What was the Silk Road?

The silk road is a term used to describe an ancient trade route which spanned from east to west linking China to the Mediterranean Sea over hundreds of years. Taking its name from the trade in silk which came from China it was a route that made many merchants wealthy but more importantly helped spread crucial ideas which benefited humanity as a whole.

Although silk was a major export, many other things were traded on the Silk Road including minerals such as silver and diamonds from India, animals such as horses for war, perfumes and spices and many other luxuries paid for with coins of various currencies found across the route.

A pottery horse head and neck (broken from the body), from the Chinese Eastern Han dynasty (1st–2nd century CE)

Technology was also a shared commodity across the route. The famous terracotta soldiers of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China now thought to have been engineered with knowledge and skills carried over from Ancient Greece via the Silk Road.

This then was not so much a road as an artery that connected differing cultures allowing the collective physical and intellectual wealth to be shared across multiple boarders. It was also subject to the power play and politics which such an important system attracts.

This then brings us to Alibaba, Jack Ma and the merits of the internet and modern eCommerce. A system of multiple silk roads weaving in and out and around each other which has sculptured the transition of wealth, ideas and materials in the 21st century.

Who is Jack Ma?

Jack Ma is the founder and executive chairman of Alibaba group and a man i personally find quite inspiring. Born in Shengzhau, Zheiang Province in China right in the middle of communism in 1964. Jack self taught himself english by traveling 100 miles a day from his home to the Hangzhou Hotel to offer free tours to tourists. This allowed not only for him to practice his english but to converse and get a different understanding of the world from a western point of view. It was at this time a tourist gave him the nickname ‘Jack’ which he stuck with.

After being knocked back from many universities and colleges he studied at his local teaching college and then went on to struggle to find a job, applying and failing for 30 jobs at places like KFC, the local police force and was knocked back from Harvard 10 times. “I went for a job with the police; they said, ‘you’re no good,’” Mr. Ma told Rose (interview). “I even went to KFC when it came to my city. Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy …” His persistence and ability to keep on is what sets Jack apart.

After visiting a friend in America in 1994 he discovered the internet. Upon searching for the term ‘Beer’ he noticed there was no information on Chinese beer on the web and after building a site about China was amazed to receive emails from other Chinese people wondering who he was. This he found greatly inspiring and went back to China with a mission to get as many businesses online as he could. Many people in China at the time told him he was mad, China was about as far from silicon valley as could be had at the time but Jack believed in the internet and so kept on. Within 3 years his ambition to get as many Chinese sites online had brought in $800,000 dollars. After heading government based IT company in 1999, Jack quite and with 18 friends he created Alibaba from his apartment.

Watch Jack Ma give the first speech to those 18 people in his apartment all those years ago (very cool).
Alibaba didn’t make a penny of profit in its first 3 years, instead he was spurred on by the feedback from people Jack helped get rich who had established themselves on Alibaba. He came up with the name while sitting in a cafe in Malaysia and the way he came about it sort of sums up the vision of the man (I also like the way he conducted his research).

One day I was in Malaysia in a coffee shop, and I was thinking Alibaba is a good name. And then a waitress came, and I said, “Do you know about Alibaba?” And she said yes. I said, “What do you know about?“, and she said, “Open Sesame“. And I said, “Yes, this is the name!” Then I went on to the street and found 30 people and asked them, “Do you know Alibaba?” People from India, people from Germany, people from Tokyo and China … they all knew about Alibaba. Alibaba – open sesame. Alibaba is a kind, smart business person, and he helped the village. So … easy to spell, and globally known. Alibaba opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies. We also registered the name “Alimama”, in case someone wants to marry us!”

What is Alibaba and why does it compare to the Silk Road of the past?

Alibaba is now the worlds largest retailer. Beginning as a business to business retail portal connecting Chinese manufacturers to overseas buyers.  There are many different facets to Alibaba and one being a consumer based site similar to eBay called Tabao which hosts over a billion products (you thought eBay was big). It is one of the top 20 sites visited globally and accounts for 60% of parcels delivered, just in China alone. Added to this Alipay escrow service (imagine paypal to eBay) accounting for half of all Chinese online transactions and you can see the enormity of the marketplace created by Jack Ma, and why it IPO’s (initial public offering) was at $231 billion, the largest in US stock market history. But how does this link to the Silk road?

Beyond its enormous reach and Chinese influence not seen in a global capacity for centuries, it sums up a lost metaphor which is the world of eCommerce in business. Image the roads and arteries of the silk road are now cables between computers and the traffic now travels at the speed of light. The ideas promoted on websites which acquire trust through trade and exchange is how humanity expands as a force for good. It’s how we acquired the Indian number system and how architecture and art expanded its influence in days gone by. If you need an understanding of how art and business are linked (they are often two sides of the same creative coin) then look no further than the Medici and the renaissance and what was achieved in 15th – 17th century Italy.

In what could seem like fraught times between east and west, it is to trade and enterprise we should be looking to to further the understanding that leads to collaboration in the modern world. With the likes of Alibaba expanding the influence of individuals, we can look forward to new markets, new opportunities to get creative and build new businesses that address the worlds problems.

Further Reading – Click On Each Book For More Info! (via amazon.com)

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