If you’ve not heard of him, Masayoshi Son is arguably the world’s most audacious venture capitalist. He’s hit hard times recently though, with the botched IPO of tech-company-slash-office-rental-firm WeWork, which led to the first quarterly loss at his investment business SoftBank for 14 years (it was a big one - 704bn yen, or approximately £5bn).
Here’s the two-minute version of who he is and how he got here.
Son's investment acumen has earned him the nickname "the Warren Buffett of Japan". That said, Lex, the Financial Times’ august columnist, wondered if his new $108bn Vision II investment fund was effectively a "private members’ club for gadget makers, investment banks and wealth funds of authoritarian countries". Son, who turned 62 on 11 August, may feel that Lex is thinking short term. He once defended his tech investment strategy by saying: "We are doing it to win and to grow for the next 300 years. I am confident people will understand in time."
In the wake of Shinzo Abe’s election victory, Son, the richest man in Japan with a fortune estimated at $21bn, was criticised for only making token investments in the country. In response, he chided Japan Inc for being "underdeveloped" in its embrace of artificial intelligence, saying it was not just behind China and India but also rivals in South-East Asia.
Son visited Jakarta on 28 July to support ecommerce start-up Tokopedia, in which he has invested at least $1bn. He promised Indonesian President Joko Widodo that he would pump another $2bn into the country, particularly in electric vehicles and renewable energy, through the Singapore ride-sharing group Grab.
Revelations that SoftBank will lend billions to its own staff, including Son, to invest in its Vision II fund convinced The Washington Post that the whole project "smacks of desperation". The new fund is backed by such tech titans as Apple, Foxconn and Microsoft, some Japanese banks and Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund. Yet some investors fear Son is trying to hurry through his new fund before the markets crash. Others put their trust in his track record – Son’s past successes include Alibaba, Sprint, Uber, Uber’s Chinese rival Didi, Indian ride-sharing unicorn Ola and, at least until its valuation imploded, WeWork.
Investments in two booming San Francisco start-ups – food delivery platform DoorDash and publicly listed workplace messaging tool Slack – drove up SoftBank’s year-on-year profits from existing funds by 66 per cent to $3.7bn, which is great news for Son, SoftBank and the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund, which ploughed $45bn into the first Vision fund. Time will tell if the WeWork fiasco, for which Son said his judgement "was not right in many ways", will have diminished his aura.
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