WSJ – Comments on Alibaba “Singles Day” Results

On November 10th, the WSJ reviewed Alibaba results and the Gross Merchandising Volume or “GMV” metric used to measure performance of e-marketplace companies such as AliBaba and others. I find GMV and related platform business model metrics not well understood. These will be increasingly important as growth of “customer to customer” platform networks accelerate in healthcare and other sectors. Below is a full copy of my comments. Link to the WSJ article and edited comments at http://tinyurl.com/n369mha

Eeading about Alibaba’s business model, I recall the “eyeball model” driving the e-commerce explosion in the 1990’s. The premise- attract large numbers of users/customers to your site, generate value by product and service sales and, most important, generate scale to drive advertising revenue and “exponential” future earnings. Some did it well such as eBay, but the model spawned hundreds of new ventures and most failed. Why? Management, undercapitalized, poor execution strategy- these are the usual reasons most ventures fail. But there was also a fatal flaw here- the eyeball model at the time could not create a universally successful business in all sectors without careful positioning and deep pockets, not the outcome many investors expected. “Build it and they will come”- they didn’t.

Fast forward to today. Alibaba reported very impressive results on “Singles Day”, I.e., 111114, reporting 35 billion yuan ( about $5.75 billion) in the 24 hour Singles Day period. GMV or Gross Merchandise Value is their key business model metric- high GMV translates to higher revenue and presumably long term earnings growth. Following a $25 billion IPO two months ago, there is great pressure to show high GMV.

Several comments here. No question Alibaba is an outstanding success by any measure. One question is long term sustainability. Having merchants offer steep discounts ( 50 % in some cases) to create high single day sales volume looks like a “loss leader” strategy- at least one analyst also questioned whether this is sustainable long term. Remember Groupon and LivingSocial issues. Secondly, note GMV shows total value of transactions sold through Alibaba’s marketplace platform and is not a well defined standard. GMV may include shipping charges, items that will be returned, and other components for the “customer to customer” sales via Alibaba’s platform. GMV is excellent for comparing marketplace companies, but each player may use different assumptions to calculate. Finally, recognize GMV is one of several platform model metrics such as Gross Transaction Volumes or GTV which is well suited for platforms using commission-based pricing strategies. Bottom line here- Alibaba’s success will spur other “GMV” centric new ventures as did the “eyeball” model- lets understand the definitions here and standardize, ensure the proper financial accounting and reporting practices are in place, and ensure the e-marketplace sector achieves the global market growth we all foresee.

Paul B. Silverman writes about entrepreneurship, healthcare, analytics, and strategy management and serves as Advisor, Speaker, Educator, and Managing Partner of the Gemini Business Group, LLC, a new venture development firm, and author of “8 Building Blocks To Launch, Manage, And Grow A Successful Business.” He also serves as Adjunct Professor in the School of Business at George Mason University. See more at Paul B. Silverman Blog and sign up for Entrepreneurship Today! email updates to track latest new venture developments.

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