Premature death of start-up CEO spurs soul searching in China's tech community

HONG KONG/BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - The premature death of the 44-year-old founder of a prominent mobile health app start-up has spurred a bout of soul searching in the Chinese tech community, where working long hours in the hope of making a quick fortune has become a way of life.

Mr Zhang Rui, founder and chief executive officer of the start-up Chunyu Doctor, died from a heart attack on Oct 5. Heart attacks can have many causes and Chunyu spokesman Tan Wanneng said there's no evidence that Mr Zhang's death was due to overwork. Yet as tech executives mourn his passing, that hasn't stopped some from wondering about the deeply competitive nature of their industry and the potential health burdens they face.

"The stress and loneliness that start-up founders feel can't be comprehended by normal people," Mr Leon Li, founder of Huobi, one of China's largest bitcoin exchanges, wrote on his WeChat account in response to Mr Zhang's death. "Especially in the internet sector, where entry barriers are low and competition is fierce, it's like stepping on thin ice."

Inspired by the rise of Alibaba Group Holding, which raised US$25 billion (S$34.66 billion) in a 2014 initial public offering, China's new generation of entrepreneurs have been engaged in a fierce battle for capital and talent. The country saw the start-up of 1.2 new internet companies every day in the second quarter. While Silicon Valley is also renowned for its competitive culture and lengthy hours, China's entrepreneurs face a unique set of challenges because the industry is more nascent, and regulations and funding are in constant flux.

"The China start-up community is under a lot of pressure, if not as much but even more than in the Valley or in the states," said Dave McClure, the founding partner of California-based venture firm 500 Startups. "Unfortunately, I think people don't think about health issues that much."

Mr McClure said that among the more than 3,000 founders that he has invested in globally, at least six have passed away, with even one committing suicide.

Mr Zhang died at a critical juncture for Chunyu. In June, it completed a 1.2 billion yuan (S$247.3 million) round of Series D fund-raising at a valuation of about US$1 billion and was planning to go public, according to Mr Tan. Startups with a valuation exceeding that mark are known as "Unicorns".

For a few months when Chunyu was first founded the company sometimes required a so-called "996 schedule" - Chinese slang for working from 9am to 9pm six days a week - Mr Tan said, adding that the company is long past that stage.

Mr Zhang started out as a journalist at a Beijing newspaper, and worked as deputy editor-in-chief at NetEase, a Chinese internet portal. In 2011, he founded Chunyu, which allows patients to have online consultations with doctors, skipping the wait at overcrowded public hospitals.

Chinese executives have for years talked about the difficulties in balancing work and life. After fighting cancer, Mr Lee Kai-Fu, a long-time tech executive, published a book last year saying that he saw the disease as a sign of protest from his body after decades of 15-hour workdays during a high-flying career.

Mr Lee is currently running his own company called Sinovation Ventures that invests in start-ups and he previously held jobs at Apple and Microsoft, and served as Google's Greater China vice-president from 2005 to 2009. Ms Jean Liu, president of taxi-hailing app Didi Chuxing, has encouraged her staff at Didi to exercise more and take care of their health.

People who work for more than 55 hours a week face an increased risk of stroke and coronary heart disease compared to those working the standard hours of 35 to 40 a week, according to a study based on data from more than 600,000 individuals, published last October in the medical journal The Lancet.