Services & Software

Film chronicles early days of IPO giant Alibaba

Vimeo plays host to a documentary about the Chinese e-commerce company, featuring a look at CEO "Crazy Jack" Ma.

Taluswood Films

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba could be the US's biggest IPO ever, but a former employee is offering the public a chance to see the company in its early days, when the Internet was still an unheard-of notion in China.

After working for Alibaba for eight years, Porter Erisman, a former vice president for the company, decided to tell his story about the iconic website and its leader, Jack Ma, in a documentary titled "Crocodile in the Yangtze," released Wednesday on Vimeo.

"They called him 'Crazy Jack,' but for eight wild years I called this former English teacher 'boss,'" Erisman says in the film's trailer. The footage opens with Ma on stage in front of a huge Alibaba crowd. He's dressed as a rocker in studded clothing, sporting a nose ring and a massive red mohawk.

The film quickly switches to a news interview with Ma in his usual style of dress, a button-down shirt, with his interviewer saying, "You don't make any money. You've got extraordinary claims and you make nothing."

The rest of the trailer paints a picture of a film that showcases the company's rise from one man's crazy idea to a force that even the well established eBay couldn't contend with. The film's title alludes to this now famous quote from Ma: "eBay may be a shark in the ocean, but I'm a crocodile in the Yangtze River. If the crocodile fights the shark in the ocean, it will lose, but if we fight in the river, we win."

When eBay launched its China site in 2004, Alibaba decided to counter with its own consumer site, Taobao, and succeeded in edging the US giant out of the market. The Chinese company is now valued somewhere between $150 billion and $250 billion and is preparing to go public in the US. Once a footnote in US media coverage of Yahoo, which owns a stake in the company, Alibaba has captured the American spotlight with the possibility of having the largest initial public offering in US history.

"Our competitors are in America's Silicon Valley, not in China," Ma told his employees during a scene in the movie trailer. "Our brains are just as good as theirs."

Crocodile in the Yangtze - The Alibaba Story - Trailer from Taluswood Films on Vimeo.

Erisman, the documentary's director, calls the period "a revolution" and the film a look "behind the scenes of a rising China."

The film also documents the Chinese government's resistance to the Internet as Ma heralded its value.

"I think it's very important to enter the international market," Ma says in one of the preview clips. "If one day we turn on the computer and everything is foreign, then it will be too late and we will regret it."

To make the film, Erisman went through 200 archived videos from 35 different sources. He debuted the movie in 2012 at a film festival and has since made the rounds of 20 such festivals, as well as student and entrepreneur gatherings in 50 cities. This is the first time he is distributing the film widely.

Vimeo users can either rent the film for $4.95 or buy it for $9.95. Erisman said the piece is meant to teach others about the successes and mistakes of the company.