More like work-weak

April 16, 2019

Today, Pepsi puts a billboard in space and VW accelerates in China, but first…
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The world’s at war over the workweek, and Chinese billionaires won’t let the slackers win

Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba, posted a lengthy rant in support of China’s culture of extreme overtime work, drawing scorn from bleary-eyed Chinese engineers.

Ma and other billionaires celebrate 70-, 80-, and 130-hour workweeks. But workers worn thin by grueling hours are starting to protest — and research suggests longer hours don’t always lead to higher productivity.

The 996 is the new 9-to-5

Chinese tech companies are famous for a “996” culture, where sleep-deprived employees slave away from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week. 

But overworked Chinese employees finally put their feet down in March by launching 996.ICU, a Github campaign to raise awareness about unhealthy working conditions and call out companies imposing them. 

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Yet when Chinese tech giants — including Alibaba,, Pinduoduo, Huawei, and ByteDance — landed on the list, many of their billionaire founders publicly protested.

Billionaires love busy-ness founder Richard Liu called people who protest 996 “slackers,” and insisted that he personally can work 8116 (aka 8 am to 11 pm, 6 days a week — or 90 hours per week).

It’s not just a Chinese phenomenon: Physically unhealthy overwork cultures exist in South Korea, Japan, and, of course, the US — where founders like Musk have turned work obsession into a secular religion.

America’s execs exalt overwork: Google exec Marissa Mayer boasts about 130-hour weeks, and Elon Musk — who works 120-hour weeks — famously claimed that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

Does Musk’s manic model actually work?

Research shows that never-ending workweeks aren’t the most productive: According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, worker output begins to drop once workers clock more than 48 hours per week.

Plus, the CDC reports that workers who are consistently putting in overtime are more susceptible to illness, alcohol use, smoking, and death.

The war for the workweek is just getting started in the US and China, but other countries are already tackling overwork: South Korea reduced its workweek from 68 to 52 hours, and Japan recently instituted its first cap on overtime to reduce karoshi — or “death by overwork.”

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Amazon wants to live the stream

Amazon is reportedly in talks with major record labels to roll out its own free, ad-supported music streaming service. Until now, the ’Zon has offered its limited Prime Music service for Primers, plus standalone Amazon Music Unlimited subscriptions for $10/month.

According to Billboard, Amazon would start with a limited catalog and pay record labels on a per-stream basis, regardless of ad revenue. Amazon may also be able to make use of its label relationships from its CD-selling days (remember CDs, kids?). 

Will Spotify soon be playing second fiddle?

Spotify, with its 100m paid subscribers, is the only subscription-based streaming model with a free tier. But the industry leader, which has long-struggled to become profitable, may be losing stream. 

With this entry into the market, Amazon is flexing its ability to be a loss leader in a highly competitive space: Spotify shares slid 4% in response to the news.

Sizing up the rest of the competition, big and small…

YouTube, which accounts for nearly half of global tunage consumption, has long rock-blocked paid streaming services, and Apple Music has strong numbers, but no free offerings. SoundCloud’s recent positioning change-up pulled its 175m users out of direct competition. 

Though reports suggest there are only 20m Amazon music subscribers, Amazon will likely push on the Echo integration aspect and look to pull conversions from its substantial Prime base. 

Rumor has it the new ad-supported service will be available through Echo speakers, possibly this month.

» Stay tuned

Pepsi put a giant billboard for its energy drink in space

In partnership with space-advertising startup StartRocket, PepsiCo briefly transformed the starry night sky into a bright billboard for its new energy drink, Adrenaline Rush, using a network of tiny satellites.

A soda ad in space sounds like a dark, dystopian joke out of a Don DeLillo novel. But, thanks to this space-case startup, it could soon be very real — and people aren’t pleased.

Advertising’s final frontier

Starry-eyed entrepreneurs have dreamed up ways to put advertisements alongside the stars for decades, but high costs have prevented these schemes from leaving the stratosphere. 

But now that the cost of satellites has finally fallen, StartRocket has designed a system that will use tiny, reflective satellites as space-pixels to project images in the night sky for 8 hours at a time for $20k.

“Andy Warhol said: ‘The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s.’ Space has to be beautiful,” reads StartRocket’s website. “With the best brands our sky will amaze us every night.”

The company considers itself a new media company that will make the night sky more beautiful — but not everyone agrees that McDonald’s ads in space will be “beautiful.” 

Counterfeit constellations

Look at the beautiful night sky, son — it’s the Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt, and… an ad for Pepsi’s new energy drink?

But space ads are more than interstellar eyesores: Scientists warn that adding satellites into low orbit increases the risk of dangerous collisions with the growing amount of space junk floating around overhead.

For now, Pepsi’s partnership is only a test, and Pepsi may or may not choose to renew its contract with StartRocket. But the test opened up space for other businesses to shoot for the stars.

America banned space-based advertising in 1993, but Russia has no laws preventing StartRocket from plastering the cosmos with ads for fast food.

» One bold leap for billboards

Volkswagen will begin building a fully electric SUV in 2021

CNBC reports that VW unveiled its new electric SUV concept, the ID ROOMZZ, in Shanghai this weekend. The new whip drives 450 kilometers on a single charge, features level 4 AV driving, a sleek glass control panel, and floating steering wheel. 

The ID ROOMZZ, which will compete directly with Tesla’s Model X, will take EV-buyers for a (literal) spin — with seats that swivel to allow for lounging. 

China’s auto market is electric these days

China is currently the largest player in the global zero-emission market, and the industry minister predicts that annual “new energy vehicle” output will spike to 2m in 2020 and sales will rise to 7m by 2025.

This strong growth is due in large part to the incentives offered by the Chinese government to energy-efficient vehicle makers. According to ZoZo Go, they’ve shelled out $60B worth of subsidies since 2012.

That sound you don’t quite hear is EVs racing in China 

These incentives have left domestic and foreign automakers battling for ground in China. Tesla has been hard at work revving up its Shanghai gigafactory, speeding to seize upon subsidies while they last. 

And while Volkswagen currently churns out under 50,000 fully electric vehicles annually, CEO Herbert Diess announced plans to ramp up emission-free production with 22m cars over the next 10 years. VW will merge its China-based R&D ops with those of its premium brand, Audi.

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