included several dancers dressed as elves (I could not stop giggling during that performance because of how earnest the dancers looked, despite the pointed elf ears and the ancient Greek inspired costumes). I could write about my first experience of Chinese rap, which was somewhat surreal. I could write about Jolin Tsai and Coco Lee, or Kobe Bryant and Thomas Mueller. I could write about the card trick that Jack Ma led the audience to do as the countdown to the last 10 minutes of the gala began. I could write about the interactivity of this event, with games and special deals available to viewers in the live event and at home using Tmall’s app. But I won’t. You can read about this on many news sites. What I want to tell you about are the people from Alibaba whom I saw.

One thing that always stood out to me during the orientation for the AGLA class and in the discussions I’ve had with “Aliren” (employees with at least 3 years of experience at Alibaba) is the sense that people are here not just to “do a job”, but are here because they see it as almost a “vocation”, a calling to do something that really has an impact. It’s why people were in that venue at 2am working to get everything perfect for the live event on November 10. They believed in what they were doing.

I wish I could name every one of the Alibaba employees who worked on this, so that you would know who they are. But I can’t, both because that would make this an incredibly long post, and also because I don’t have all their names.

Despite the grand scale of what I saw, what I will always remember of this Singles Day are the tireless and dedicated people I worked with. They pulled together an amazing, well-executed idea, rolled with unexpected changes, and delivered a truly world-class live event to millions of viewers in China and around the world. When the countdown officially reached zero at midnight on November 10, and the golden confetti filled the air over the stage, it was as if a similar explosion of joy, relief, and excitement burst in all of our hearts. There were tears of joy, after, when we gathered together for a group photograph. (And a lot of very loudly growling stomachs, as most of us had been too busy to eat or drink during the last six or seven hours.)

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The happy but exhausted team takes a group photo to remember this night (uh, morning)

Signing Off,

Dean H, Lucas K.T Lee and Qian Zhang

Dean is a change agent with 9 years of experience of living and working in China. He has developed strong skills in helping organizations craft new business models and develop appropriate tools for a successful transition in to the digital era.

Lucas is a former lawyer, private equity investor and recent MBA graduate. He loves adventure, fine whisky and deep intellectual conversations.

A Shanghai native who spent her most transformative years in the New England area of the US, Qian is passionate about international macroeconomics, the financial markets, and economic empowerment of the underprivileged.

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