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Despite global headwinds, Chinese hardware startups remain to take on the world

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Bill Zhang lowered himself into lunges on a squishy mat as he explained to me the benefits of the full-body training suit he was wearing. We were in his small, modest office in Xili, a university area in Shenzhen that’s also home to many hardware makers. The connected muscle stimulator attached to the suit, called Balanx, is designed to bring so-called electronic muscle stimulation, which is said to help improve metabolism and burn fat.

“We are not really aiming at Chinese consumers at this point,” said Zhang, who started Balanx in 2014. “The suit is for the more savvy consumers in the West.”

Prospects for hardware makers were looking bright until two years ago when the Trump administration began setting trade barriers on China. Relations between the two countries have been deteriorating over a series of flashpoint events, from Beijing’s policy on Hong Kong to the coronavirus pandemic.

Chinese entrepreneurs don’t expect relationships between the countries to warm up anytime soon, but many do believe the new office will make “less erratic” and “more rational” policy decisions, according to conversations TechCrunch had with seven Chinese hardware startups. Chinese tech businesses, big or small, are adapting swiftly in the new era of U.S.-China competition as they continue to woo overseas customers.

Designed in China

Zhang is just one of the many entrepreneurs looking to bring state-of-the-art Chinese hardware to the world. This generation of founders no longer hawk cheap electronic copycats, the image attached to the old “Made in China” regime. Decades of knowledge transfer, product development, manufacturing, export practice and policy support have made China a powerhouse for producing new technologies that are both edgy and still widely affordable.

The Balanx smart training suit / Source: Balanx

Anker’s power banks, Roborock’s vacuums and Huami’s fitness trackers are just a few items that have gained loyal followings in several overseas markets, not to mention global household names like Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and DJI.

Consumer sentiment is also changing. Europeans’ perception of “Made in China” quality and innovation has “improved significantly” over the last 10 to 15 years, said Frank Wang who oversees marketing at Xiaomi -backed Dreame which makes premium home appliances including cheaper alternatives to Dyson hairdryers and vacuums.

The new players are eager to replicate the success of their predecessors. They seek media attention and retail partners at international trade fairs like CES, teach themselves Facebook and Google campaigns, and court gadget lovers on crowdfunding platforms. Investors ranging from GGV Capital to Xiaomi rush to back scrappy startups that are already shipping millions of units around the globe.

For Donny Zhang, a Shenzhen-based electronics parts supplier to hardware companies, businesses have been shrinking as soon as the trade war began. “My clients are taking the brunt because the costs of procurement have increased,” he said of those who directly or indirectly deal with American firms.

While many export-led hardware businesses loathe decreasing profitability, some learn to adapt and look for a silver lining. That has unexpectedly spurred new directions for factory owners in China. Indiegogo, one of the world’s largest crowd-funding platforms, saw the changes first hand.

“Once tariffs increase, there’s not much profit margin left for manufacturers because the middlemen already eat up the bulk of their profit,” Lu Li, general manager for Indiegogo’s global strategy, told TechCrunch.

“A good solution is for factories to skip the middlemen and sell directly to consumers with their own brands. Once the goal of brand building is clear, they often come to us because they need marketing help as a first step to establish themselves as a global consumer brand.”

The trend, dubbed “direct-to-consumers” or D2C, also plays into China’s national plan to encourage manufacturing upgrade and homegrown innovations to compete globally, an initiative that began to take shape around 2015. The development naturally makes China Indiegogo’s fastest-growing region in the last two years: in the first three quarters of 2020, businesses coming from China jumped 50% year-over-year, according to Li.

Localize

Having an appealing product and brand is just the prerequisite. Ever-changing trade policies and geopolitics have forced many Chinese businesses to localize seriously, whether that means setting up a foreign entity or building a local team.

Dreame’s wireless vacuum / Source: Dreame

For Tuya, which provides IoT solutions to device makers around the world, the trade war’s effect has been “minimal” since it has operated a U.S. entity since 2015, which employs its local sales and technical support staff. Most of its research and development, however, still lies in the hands of its engineers in India and China, the latter of which can be a potential contention point, as shown by TikTok’s recent backlash in the U.S.

“The key is compliance. We have a dedicated team of security experts to work on compliance issues. For instance, we were one of the first to get GDPR certified in Europe,” said the company’s chief marketing office Eva Na.

The company’s readiness is prompted by practical needs though. Many of its clients are large Western corporations that demand strict legal compliance in vendors, so Tuya began collecting the needed certificates early on. Connecting 200,000 SKUs today, Tuya’s footprint is found in over 190 overseas countries, which account for over 60% of its business.

Well-funded Tuya may have the financial and operational capacity to sustain an overseas team; but for smaller startups, localization can be a costly and tedious learning curve. Many opted to set up a Hong Kong entity to tap the city’s status as a global financial hub and evade trade restrictions on China, an advantage of the territory that began to crumble following Beijing’s implementation of the national security law.

Balanx, the smart training suit maker, has a Hong Kong entity like many of its export-facing hardware peers. To cope with new global headwinds, it registered a virtual company in Nevada but quickly realized the entity is of little use unless it has an on-the-ground operation in the U.S.

“Many local banks would ask for utility bills and etc. if I want to open an account, which we don’t have. We realized we must have a local team,” asserted the founder.

Hope

Zhang is positive that small companies like his own will remain under the radar in spite of U.S. sanctions. “Just avoid having any government connection,” he said.

Populele, PopuMusic’s smart ukulele / Source: PopuMusic

Indeed, some of the more “benign” and niche products are continuing to thrive in their global push. PopuMusic, a Xiaomi-backed startup making smart instruments like ukulele and guitar to teach beginners, is one. “We aren’t affected by the trade war. We are in a business that’s neither threatening nor aggressive,” said Zhang Bohan, founder of PopuMusic, which counts the U.S. as one of its biggest overseas markets.

Chinese brands are also seeing their edge as the coronavirus sweeps across the globe and confines millions at home. Hardware makers like Balanx, Dreame and PopuMusic have long learned to master e-commerce and logistics in a country where online shopping is ubiquitous.

“Consumers in Europe and the U.S. are growing more accustomed to e-commerce, a bit like those in China five to eight years ago,” said Wang of Dreame.

Rather than rethinking the U.S., PopuMusic is forging further ahead by launching a new connected guitar via an Indiegogo campaign. Global expansion is at the core of the startup’s vision, the founder said. “We are global from day one. We had an English name before even coming up with a Chinese one.”

In the process of making big bucks, hardware makers may have to downplay their “Made in China” or “Designed in China” brand, said Li of Indiegogo. This could help them avoid unnecessary geopolitical complications and attention in their international push. But one has to wonder how this new generation of entrepreneurs is reckoning with their national pride. How do they deal with the mission passed down by Beijing to promote Chinese innovation in the global marketplace? It’s a line that Chinese entrepreneurs have to tread carefully in their global journey in the years to come.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Pinterest tests online events with dedicated ‘class communities’

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Pinterest is getting into online events. The company has been spotted testing a new feature that allows users to sign up for Zoom classes through Pinterest, while creators use Pinterest’s class boards to organize class materials, notes and other resources, or even connect with attendees through a group chat option. The company confirmed the test of online classes is an experiment now in development, but wouldn’t offer further details about its plans.

The feature itself was discovered on Tuesday by reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong, who found details about the online classes by looking into the app’s code.

Currently, you can visit some of these “demo” profiles directly — like “@pinsmeditation” or “@pinzoom123,” for example — and view their listed Class Communities. However, these communities are empty when you click through. That’s because the feature is still unreleased, Wong says.

When and if the feature is later launched to the public, the communities would include dedicated sections where creators will be able to organize their class materials — like lists of what to bring to class, notes, photos and more. They could also use these communities to offer a class overview and description, connect users to a related shop, group chat feature and more.

Creators are also able to use the communities — which are basically enhanced Pinterest boards — to respond to questions from attendees, share photos from the class and otherwise interact with the participants.

When a user wants to join a class, they can click a “book” button to sign up, and are then emailed a confirmation with the meeting details. Other buttons direct attendees to download Zoom or copy the link to join the class.

It’s not surprising that Pinterest would expand into the online events space, given its platform has become a popular tool for organizing remote learning resources during the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers have turned to Pinterest to keep track of lesson plans, get inspiration, share educational activities and more. In the early days of the pandemic, Pinterest reported record usage when the company saw more searches and saves globally in a single March weekend than ever before in its history, as a result of its usefulness as a online organizational tool.

This growth has continued throughout the year. In October, Pinterest’s stock jumped on strong earnings after the company beat on revenue and user growth metrics. The company brought in $443 million in revenue, versus $383.5 million expected, and grew its monthly active users to 442 million, versus the 436.4 million expected. Outside of the coronavirus impacts, much of this growth was due to strong international adoption, increased ad spend from advertisers boycotting Facebook and a surge of interest from users looking for iOS 14 home screen personalization ideas.

Given that the U.S. has failed to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control, many classes, events and other activities will remain virtual even as we head into 2021. The online events market may continue to grow in the years that follow, too, thanks to the kickstart the pandemic provided the industry as a whole.

“We are experimenting with ways to help creators interact more closely with their audience,” a Pinterest spokesperson said, when asked for more information.

Pinterest wouldn’t confirm additional details about its plans for online events, but did say the feature was in development and the test would help to inform the product’s direction.

Pinterest often tries out new features before launching them to a wider audience. Earlier this summer, TechCrunch reported on a Story Pins feature the company had in the works. Pinterest then launched the feature in September. If the same time frame holds up for online events, we could potentially see the feature become more widely available sometime early next year.

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SpaceX targeting next week for Starship’s first high-altitude test flight

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SpaceX looks ready to proceed to the next crucial phase of its Starship spacecraft development program: A 15km (50,000 feet) test flight. This would far exceed the max height that any prior Starship prototype has achieved so far, since the current record-setting hop test maxed out at around 500 feet. Elon Musk says that SpaceX will look to make its first high-altitude attempt sometime next week.

This tentative date (these are always subject to change) follows a successful static test fire of the current SN8 generation prototype — essentially just firing the test spacecraft’s Raptor engines while it remains stationary on the pad. That’s a crucial step that paves the way for any actual flight, since it proves that the spacecraft can essentially hold together and withstand the pressures of active engines before it leaves the ground.

SpaceX’s SN8 prototype is different from prior versions in a number of ways, most obviously because it has an actual nosecone, along with nose fins. The prototypes that did the short test hops, including SN6, had what’s known as a mass simulator up top, which weighs as much as an actual Starship nose section but looks very different.

Musk added that the chances of an SN8 high-altitude flight going to plan aren’t great, estimating that there’s “maybe a 1/3 chance” given how many things have to work correctly. He then noted that that’s the reason SpaceX has SN9 and SN10 ready to follow fast, which is a theme of Starship’s development program to date: building successive generations of prototypes rapidly in parallel in order to test and iterate quickly.

We’ll likely get a better idea of when the launch will take place due to alerts filed with local regulators, so watch this space next week as we await this major leap forward in SpaceX’s Starship program.

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Police case filed against Netflix executives in India over ‘A Suitable Boy’ kissing scene

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Netflix, which has invested more than $500 million to gain a foothold in India in recent years, is slowly finding out just about what all could upset some people in the world’s second-largest internet market: Apparently everything.

A police case has been filed this week against two top executives of the American streaming service in India after a leader of the governing party objected to some scenes in a TV series.

The show, “A Suitable Boy,” is an adaptation of the award-winning novel by Indian author Vikram Seth that follows the life of a young girl. It has a scene in which the protagonist is seeing kissing a Muslim boy at a Hindu temple.

Narottam Mishra, the interior minister of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, said a First Information Report (an official police complaint) had been filed against Monika Shergill, VP of Content at Netflix and Ambika Khurana, Director of Public Policies for the firm, over objectionable scenes in the show that hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus.

“I had asked officials to examine the series ‘A Suitable Boy’ being streamed on Netflix to check if kissing scenes in it were filmed in a temple and if it hurt religious sentiments. The examination prima facie found that these scenes are hurting the sentiments of a particular religion,” he said.

Gaurav Tiwari, a BJP youth leader who filed the complaint, demanded an apology from Netflix and makers of the series (directed by award-winning filmmaker Mira Nair), and said the film promoted “love jihad,” an Islamophobic conspiracy theory that alleges that Muslim men entice Hindi women into converting their religion under the pretext of marriage.

Netflix declined to comment.

In recent days, a number of people have expressed on social media their anger at Netflix over these “objectionable” scenes. Though it is unclear if all of them — if any — are a Netflix subscriber.

The incident comes weeks after an ad from the luxury jewelry brand Tanishq — part of the 152-year-old salt-to-steel conglomerate — which celebrated interfaith marriage received intense backlash in the country.

For Netflix, the timing of this backlash isn’t great. The new incident comes days after the Indian government announced new rules for digital media, under which the nation’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting will be regulating online streaming services. Prior to this new rule, India’s IT ministry oversaw streaming services, and according to a top streaming service executive, online services enjoyed a great degree of freedom.

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