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June 17, 2019
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China’s startup ecosystem is hitting back at demanding working hours

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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.

china office workers

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.

alibaba

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.

This YC-backed startup preps Chinese students for US data jobs

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In recent years, data analysts have gone from optional to a career that holds great promise, but demand for quantitative skills applied in business decisions has raced ahead of supply as college curriculum often lags behind the fast-changing workplace.

CareerTu, a New York-based startup launched by Ruiwan Xu, a former marketing manager at Amazon, aims to close that talent gap. Think of it as Codecademy for digital marketing, data analytics, product design and a whole lot of other jobs that ask one to spot patterns from a sea of data that can potentially boost business efficiency. The six-year-old profitable business runs a flourishing community of 160,000 users and 500 recruiting partners that help students land jobs at Amazon, Google, Alibaba and the likes, an achievement that has secured the startup a spot at Y Combinator’s latest batch plus a $150,000 check from the Mountain View-based accelerator.

In a way, CareerTu is helping fledgling tech startups on a tight budget train ready-to-use data experts. “American companies have a huge demand for digital marketing and data talents these days … but not all of them want to or can spend money on training, and that’s where we can come in,” said Xu, who made her way into Amazon after burying herself in online tutorials about digital marketing.

The gig was well paid, and Xu felt the urge to share her experience with people like her — Chinese workers and students seeking data jobs in the U.S. She took up blogging, and eventually grew it into an online school. CareerTu offers many of its classes for free while sets aside a handful of premium content for a fee. 6,000 of its users are actively paying, which translates to some $500,000 in revenue last year. The virtual academy continues to blossom as many students return to become mentors, helping their Chinese peers to chase the American dream.

CareerTu

Y Combinator founder Paul Graham (second left) with CareerTu founder Ruiwan Xu (second right) and her team members / Photo: CareerTu

Securing a job in the U.S. could be a daunting task for international students, who must convince employers to invest the time and money in getting them a work visa. But when it comes to courting scare data talents, the visa trap becomes less relevant.

“Companies could have hired locals to do data work, but it’s very difficult to find the right candidate,” suggested Xu. LinkedIn estimated that in 2018 the U.S. had a shortage of more than 150,000 people with “data science skills,” which find application not just in tech but also traditional sectors like finance and logistics.

“Nationalities don’t matter in this case,” Xu continued. “Employers will happily apply a work visa or even a green card for the right candidate who can help them save money on marketing campaigns. And many Chinese people happen to have a really strong background in data and mathematics.”

A Chinese business in the US

Though most of CareerTu’s users live in the U.S., the business is largely built upon WeChat, Tencent’s messaging app ubiquitous among Chinese users. That CareerTu sticks to WeChat for content marketing, user acquisition and tutoring is telling of the super app’s user stickiness and how overseas Chinese are helping to extend its global footprint.

And it makes increasing sense to keep CareerTu within the WeChat ecosystem after Xu noticed a surge in inquiries coming from her homeland. In 2018, only 5 percent of CareerTu’s users were living in China, many of whom were export sellers on Amazon. By early 2019, the ratio has shot up to 12 percent.

Xu believes there are two forces at work. For one, Chinese exporters are leaving Amazon to set up independent ecommerce sites, efforts that are in part enabled by Shopify’s entry into China in 2018. The alternative path provides merchants more control over branding, margins and access to customer insights. Breaking up with the ecommerce titan, on the other hand, requires Chinese sellers to get savvier at reaching foreign shoppers, expertise that CareerTu prides itself on.

careertu

CareerTu offers online courses via WeChat / Photo: CareerTu

Next door, large Chinese tech firms are increasingly turning abroad to fuel growth. Bytedance is possibly the most aggressive adventurer among its peers in recent years, buying up media startups around the world including Musical.ly, which would later merge with TikTok. Indeed, some of CareerTu’s recent grads have gone on to work at the popular video app. Rising interest from China eventually paved Xu’s way home as she recently set up her first Chinese office in her hometown Chengdu, the laid-back city known for its panda parks and witnessing a tech boom.

Just as foreign companies need crash courses on WeChat before entering China, Chinese firms going global must familiarize themselves with the marketing mechanisms of Facebook and Google despite China’s ban on the social network and search engine.

When American companies growth hack, they make long-term plans that involve “model building, A/B testing, and making discoveries from big data,” observed Xu. By comparison, Chinese companies fighting in a more competitive landscape are more agile and opportunist as they don’t have the time to ponder or test out the different variants in a campaign.

“Going abroad is a great thing for Chinese companies because it sets them against their American counterparts,” said Xu. “We are teaching Chinese the western way, but we are also learning the Chinese way of marketing from players like Bytedance. I’m excited to see in a few years whether any of these Chinese companies abroad will become a local favorite.”

Update (March 18, 2019, 7:00 AM): Added details of CareerTu’s partners and corrected spelling of Ruiwan Xu’s name.

Easyship, a Stripe for global e-commerce shipping, raises $4M

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Easyship, a Hong Kong-based startup that aims to make international shipping for e-commerce as easy as payments, has closed a $4 million Series A round.

The company was founded in 2015 by former Lazada duo Tommaso Tamburnotti and Augustin Ceyrac, and ex-banker Paul Lugagne Delpon. From their time with Lazada, the then-Rocket Internet -owned e-commerce site in Southeast Asia that was later bought by Alibaba, Tamburnotti and Ceyrac came to realize that there was no ‘plug in’ solution for shipping in the same way that Stripe and others enable payments online.

In Lazada’s case, that was crucial. The company was trying to enable cross-border commerce in Southeast Asia and, as a part of that, seek out retailers in more mature markets like China. But, if sending product to Indonesia — Southeast Asia’s largest country with a population of over 250 million — was fraught with challengers, then both retailers and consumers would be put off using the service.

That’s how Easyship was born. Today, the startup works with over 50 couriers, it also deals with the likes of Amazon, Shopify, eBay, Etsy, Magento and more. Its team of more than 50 people is spread across offices in New York, Singapore, the Netherlands, Australia, and Hong Kong.

Its service adds shipment options to e-commerce pages to make it simple for retailers to offer overseas shipping, and customers to receive product in any market. They simply input a line of code, which then offers international shipping options for customer when they check out. Not only does it simplify shipping routes but Easyship claims it can help cut shipping costs by up to 60 percent. Its base of 40,000 SMBs have seen their overall sales increase by 40 percent on average.

“We saw there was an opportunity when we couldn’t find a solution that was a gateway for international
shipping,” Ceyrac said in a statement. “For example, it’s easy for sellers to find payment gateways that can be activated in minutes so they can start accepting all major forms of payment. Yet, there was no equivalent tool for logistics, where you could just mobilize on global sales.”

“At the time, the only choices for small business owners were to use large enterprise solutions that were meant for Fortune 500 companies, or to integrate with multiple players to achieve a truly global solution,’ he added.

Easyship founders (left to right) Paul Lugagne Delpon, Tommaso Tamburnotti and Augustin Ceyrac

Tamburnotti told TechCrunch that the new funds will go towards developing the company’s technology — which helps to find cost-effective shipping routes — as well as adding more shipment and logistics partners, and reaching more customers, particularly in the U.S.

The sources of the round are interesting in themselves, too. Maximilian Bittner, who founded Lazada and was its long-time CEO, led the deal alongside Richard Lepeu, the former CEO of luxury firm Richemont and a board member of Yoox Net-A-Porter Group. Existing investor Lamivoie Capital Partners and funds Rubicon Venture Capital, One Way Ventures, Kima Ventures and Picus Capital also joined the round. 500 Startups is another investor in the business.

Easyship’s solution is so logical it almost seems obvious, but it is a business that has been created because it is outside of the U.S. and Silicon Valley. U.S. e-commerce firms have woken up to overseas opportunities, but they tend to be focused on obvious and huge markets like China. Logistics to other parts of the world are fiddling (it’s hugely fragmented) and likely not worth the initial investment unless the investment in a patient one.

But, for Easyship’s founders, the issue of fragmented logistics in Asia became such a critical one that they jumped ship from their full-time jobs — with the blessing of their CEO, Bittner — to tackle the problem. The firm is making ambitious moves in the U.S., having opened a New York office this year, and it’ll be a company to watch. The company has already fielded acquisition offers, but it is aiming to stay independent and grow its share of the U.S. market by enabling retailers, and particularly smaller players, to expand their sales globally.

Shopify opens its first brick-and-mortar space in Los Angeles

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Shopify, the provider of payment and logistics management software and services for retailers, has opened its first physical storefront in Los Angeles.

The first brick and mortar location for the Toronto-based company, is nestled in a warren of downtown Los Angeles boutique shops in a complex known as the Row DTLA.

For Shopify, Los Angeles is the ideal place to debut a physical storefront showing off the company’s new line of hardware products and the array of services it provides to businesses ranging from newly opened startups to $900 million juggernauts like the Kylie Cosmetics brand.

The city is one of the most dense conglomerations of Shopify customers with over 10,000 merchants using the company’s technologies in the greater Los Angeles area. 400 of those retailers have each earned over $1 million in gross merchandise volume.

In the Los Angeles space, which looks similar to an Apple store, patrons can expect to see demonstrations and tutorials of how Shopify’s tools and features work. Showrooms displaying the work that Shopify does with some of its close partners will also show how business owners can turn their product visions into actual businesses.

Like Apple, Shopify is staffing its store with experts on the platform who can walk new customers or would-be customers through whatever troubleshooting they may need. While also serving as a space to promote large and small vendors using its payment and supply management solution.

“Our new space in downtown LA is a physical manifestation of our dedication and commitment to making commerce better for everyone. We’re thrilled to be able to take our proven educational, support, and community initiatives and put them to work in an always-on capacity,” said Satish Kanwar, VP of Product at Shopify, in a statement. “We know that making more resources available to entrepreneurs, especially early on, makes them far more likely to succeed, and we’re happy to now be offering that through a brick-and-mortar experience in LA.”

Kanwar and Shopify chief operating officer, Harley Finkelstein, envision the new Los Angeles space as another way to support new and emerging retailers looking for tips on how to build their business in the best possible way.

“The path to being your own boss doesn’t need to be lonely or isolating,” said Finkelstein, in a statement. “With Shopify LA we wanted to create a hub where business owners can find support, inspiration, and community. Most importantly, entrepreneurs at all stages and of all sizes can learn together, have first access to our newest products, and propel their entrepreneurial dreams.”

Shopify rolls out fraud protection to U.S. merchants

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Large e-commerce businesses have systems in place to fight online fraud, but smaller sellers with their own storefronts don’t always have the same advantages. Today, e-commerce platform Shopify is aiming to change that with its rollout of Fraud Protect for Shopify Payments. The service is initially available in the U.S.

The company had announced its plans to introduce fraud protection earlier this year at its Unite conference in Toronto, where it also debuted marketing app Shopify Ping and support for sellers managing inventory across multiple stores, among other things.

The company’s goal with anti-fraud systems is to protect online sellers against fraudulent chargebacks.

Shopify says its experience in processing millions of orders across its platform has allowed it to develop fraud detection technology that has the ability to accurately determine which orders are considered fraudulent. Its algorithms will now analyze incoming orders and prompt the merchant to decide if an order should be set as “protected.” If a fraudulent chargeback on that protected order then occurs, Shopify says it will automatically reimburse the merchant.

Before, merchants would have to manually review orders for fraud, which could be difficult – especially for smaller sellers who don’t know what to look for.

However, Shopify says the system isn’t just for the mom-and-pop merchants – it can aid bigger businesses, too, as it means lower operating costs.

Often, if merchants can’t handle fraud detection in-house, they’ll work with a partner who specializes in this technology. For example, Shopify competitor Bigcommerce integrates with Signifyd, an automated fraud detection service which merchants can opt to use.

In Shopify’s case, it’s offering the technology directly to its merchant partners – meaning it’s managing the risk itself, and eating the loss involved with fraudulent transactions, as needed. That could be a big selling point in its favor when merchants are looking for a home to set up their online storefront.

“We talk to merchants every day and one of the recurring themes we often encounter is the amount of time and effort they put into preventing fraud, and the anxiety and turmoil they put up with when dealing with a chargeback on an order they’ve already shipped,” said Andre Lyver, Head of Financial Solutions at Shopify, in  a statement. “With Fraud Protect, merchants will never have to think about fraud and chargebacks. They can fulfill all of their orders with peace of mind, knowing that Shopify has them covered if the order is fraudulent,” Lyver added.

The company says it’s rolling out Fraud Protect to a select group of U.S. merchants to start, who will be notified via email as well as with a notification within Shopify. It plans to expand the service to more merchants in the near future.

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