Saturday, May 18, 2024

China Big Tech workers quit to pursue self-employment amid internet slowdown

Must read

Zoe Du used to be a typical employee at a Big Tech firm in China, putting in long hours, six days a week. One time, she fainted in the office after weeks of being on the job until 11pm every day.

A veteran of more than 10 years in the internet industry, Du quit her job at ByteDance, the owner of short video hit TikTok and its Chinese sibling Douyin, in 2020. That year also marked the start of China’s crackdown on the internet sector, when Beijing said it would regulate monopolistic practices of online platform operators and prevent the “disorderly” expansion of capital.

Du, who lives in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern Sichuan province, is one of the tens of thousands of Chinese workers who have left their jobs at the country’s Big Tech firms in recent years, as the industry lost its growth momentum. While tech jobs remain the best-paid positions in the Chinese job market, they are no longer viewed as short cuts to wealth amid lay-offs and the shrinking value of stock options.

ByteDance reveals dozens of internal misconduct cases, including bribery

China’s internet giants have slashed jobs in recent years, affecting tens of thousands of people. As of the end of 2023, China’s so-called BAT – Baidu, South China Morning Post owner Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings – had 364,477 employees, a drop of nearly 25,000 from a year before, according to their financial disclosures. However, the drop in total staff numbers is not entirely the result of cost cutting, as the companies also underwent significant business shifts.

Du, who goes by the online nickname of Danna, said that China’s Big Tech companies are “less thriving than a few years ago”, adding that at least 70 per cent of her old colleagues have resigned to pursue their own ventures, just as she did.

In 2021 Du founded Ziranliu, which means “natural flow” in English, to help web influencers boost and monetise their online traffic. With only eight employees, the company achieved annual income of 10 million yuan (US$1.4 million) last year and succeeded in making more than 150 clients well known on short video platforms.

Du said her working experience with companies, including her most recent employer ByteDance, has proved valuable, enabling her to understand data, web traffic and management.

Wang Sijing, former product manager of search giant Baidu and the now-defunct bike rental start-up Ofo, tells a similar story. Wang said five years of corporate working life provided her with “a more systematic” workstyle that puts data first. She has also developed a more critical eye, after being constantly challenged to do better during her time in the Big Tech working environment.

Signage for ByteDance on a building in Shanghai, China, March 14, 2024. Photo: Bloomberg

Wang quit Ofo in 2017, when both the start-up and the internet industry were growing rapidly. By April that year, Ofo’s user base had reached 40 million across more than 70 cities worldwide, according to co-founder Zhang Siding, but within months it experienced a capital crunch and still owes deposit money to millions of users.

Wang decided to quit because she felt her contribution within such a sprawling operation was limited. “As a product manager, I could only decide what a campaign page looks like on the app,” she said.

Her first solo venture was in product manager training. At the time, the internet sector was so attractive that product manager roles seemed easier than programming for many people. Wang’s business achieved 20 million yuan in revenue in the first year.

But the business climate changed after 2020, when the pandemic shut down all face-to-face classes. At the same time, the demand for product manager training declined.

“People who entered the internet sector [after 2020] didn’t benefit from the earlier boom,” she said. As such, attendance levels for her product manager classes dropped to one fifth of the previous level, prompting her to change direction.

In 2021, Wang launched a new persona as an online expert in product training, career tips and self-employment, using the pseudonym PMWang on platforms such as Douyin and Xiaohongshu.

This approach of tech workers leveraging their Big Tech experience to help online influencers has become a trend today. A search using the term “Big Tech departure” on Douyin returns dozens of results, with accounts offering advice on job hunting, e-commerce, career change and management.

Compared with her ByteDance days, Du said life was now “much freer”. “When I’m tired, I’ll give myself a holiday for a day or two, go on a trip, get closer to nature, or just do some meditation,” she said.

Rows of Ofo bicycles on the pavement in Singapore, April 25, 2018. Photo: Bloomberg

China’s internet sector became notorious for its 996 schedule – 9am to 9pm every day, six days a week – although companies have eased up after widespread criticism and bad publicity from rare cases of employees dying on the job.

However, some current employees at ByteDance and Tencent say they still need to work late into the evenings and sometimes on weekends to meet project deadlines.

As a self-employed entrepreneur, Du occasionally works until 9pm but it no longer bothers her “because this is what I own and am passionate about”.

She said the hardest part of running your own business is before it gets started. After leaving ByteDance, she spent six months mulling the idea of becoming an entrepreneur. “I kept questioning myself and felt guilty that the pay cheque stopped,” she said, but added that “taking a rest was essential for someone who has been running non-stop for years”.

Latest article