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World’s most valuable start-up ByteDance slashes ‘lucky money’ for Year of the Pig as founder warns of challenging 2019

ByteDance, the world’s most valuable start-up, slashed the amount of bonus it gave employees before the Lunar New Year, with founder Zhang Yiming becoming the latest of China’s tech industry leaders to warn of a challenging year ahead.

This was likely on Zhang’s mind when he urged his staff not to be disappointed by the “much smaller” amounts they will receive in this Year of the Pig.

Without disclosing the amount, Zhang called on ByteDdance employees to keep striving with a positive attitude as this year is set to post very big challenges, brought on by an “outside environment that is more difficult, complicated and turbulent”, he said in an email to staff on Wednesday.

Shrinking bonuses and Zhang’s warning of a grim year are the latest signs of a so-called tech winter in China, where talks of layoffs and hiring freezes have gained ground in what was once one of the country’s fastest-growing sectors. The industry, especially for start-ups, is driven by investors looking to back the next big thing. That wall of money has slowed amid a slowdown of the world’s second-largest economy, exacerbated by a trade war with the US.

Chinese short video app Tik Tok is adding a “do not attempt” disclaimer at the beginning of clips featuring stunts after a user hurt his toddler while trying to imitate a daring move he saw in a video. Source: Handout

Baidu chief executive Robin Li Yanhong warned earlier this month that “winter is coming” as China’s economy shifts to a lower gear. Baidu competes with ByteDance for advertising income.

ByteDance’s Zhang, 35, admitted the company’s business growth in 2018 was not as rapid as it used to be, attributing to the outside environment, competition and mistakes in management, according to a letter verified by the company.

Founded by Zhang in 2012, ByteDance is reportedly valued at $75 billion, ahead of Uber Technologies in the global rankings, after attracting backing from SoftBank Group, KKR and General Atlantic. Those metrics may have softened amid talks of “down rounds”, or fundraising at a lower valuation than the previous round, among China’s start-ups.

The six-year-old company has evolved into a multi-faceted content empire spanning TikTok – known as Douyin in China – and other platforms for news, humour to celebrity gossip.

Douyin’s monthly active users in China alone has exceeded 500 million as of December, pitting it against Tencent’s WeChat platform with its 1 billion users.

Despite being a rising star in the global tech scene, the company has faced regulatory pressure in China since 2018 as the government tightened its control over China’s cyberspace.

The regulatory headwinds are likely to continue as Chinese authorities have recently introduced new short-video rules that hold app developers accountable for publishing inappropriate content.

Companies such as ByteDance also face rising costs as they have to employ an army of in-house censors to review content before publication.

Aneta Larkins

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