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China technology

Chinese tech start-ups feel Elon Musk’s pain as 996 work culture takes a toll

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 2:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 2:03am

It’s been a while since Zhao Xiuwen has gone jogging in the park near his home in Beijing. He is just not in the mood lately because of worries at work, especially the pressure of trying to raise a new round of funding for his three-year-old start-up ZingFront, an AI-driven short video production firm.

Recent comments by US tech billionaire Elon Musk about the “excruciating” impact of long working hours on his personal life have struck a chord among Chinese tech entrepreneurs like Zhao, who are finding it hard to draw a line between work and private life. Tesla’s iconic CEO said he worked 120 hours every week and sometimes had to take the sedative Ambien to fall asleep.

“It has become harder and harder to raise money recently,” Zhao said in his brightly decorated office located in a fancy Beijing office building. “I’m under a lot of pressure. Sometimes I’m awake from around 2am to dawn and can’t stop thinking about my company’s future.”

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Eric Tao, founder and CEO of Beijing-based random video chat company Holla, feels the same pain as Musk and Zhao. “As CEO of the company, I can’t underperform this week and make it up by outperforming next week. It doesn’t work that way,” he said, adding that he works about 12 hours a day, so not as many as Musk.

“Being a start-up CEO is one of the most demanding jobs in the world,” Tao added.

However, Tao has not asked his own employees to adopt China’s notorious 996 work regime, where staff work from 9am to 9pm, six days per week, because he is worried about the resulting high turnover.

Tao’s concerns are backed up by statistics. The average working tenure for tech employees in Silicon Valley is 3.65 years, whereas in Chinese tech firms (excluding telecoms companies) the figure is less than 2.6 years, according to a report by Maimai Data Research Lab.

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The Silicon Valley-based employees of Google stay with the company for an average of 3.2 years, while employees at Shenzhen-based Tencent stick around for 2.3 years on average, according to the report.

Given the long working hours, tech companies from Google to Facebook have redefined the way corporate offices should look, with open-plan collaborative spaces, entertainment and leisure options blurring the lines between work and play. China’s big tech companies are catching on too.

Tencent’s new corporate headquarters in Shenzhen, which accommodates up to 8,000 staff, includes a recreation floor offering weights and exercise machines, as well as yoga sessions coached by professional in-house trainers. There are also table tennis tables, a badminton court and even a full-sized basketball court with NBA-style giant screen.

Chinese start-ups usually require employees to work 996 in their maiden year, said ZingFront’s Zhao, who worked at Baidu before it went public in 2005. In the second or third year of a tech company, employees will often be able to alternate between five and six day working weeks, which is what the three-year old ZingFront currently allows.

The 996 schedule can also be used by companies or certain departments for short periods of time when workloads dramatically increase, such as new product launches or upgrades, Zhao said.

However, Tristan Jian, vice president of marketing for Becky’s Fantasy, said she is much busier now that the company is bigger. Becky’s Fantasy is the studio of fashion blogger and “goddess of shopping” Becky Li, who is famous for selling 100 Mini cars via her blog in just five minutes.

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At the beginning Jian only had one WeChat blog account to operate, but now she has three, which together draw daily views of more than 500,000. That means working almost 17 hours a day – as many as Elon Musk – to manage the content on the three different accounts, she said.

“When you are really into something, you put your whole heart into it,” Jian said.

Li Li, founder of Jiacheng Capital, a new Beijing-based venture capital firm, also works Musk-like hours. Besides the daily necessity of seven-hour sleep, she works from the moment she wakes up to the minute she goes to bed.

“What drives me every day is the mission to spot future disrupters in the tech world,” said Li.