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Commentary: After huge pandemic gains, why are tech companies laying off workers?

The pandemic offered a big opportunity for tech start-ups to scale. Many prioritised growth over efficiency, says venture outfit Momentum Works’ Yorlin Ng.

SINGAPORE: Tech companies have been laying off staff across the world. Shopee said in June it was "rationalising its e-commerce business” and reducing headcount across markets in Southeast Asia; robo-adviser StashAway and cryptocurrency exchange Crypto.com both announced staff cuts; even the Singapore country manager of Tesla was let go in a company-wide layoff.

Why is this happening as economies reopen post-pandemic? And why are tech companies expecting a recession ahead even though economists believe it’s not inevitable, based on the US’ strong economic recovery and labour market?

A large part of the growth during the pandemic was a result of the trillions of dollars of excess liquidity the US Federal Reserve pumped into the economy. That pushed asset prices up and borrowing costs down.

Tech companies benefited from this cheap capital and thrived during the height of the pandemic. They kept us connected with friends and family, well-fed when we couldn’t leave the house, and entertained with cinemas shut and concerts cancelled.

It was during this period that we learnt we could dabble in crypto and non-fungible tokens, or even just scan a QR code to view a menu and make payment.

Private companies with decent use cases had investors lining up willing to put money in at very attractive valuations. A number of tech companies in Southeast Asia finally went public. And those that invested in tech companies from 2020 to 2021 saw share prices shoot through the roof.

THEN INFLATION CAME

Inflation became a concern, but for a long time, the Fed regarded it as a “transitory” problem. However, with the war in Ukraine, global energy and commodity prices climbed, pushing inflation into dangerous territory.

Shoppers line up to pay cashiers in a supermarket in Shanghai, China, Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Chen Si)

US consumer prices rose by 8.6 per cent in May year-on-year, the highest since 1981. In response, the Fed raised interest rates three times this year, with the latest hike the largest since 1994.

With the evaporation of cheap capital, investors have become jittery and more prudent with their portfolios. As a result, stock markets and riskier assets across the world plummeted, with tech companies bearing the brunt.

In a world where much of trade and international debt is denominated in US dollars, the impact on the real economy is significant. Everything from electricity tariffs to ride-hailing prices in Singapore have increased.

TECH COMPANIES CHASED GROWTH OVER EFFICIENCY

How have these factors contributed to tech layoffs?

During the pandemic, there was a big opportunity for tech companies to scale. Some companies burnt through cash to grow, so efficiency was not the top priority. They hired aggressively to expand as quickly as possible.

To attract fresh talent, some offered such high compensation and benefits that they might have influenced the “Great Resignation Wave” – where employees were picking jobs instead of the other way around. Companies like Twitter were among the first to encourage work from home. Others like Google offered extra weeks of family care leave – some like Amazon even subsidising backup childcare.

But in 2022, pandemic winners from Zoom to Netflix have announced lower-than-expected consumer growth. Within the region, Grab faced tumbling share prices and has yet to reach profitability.

Recent layoffs are part of a cost-cutting exercise, as tech companies now pivot towards efficiency.

As the industry matures, the number of new customers a tech company can acquire naturally reduces. Tech leaders have seen this happening before and during their heyday, have been expanding their product offerings and even expanding into other countries.

For example, Shopee tried many new business models and entered India, Europe and Latin America from 2020 to 2021.

When capital is cheap, such experiments make sense. But they’re not always successful and circumstances change, leaving companies with no choice but to pull the plug.

Shopee pulled out of India, France and Spain this year. During this period, the share price of Shopee’s parent group Sea dived.

But on the flipside, Sea can now identify more promising avenues to focus its efforts when costs of capital and customer acquisition increase.

The agility in changing tactics and steering into a defensive position is something Chinese and American tech firms like Alibaba and Uber have demonstrated in expanding globally. We are now seeing the same trend in Southeast Asian companies, which could be a sign of growing maturity.

INVESTORS STILL HAVE DEEP POCKETS

It is not all doom and gloom. Venture capital (VC) firms in Southeast Asia have raised significant funds and much of this capital remains undeployed. Last month, Sequoia announced its first dedicated fund for Southeast Asia – a whopping US$850 million.

It joins the many regional VC funds raised the past 12 months: Jungle Ventures’ US$600 million, East Ventures’ US$550 million, Alpha JWC’s US$433 million and so on. Many Chinese US dollar-denominated funds are re-focusing on Southeast Asia – this time driven by necessity, not opportunism.

These investors will need to deploy all this money. They might become tougher in negotiations and more particular on valuations, but they will invest.

Tech companies need to navigate a tricky path to continue disrupting mature industries while becoming mature players themselves. Growth and profitability will need to be balanced.

Public companies like Sea and Grab have large cash piles at their disposal to live through cycles, and access to more funding in times of need. Both have shown prudence and foresight.

Grab has been emphasising its path to profitability to investors since the second half of 2019. It was one of the tech companies in the region to lay off employees in 2020, well before this year’s wave of layoffs. It has been re-hiring since then.

In the meantime, what can tech employees do in the wake of these layoffs?

I’ve had my share of hiring and firing people in my career. Layoffs are never easy – for the employer or the employee. But people join tech companies to be part of a culture that is agile, customer-centric and solutions-focused.

Tech employees should embrace this mindset and manage his or her own career growth. One of the largest tech companies in China makes this a point to all trainees: “Don’t think in terms of gains and losses; if you can’t change the environment, adapt to it. Drive change and keep improving.”

Yorlin Ng is Chief Operating Officer at Momentum Works, a Singapore-headquartered venture outfit.

Source: CNA/el
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