Michael Mang is a busy man these days.
As the Head of Business Development and Marketing, APAC and MENA for Chinese e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba, Mang is always travelling from one country to another to extol the values of Alibaba and its various platforms.
e27 managed to catch up with Mang one morning here in Singapore at an Alibaba event held to educate the Singaporean public about the platform. He will host events like this across markets — all to announce a simple manifesto, “We want to make it easy to do business anywhere.”
Strategic Southeast Asia
His first stop in Southeast Asia (SEA) though is Singapore. “Singapore is the hub of SEA in regards to partners and service providers, so we think it is a strategic location to make our presence felt,” he says.
“SEA is really really important to Alibaba. The region has 30 per cent of Alibaba’s registered users, so it’s a really big and important region,” he adds.
Alibaba has about 600,000 users in Singapore, 460,000 users in Thailand, and over a million in Malaysia.
“We want to grow this a lot more,” shares Mang.
As to how he is going to achieve this feat, Mang believes that it’s all about confidence, trust and having the right partners.
For example, Alibaba now has a policy called the ‘trade assurance programme’ in order to give sellers confidence when using Alibaba’s platform. Basically, this trade assurance programme works in two ways. The first is that it uses Big Data analysis to create a credit report on each merchant, giving potential buyers more insight on the people they are purchasing from.
The second is a form of insurance. For example, if the shipment doesn’t arrive or is low quality, the customer can file a complaint and try to resolve the issue. If after 15 days it is not resolved, Alibaba will refund the money back to the buyer.
When it comes to partners, Mang is open about the difficulties that a region like SEA provides.
He says, “We understand the complexity and diversity of the customers and communities we are dealing with in SEA, and it is almost impossible for us to hire the amount of people needed to localise the services. Hence, we engage partners on the ground that help us a lot, like Singpost.”
In the case of Singpost, Singapore’s national postal service, the company has partnered with Alibaba on something called ‘Alibaba merchant delivery scheme’, which basically offers cheaper shipping for merchants selling via Alibaba’s platform.
Mang adds, “We are engaging more and more partners to serve the local populations better because they understand the culture, language, etc.”
“I think this is because Indians are very tech-savvy and inquisitive, so Alibaba really is a very busy platform for Indian customers,” he says.
Mang and his team “go to remote places like Surat and Pune (in India) to understand the customers on the ground and meet our partners. We also provide training to the SMEs there to teach how to get onboard the Alibaba platform.”
Encourage e-commerce startups
The impact of startups, especially e-commerce startups, in this part of the world has not been lost on Mang and Alibaba.
However, instead of crushing the competition, Mang and his team are going for the softer approach. “I see that there is a great market here for young people who want to start their own businesses. The Internet has made this much easier than it was in the past, and we want to be part of this,” he states.
Alibaba is also considering the creation of something like an e-commerce community, where the company will pick 50-100 of the best and brightest e-commerce startups from the region and have them share their stories and best practices with other companies.
A big part of Alibaba’s mission in the region is to educate companies on how to better do business in China and with Chinese companies.
Mang believes that APAC companies need to get started now and they need to understand the cultural difference of the Chinese market. “Most importantly, I think they need to get out of their comfort zone because the Chinese market has been open for a while and there is already a lot of local competition online,” he shares.
However, Mang adds that SEA companies have their own competitiveness and their own niches that Chinese consumers want. Regional companies need to capitalise on this as soon as possible.
“They need to try, fail and try again,” he adds.
Something that e-commerce companies and merchants cannot ignore is social media. Mang reveals that for regional companies coming onboard Alibaba’s platform, Alibaba and the sellers will handle marketing and promotional efforts together.
“SMEs cannot rely on just the platform to get the word out; they have to do their own promotions, their own branding,” he believes.
As for his biggest challenge in the region, Mang believes it will be something he calls “activation”.
Basically what activation means in this context is the creation of an active user, instead of just a casual observer.
“Sometimes people come to these events, hear our stories and get motivated, but go back and do nothing and that is something we have to work on,” he says.
He adds, “People need to at least to get on the platform and give it a try to learn from the process.”
Mang says that he is going to continue marketing Alibaba and its platforms at the grassroots levels. As for competition from regional players like Lazada, Flipkart and the like, he does not seem perturbed. In fact, he seems optimistic.
“We don’t see the market as competition or saturation, we see it as partnership and ecosystem,” he concludes.