Competition in the Chinese internet has for years been about who controls your mobile apps. These days, giants are increasingly turning to offline scenarios, including what’s going on behind the dashboard in your car.
On Tuesday, Alibaba announced at the annual Shanghai Auto Show that it’s developing apps for connected cars that will let drivers find restaurants, queue up and make reservations at restaurants, order food and eventually complete a plethora of other tasks using voice, motion or touch control. Third-party developers are invited to make their in-car apps, which will run on Alibaba’s operating system AliOS.
Rather than working as standalone apps, these in-car services come in the form of “mini apps,” which are smaller than regular ones in exchange for faster access and smaller file sizes, in Alibaba’s all-in-one digital wallet Alipay . Alibaba has other so-called “super apps” in its ecosystem, such as marketplace Taobao and navigation service AutoNavi, but the payments solution clearly makes more economic sense if Alibaba wants people to spend more while sitting in a four-wheeler.
There’s no timeline for when Alibaba will officially roll out in-car mini apps but it’s already planning for a launch, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.
Making lite apps has been a popular strategy for China’s internet giants operating super apps that host outside apps, or “mini-apps”; that way users rarely need to leave their ecosystems. These lite apps are known to be easier and cheaper to build than a native app, although developers have to make concessions like giving their hosts certain level of access to user data and obeying rules as they would with Apple’s App Store. For in-car services, Alibaba says there will be “specific review criteria for safety and control” tailored to the auto industry.
Photo source: Alibaba
Alibaba’s move is indicative of a heightened competition to control the operating system in next-gen connected cars. For those who wonder whether the ecommerce behemoth will make its own cars given it’s aggressively infiltrated the physical space, like opening its own supermarket chain Hema, the company’s solution to vehicles appears to be on the software front, at least for now.
In 2017, Alibaba rebranded its operating system with a deep focus to put AliOS into car partners. To achieve this goal, Alibaba also set up a joint venture called Banma Network with state-owned automaker SAIC Motor and Dongfeng Peugeot Citroen, which is the French car company’s China venture, that would hawk and integrate AliOS-powered solutions with car clients. As of last August, 700 thousand AliOS-powered SAIC vehicles had been sold.
Alibaba competitors Tencent and Baidu have also driven into the auto field, although through slightly different routes. Baidu began by betting on autonomous driving and built an Android-like developer platform for car manufacturers. While the futuristic plan is far from bearing significant commercial fruit, it’s gained a strong foothold in self-driving with the most mileage driven in Beijing, a pivotal hub to test autonomous cars. Tencent’s car initiatives seem more nebulous. Like Baidu, it’s testing self-driving and like Alibaba, it’s partnered with industry veterans to make cars, but it’s unclear where the advantage lies for the social media and gaming giant in the auto space.
Alibaba’s arch-foe JD.com has long prided itself on owning and controlling its logistics services: couriers are treated as in-house staff and paid a basic income. But that will end soon as costs keep piling up for the ecommerce giant.
In an internal letter sent to the staff on Monday, JD founder and chief executive Richard Liu said the company will scrap basic salary for couriers as net loss amounted to 2.8 billion yuan ($420 million) in 2018 at JD’s logistics unit.
“The main reason is we had too few orders externally and too high a cost internally,” said Liu. “You all know that the last two years have been quite difficult for the company. We have been in the loss for more than ten years. If losses continue, JD Logistics only has two years of runway left with its capital raised.”
“I don’t think any of our delivery brothers want the company to go bankrupt,” Liu added.
JD Logistics became a standalone business in 2017 and subsequently raised billions of dollars from investors. JD still owns an 81.4 percent stake in the logistics arm, which was valued at around $13.5 billion at the time it raised $2.5 billion in February 2018.
Going forward, JD Logistics will continue to pay social insurances on behalf of its couriers, whose income is now based on the number of packages they handle. Liu assured that the old basic pay accounted for just 10 percent of the delivery staff’s total income so his goal is not to cut but boost salary for them, and eventually for JD Logistics as well.
But couriers are feeling the heat. Monthly pay used to average 7,000 yuan ($1,043) to 8,000 yuan, a Shenzhen-based courier told TechCrunch. Under the new scheme, he and his regional colleagues are earning 5,000 yuan to 6,000 yuan. Liu said in the letter that it’s “up to the couriers” to vie for better salaries, but it’s unclear how they can secure more packages in practice. JD said it has no comment on the issues addressed in Liu’s letter.
JD delivery staff are assigned on a regional basis. Assuming the number of parcels that go out of a region stays relatively constant, couriers can’t do much to boost their piecework wage. Already, some couriers have devised cheats that involve mailing parcels to themselves and rejecting them at delivery in order to jack up income, TechCrunch has learned.
Photo source: JD Logistics via Weibo
China’s express delivery market, like many other fledgling industries, is a relentless race that sees players offer heavily subsidized prices for customers to stay competitive. JD is going against companies like Alibaba that enlist a consortium of third-party contracted couriers rather than hiring their own to keep costs down.
JD’s fourth-quarter cost of revenues grew 20.7 percent to $16.8 billion, mainly driven by expenses related to logistics services alongside its online direct sales business, the company’s earnings report revealed. The Amazon-like service is finding ways to bulk up revenues by opening its logistics service to third-party clients as well as expanding overseas.
“It’s just a matter of time that JD will remove couriers’ minimum income. It can’t increase the price for customers, so it’s passing the cost to the couriers,” said Alex Cheong, founder and chief executive of Web2Ship, a service that enables price comparisons across different express shipping services, told TechCrunch.
“In China, the only thing [courier companies] can play is the volume game. There’s this mentality that as volume goes up, companies will get more efficient, and costs will lower. But growth is actually slowing,” Cheong warned.
JD denied that it practices the “996” routine though it sees itself as “a competitive workplace that rewards initiative and hard work” which is consistent with its “entrepreneurial roots,” a JD spokesperson told TechCrunch earlier.
The ecommerce titan has long promoted its in-house logistics arm as offering “quality” service, so it remains to see how the removal of basic income will affect couriers’ morale. But one thing is for sure. Under the piece rate system, JD knows its exact labor cost per unit and avoids paying for employees’ idle time.
In China, the laws limit work to 44 hours a week and require overtime pay for anything above that. But many aren’t following the rules, and a rare online movement puts a spotlight on extended work hours in China’s booming tech sector. People from all corners of society have rallied in support for improvements to startup working conditions, while some warn of hurdles in a culture ingrained in the belief that more work leads to greater success.
In late March, anonymous activists introduced 996.ICU, a domain name that represents the grueling life of Chinese programmers: who work from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week with the threat of ending up at ICU, a hospital’s intensive care unit. The site details local labor laws that explicitly prohibit overtime work without pay. The slogan “Developers’ lives matter” appears at the bottom in solemn silence.
A project called 996.ICU soon followed on GitHub, the Microsoft-owned code and tool sharing site. Programmers flocked to air their grievances, compiling a list of Chinese companies that reportedly practice 996 working. Among them were major names like e-commerce leaders Alibaba, JD.com and Pinduoduo, as well as telecoms equipment maker Huawei and Bytedance, the parent company of the red-hot short video app TikTok.
In an email response to TechCrunch, JD claimed it doesn’t force employees to work overtime.
“JD.com is a competitive workplace that rewards initiative and hard work, which is consistent with our entrepreneurial roots. We’re getting back to those roots as we seek, develop and reward staff who share the same hunger and values,” the spokesperson said.
Alibaba declined to comment on the GitHub movement, although founder Jack Ma shared on Weibo Friday his view on the 996 regime.
“No companies should or can force employees into working 996,” wrote Ma. “But young people need to understand that happiness comes from hard work. I don’t defend 996, but I pay my respect to hard workers!”
Bytedance declined to comment on whether its employees work 996. We contacted Huawei but had not heard back from the company at the time of writing.
996.ICU rapidly rocketed to be the most-starred project on GitHub, which claims to be the world’s largest host of source codes. The protest certainly turned heads among tech bosses as China-based users soon noticed a number of browsers owned by companies practicing 996 had restricted access to the webpage.
The 996 dilemma
The 996 list is far from exhaustive as it comprises of voluntary entries from GitHub users. It’s also hard to nail down the average work hours at a firm, especially a behemoth with tens of thousands of employees where policies can differ across departments. For instance, it’s widely acknowledged that developers work longer than their peers in other units. Anecdotally, TechCrunch has heard that bosses in some organizations often find ways to exploit loopholes, such as setting unrealistic KPIs without explicitly writing 996 into employee contracts.
“While our company doesn’t force us into 996, sometimes, poor planning from upper management forces us to work long hours to meet arbitrary management deadlines,” a Beijing-based engineer at a professional networking site told TechCrunch. This person is one of many sources who spoke anonymously because they are not authorized to speak to media.
BEIJING, CHINA APRIL 25, 2018: Passenger on a train in the Beijing Subway. Donat Sorokin/TASS (Photo by Donat SorokinTASS via Getty Images)
Other companies are more vocal about 996, taking pride in their excessively diligent culture. Youzan, the Tencent-backed, Shopify -like e-commerce solution provider, explicitly demanded staff to live out 996 work styles. Employees subsequently filed complaints in January to local labor authorities, which were said to have launched an investigation into Youzan.
A lot of companies are like Youzan, which equates long hours of work with success. That mindset can easily lure programmers or other staff into accepting extra work time. But employees are hardly the only ones burning out as entrepreneurs are under even greater pressure to grow the business they build from scratch.
“The recent debate over 996 brings to light the intense competition in China’s tech industry. To survive, startups and large companies have no choice but to work extremely hard. Some renown entrepreneurs even work over 100 hours a week,” Jake Xie, vice president of investment at China Growth Capital, an early-stage venture fund, told TechCrunch.
“Overtime is a norm at many internet companies. If we don’t work more, we fall behind,” said a founder of a Shenzhen-based mobile game developing startup. Competition is particularly cut-throat in China’s mobile gaming sector, where creativity is in short supply and a popular shortcut to success is knocking off an already viral title. Speed, therefore, is all it matters.
Meanwhile, a high-performing culture brewing in China may neutralize society’s resistance to 996. Driven individuals band together at gyms and yoga studios to sweat off stress. Getting group dinners before returning to work every night becomes essential to one’s social life, especially for those that don’t yet have children.
Photo source: Jack Ma via Weibo
“There is a belief that more hours equals more learning. I think some percentage of people want to put in more hours, and that percentage is highest for 22 to 30 years old,” a Shanghai-based executive at a tech company that values work-life balance told TechCrunch. “A few people in my team have expressed to us that they feel they cannot grow as fast as their friends who are working at companies that practice 996.”
“If you don’t work 996 when you’re young, when will you?” Wrote 54-year-old Jack Ma in his Weibo post. “To this day, I’m definitely working at least 12 to 12, let alone 996… Not everyone practicing 996 has the chance to do things that are valuable and meaningful with a sense of achievement. So I think it’s a blessing for the BATs of China to be able to work 996.”
(BAT is short for Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent for their digital dominance in China, akin to FANNG in the west.)
Demanding hours are certainly not unique to the tech industry. Media and literature have long documented the strenuous work conditions in China’s manufacturing sector. Neighboring Japan is plagued by karoshi or “death from overwork” among its salarymen and Korean companies are also known for imposing back-breaking hours on workers, compelling the government to step in.
Attempts to change
Despite those apparent blocks, the anti-996 movement has garnered domestic attention. The trending topic “996ICU gets blocked by large companies” has generated nearly 2,000 posts and 6.3 million views on Weibo. China’s state-run broadcaster CCTV chronicled the incident and accused overtime work of causing “substantial physical and psychological consequences” in employees. Outside China, Python creator Guido van Rossum raised awareness about China’s 996 work routine in a tweet and on a forum.
“Can we do something for 996 programmers in China?” He wrote in a thread viewed 16,700 times.
The 996 campaign that began as a verbal outcry soon led to material acts. Shanghai-based lawyer Katt Gu and startup founder Suji Yan, who say they aren’t involved in the 996.ICU project, put forward an Anti-996 License that would keep companies in violation of domestic or global labor laws from using its open source software.
But some cautioned the restriction may undermine the spirit of open source, which denotes that a piece of software is distributed free and the source code undergirding it is accessible to others so they can study, share and modify the creator’s work.
“I strongly oppose and condemn 996, but at the same time I disagree with adding discretionary clauses to an open source project or using an open source project for the political game,” You Yuxi, creator of open-source project Vue, which was released under the MIT license, said on the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, Weibo. (Gu denies her project has any “political factors.”)
Others take a less aggressive approach, applauding companies that embrace the more humane schedule of “9 am to 5 pm for 5 days a week” via the “995.WLB” GitHub project. (WLB is short for “work-life balance.”) On this list are companies like Douban, the book and film review site famous for its “slow” growth but enduring popularity with China’s self-proclaimed hippies. WeWork, the workplace service provider that bills itself as showing respect for employees’ lives outside work, was also nominated.
While many nominees on the 996 list appear to be commercially successful, others point to a selection bias in the notion that more work bears greater fruit.
“If a company is large enough and are revealed to be practicing 996, the issue gets more attention. Take Youzan and JD for example,” a Shanghai-based developer at an enterprise software startup told TechCrunch.
“Conversely, a lot of companies that do practice 996 but have not been commercially successful are overlooked. There is no sufficient evidence that shows a company’s growth is linked to 996… What bosses should evaluate is productivity, not hours.”
Or, as some may suggest, managers should get better at incentivizing employees rather than blindingly asking for more hours.
“As long as [China’s] economy doesn’t stall, it may be hard to stop 996 from happening. This is not a problem of the individual. It’s an economic problem. What we can do is offering more humane care and inspiring workers to reflect, ‘Am I working at free will and with passion?’ instead of looking at their work hours,” suggested Xie of China Growth Capital.
While a push towards more disciplined work hours may be slow to come, experts have suggested another area where workers can strive for better treatment.
“It seems almost all startups in China underfund the social security or housing fund especially when they are young, that is, before series A or even series B financing,” Benjamin Qiu, partner at law firm Loeb & Loeb LLP, explained to TechCrunch.
“Compared to 996, the employees have an even stronger legal claim on the above since it violates regulations and financially hurts the employee. That said, the official social credit and housing fund requirement in China appears to be an undue burden on the employer compared to the Silicon Valley, but if complied with, it could be understood as an offset of the 996 culture.”
A number of my interviewees spoke on conditions of anonymity, not because their companies promote 996 but, curiously, because their employers don’t want to become ensnarled in the 996 discussions. “We don’t need to tell people we support work-life balance. We show it with action,” said a spokesperson for one company.
With the public offering, Jumia becomes the first startup from Africa to list on a major global exchange.
In an updated SEC filing, Jumia indicated it is offering 13,500,000 ADR shares, for an opening price spread of $13 to $16 per share, representing 17.6 percent of all company shares. The IPO could raise up to $216 million for the internet venture.
Since the original announcement (and reflected in the latest SEC docs), Mastercard Europe pre-purchased $50 million in Jumia ordinary shares.
The IPO creates another milestone for Jumia. The company became the first African startup unicorn in 2016, achieving a $1 billion valuation after a funding round that included Goldman Sachs, AXA and MTN.
There’s a lot to breakdown on Jumia’s going public. The company is often dubbed the “Amazon of Africa,” and like Amazon, Jumia comes with its own mixed buzz. Jumia’s SEC F-1 prospectus offers us more insight into the venture, and perhaps any startup from Africa, thus far.
Founded in Lagos in 2012 with Rocket Internet backing, Jumia now operates multiple online verticals in 14 African countries. Goods and services lines include Jumia Food (an online takeout service), Jumia Flights (for travel bookings) and Jumia Deals (for classifieds). Jumia processed more than 13 million packages in 2018, according to company data.
Jumia’s original co-founders included Nigerian tech entrepreneurs Tunde Kehinde and Raphael, but both departed in 2015 to form other startups in fintech and logistics.
Starting in Nigeria, the company created many of the components for its digital sales operations. This includes its JumiaPay payment platform and a delivery service of trucks and motorbikes that have become ubiquitous with the Lagos landscape. Jumia has extended this infrastructure as an e-commerce fulfillment product called Jumia Services.
Jumia has also opened itself up to Africa’s traders by allowing local merchants to harness Jumia to sell online. The company has over 80,000 active sellers on the platform using the company’s payment, delivery, and data-analytics services, Jumia Nigeria CEO Juliet Anammah told TechCrunch a previously.
The most popular goods on Jumia’s shopping site include smartphones, washing machines, fashion items, women’s hair care products, and 32-inch TVs, according to Anammah.
Jumia an African startup?
Like Amazon, Jumia brings its own mix of supporters and critics. On the critical side, there are questions of whether it’s actually an African startup. The parent for Jumia Group is incorporated in Germany and current CEOs Jeremy Hodara and Sacha Poignonnec are French.
On the flipside, original Jumia co-founders (Kehinde and Afeodor) are African. The company is headquartered (and also incorporated) in Africa (Lagos), operates exclusively in Africa, pays taxes on the continent, employs 5,128 people in Africa (page 125 of K-1), and the CEO of its largest country operation (Nigeria) Juliet Anammah is Nigerian.
The Africa authenticity debate often shifts into questions of a Jumia diversity deficit, which is of course important from Silicon Valley to Nairobi. The company’s senior management and board is a mix of Africans and expats. Golden State Warriors basketball player and tech investor Andre Iguodala joined Jumia’s board this spring with a priority on “diversity and making sure the African culture is in the company,” he told TechCrunch.
Can Jumia turn a profit?
The Jumia authenticity and diversity debates will no doubt roll on. But the biggest question—the driver behind the VC, the IPO, the founders, and the people buying Jumia’s shares—is whether the startup can generate profits and ROI.
Obviously some of the world’s top venture investors, such as Jumia backers Goldman, AXA, and Mastercard, think so. But for Jumia skeptics, there are the big losses. The company has generated years and years of losses, including negative EBITDA of €172 million in 2018 compared to revenues of €139 that same year.
To be fair to Jumia, most startups (e-commerce startups in particular) rack up losses for years before getting into the black. And operating in a greenfield sector in Africa—where it had to create much of the surrounding infrastructure to do B2C online sales—has presented higher costs for Jumia than e-commerce startups elsewhere.
On the prospects for Jumia’s profitability, two things to watch will be Jumia’s fulfillment expenses and a shift to more revenue from its non-goods-delivery services, which offer lower unit costs and higher-margins. Per Jumia’s SEC F-1 index (see above) freight and shipping make up over half of its fulfillment expenses.
So Jumia has not turned a profit but its revenues have increased steadily, up 11 percent to €93.8M (roughly $106.2 million) in 2017 and up again to €130M (or $147 million) in 2018. If the company boosts customer acquisition and lowers fulfillment costs—which could come from more internet services revenue and platform investment with IPO capital—it could close the gap between revenues and losses. This reflects the equation for most e-commerce startups. With the IPO Jumia will have to publish its first full public financials in 2019, which will provide a better picture of profitability prospects.
Jumia’s IPO and African e-commerce?
There’s is, of course, a bigger play in Jumia’s IPO. One connected to global e-commerce and the future of online retail in Africa.
Jumia going public comes as Africa’s e-commerce landscape has seen its share of ups and downs, notably several failures in DealDey shutting down and the distressed acquisition of Nigerian e-commerce hopeful Konga.com.
As for the big global names, Alibaba has talked about Africa expansion, but for the moment has not entered in full.
And this week, DHL came on the scene launching its Africa eShop platform with 200 global retailers on board, in partnership with MallforAfrica’s Link Commerce fulfillment service.
Competition to capture Africa’s digitizing consumer markets—expected to spend $2 billion online by 2025, according to McKinsey—could get fierce, with more global entries, acquisitions, and competition on fulfillment services all part of the mix.
And finally, the outcome of Jumia’s IPO carries weight even for its competitors. “Many things, like business decisions and VC investments across Africa’s e-commerce sector are on on hold,” an African e-commerce exec told TechCrunch on background.
“Everyone’s waiting to see what happens with Jumia’s IPO and how they perform,” the exec said.
So the share-price connected to NYSE ticker sign JMIA could reflect not just investor confidence in Jumia, but investor confidence in African e-commerce overall.
DHL is launching an e-commerce app called DHL Africa eShop for global retailers to sell goods to Africa’s consumers markets.
The platform goes live today and brings more than 200 U.S. and UK retailers—from Nieman Marcus to Carters—online in 11 African markets: South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Mauritius, Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda, Malawi, Botswana, Sierra Leone, and Uganda.
The announcement comes as e-commerce in Africa has seen some ups and downs—with online sales startup Jumia announcing an IPO, while several Africa digital retail ventures have recently faltered.
DHL Africa eShop takes advantage of shipping giant’s existing delivery structure on the continent, able to get goods to doorsteps near and far through its DHL Express shipping, tracking, and courier service.
DHL’s partner for the new app, MallforAfrica, has experience collaborating with DHL and a number of big name retailers, including Macy’s and Best Buy. Backed by Helios Investment Partners, MFA was founded in 2011 to solve challenges global consumer goods companies face when entering Africa.
MallforAfrica’s payment and delivery system serves as a digital broker and logistics manager for U.S. retailers that come online with the startup to sell their goods to African consumers.
DHL has been a MallforAfrica logistics partner since 2015 and in 2018, the two teamed up to launch MarketPlaceAfrica.com—an e-commerce site for select African artisans to sell their goods in any of DHL’s 220 delivery countries.
For DHL Africa eShop, MallforAfrica’s Link Commerce service will facilitate local payments, procurement, and delivery, MallforAfrica CEO Chris Folayan told TechCrunch.
“That’s what our service does. It takes care of that whole ecosystem to enable global e-commerce to exist, no matter what country you’re in,” he said.
In a statement, DHL Express CEO for Sub-Saharan Africa referred to the DHL Africa eShop app as something that “provides convenience, speed, and access to connect African consumers with exciting brands.” The DHL Africa app is also intended to fill a commercial void, according to DHL, as many U.S. and UK retailers do not ship to Africa.
E-commerce ventures, particularly in Nigeria, have captured the attention of VC investors looking to tap into Africa’s growing consumer markets. McKinsey & Company projects consumer spending on the continent to reach $2.1 trillion by 2025, with African e-commerce accounting for up to 10 percent of retail sales.
As mentioned, Africa’s e-commerce startup landscape has seen its own ups and downs. Pan-African e-commerce startup Jumia’s recent IPO filing on the NYSE is a first for any startup from Africa. MallforAfrica has also continued to expand into new countries, now operating in 17, with partners, such as DHL.
On the flip side, the distressed acquisition of Nigerian e-commerce hopeful Konga.com, backed by roughly $100 million in VC, created losses for investors. And in late 2018, Nigerian online sales platform DealDey shut down.
On a B2C level, DHL Africa eShop brings distinct advantages on a transaction cost basis (i.e., the cost of delivery) given it is connected to one of the world’s logistics masters, DHL.
Another component of DHL and MallforAfrica’s partnership is the market for offering e-commerce fulfillment services through MallforAfrica’s white label Link Commerce service.
To watch is how DHL’s new Africa eShop business factors into the continent’s online-sales landscape. It could certainly serve as a new player in African e-commerce phase 2.0, now that the sector has shaken out some failures, produced an IPO, and drawn the attention of big global names.