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Tech layoffs in Southeast Asia grow as unprofitable startups extend runways

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Shopee reportedly conducted three rounds of layoffs this year as its parent Sea Limited struggles towards profitability.

Lauryn Ishak | Bloomberg | Getty Images

More tech startups in Southeast Asia laid off workers this year, as macro headwinds widened losses and venture capitalists pushed startups to extend their runways.

Last week, online marketplace Carousell announced it was letting go of about 10% of its headcount — or approximately 110 positions.

In November, Indonesia’s GoTo Group — a merger between ride-hailing giant Gojek and e-commerce marketplace Tokopedia — cut 1,300 jobs or about 12% of its headcount.

Both companies cited challenging macroeconomic challenges.

There are signs that we are entering into a recession, if we are not already in one. Therefore, customer demand is likely to be slower in 2023.

They join Sea Group and other companies in the region in downsizing headcount. Sea Group, according to local media, laid off more than 7,000 employees over the past six months.

“Founders are being prudent by managing costs in this environment to ensure there is sufficient runway till late 2024,” Jia Jih Chai, co-founder and CEO of Singapore-based e-commerce brand aggregator Rainforest, told CNBC. Chai was previously a senior vice president at Carousell and a managing director at Airbnb.

“There are signs that we are entering into a recession, if we are not already in one. Therefore, customer demand is likely to be slower in 2023,” said Chai.

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In a note to Carousell’s employees, CEO Quek Siu Rui acknowledged “critical mistakes” were made. He said he was “too optimistic” about the Covid recovery and underestimated the impact of growing his team too quickly.

“The reality is that we were quick to grow our expenses and hire, but the returns took longer than expected,” said Quek, adding that there have been cost-cutting measures in the past few months and Carousell’s leadership will take voluntary pay cuts.

More sustainable growth

Quek also said it’s only prudent that the company get to profitability as a group as quickly as possible, as it is unclear if market conditions will improve.

Carousell posted a slower revenue growth of 21% in 2021 at $49.5 million, compared to a tripling of its revenue in 2020. Meanwhile, GoTo saw its losses swell from the January to September period.

“I was astonished that companies predicted that the Covid behavior changes would last forever,” Alex Kantrowitz, a Silicon Valley journalist, who also runs an independent newsletter and podcast called Big Technology, told CNBC’s “TechCheck” Monday.

“Clearly, once you are allowed to go out to restaurants, hang out with friends outside, your usage of Netflix, Facebook, Shopify and Amazon would go down. So why do all of them build as if that would last forever?”

Tech companies only seeing beginning of layoffs, says Big Technology's Kantrowitz

“Previously, the companies were designed for fast growth. So there needs to be changes made when the organization is shifting from strong growth to sustainable growth. For example, you may not need too many marketing people if the marketing budget is cut,” said Jefrey Joe, co-founder and managing partner at Indonesia-based Alpha JWC Ventures.

Tech startups in Southeast Asia are still largely unprofitable, with names like Sea Group and Grab amassing billions of losses annually.

Existing investors in the company are also actively advising founders to prepare for winter, Jussi Salovaara, Antler’s co-founder and managing partner for Asia, told CNBC. Venture capitalists are pushing founders to have a longer runway, he said.

Southeast Asia tech layoffs in 2022

Startup Employees affected
Glints 18% of total headcount
Sea Group 7,000+
GoTo Group 1,300
Zenius 200+
Carousell 110
Foodpanda 60
Carsome Less than 10% of total headcount
iPrice Group 50
StashAway 31
*this list is not exhaustive

Source: CNBC research

“We say to the founders that they need to be prepared that next year is not going to be easier than this year,” said Joe.

“These companies may be doing well operatively. They still have some growth. They might be close to profitability, but they need to make sure that they’re sustainable for the future,” added Salovaara.

Tech companies are only seeing the beginning of layoffs, said Kantrowitz.

Globally, tech companies have been conducting mass layoffs, especially the U.S. tech giants. For example, Meta cut about 11,000 jobs while Microsoft reportedly laid off less than 1,000 people due to a slowdown in growth.

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