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  • What is SoftBank?

  • A really difficult question to answer these days.

  • A telecoms group.

  • It's a semiconductor group.

  • It's now more of an investment group.

  • A huge and very aggressive hedge fund.

  • It is the corporate expression of one man.

  • A journey for people to ride alongside the mind of Masayoshi

  • Son.

  • It's like a jigsaw puzzle.

  • Right at the centre of it you've got Masayoshi Son.

  • The 63-year-old founder of SoftBank.

  • He's like no other chief executive in Japan.

  • He is not afraid of taking risks.

  • He's a risk-addicted billionaire.

  • He's not afraid to make extremely aggressive bets.

  • If we were in a casino, he'd be the guy doubling down

  • every time he wins with his money.

  • If he's on the blackjack table, just double down, double down,

  • double down.

  • He never takes the chips off the table

  • and he just let it ride as far as he can go.

  • He's exploring ways to become rich, exploring ways

  • to change the world.

  • He identified technology as the way to do that.

  • In the next 10 years I would continue

  • to invest more and more.

  • He's driven by power, the desire to make

  • SoftBank one of the world's biggest companies.

  • He's not really into inventing things.

  • So it's not like SoftBank creates products.

  • He's more investing in vision.

  • If you go in the room and ask for $100m

  • and he says, well, I was going to give you $500m,

  • so why do you only need $100m?

  • If you don't have a good answer for the $500m,

  • you're not getting the money.

  • He gets frustrated with us journalists.

  • He gets frustrated with investors

  • who don't value his company as highly as he

  • thinks it should be valued.

  • He's small, like, physically small, and he's calm.

  • What lies beneath is this vigorous shark.

  • Masayoshi Son is born and raised in Japan.

  • He left Japan to study in the US.

  • He came back to Japan using the money from a patent

  • that he sold of an electronic translator.

  • He set up SoftBank in 1981 as a software distributor.

  • His breakthrough deal came in 2000

  • when he invested $20m in Alibaba,

  • just a year after the Chinese company was created.

  • To turn $20m into $100bn and more, that doesn't happen.

  • You know, even the best venture capitalists

  • in the world who put a sliver of money in Airbnb

  • or a sliver of money in Google, they never

  • have hit anything like that.

  • He's a kind of film script version

  • of what happens if we all went back in time

  • and invested in Facebook on the day

  • that it was invented and so on.

  • When the market turns on SoftBank

  • the thing that keeps the market confident that it's still worth

  • something is that he's still clutching onto that Alibaba

  • stake.

  • Even through the pandemic we've seen Alibaba only get stronger

  • and its share price go higher.

  • We all want to be that investor.

  • He actually was that investor.

  • What if it was a fluke?

  • Did he just get lucky on Chinese e-commerce?

  • Then you come back to the puzzle.

  • Is he the world's most astute tech investor

  • or is he the luckiest guy on the planet?

  • He listened to Jack Ma's speech for five minutes

  • and he saw the twinkle in his eyes

  • and decided to invest in the company.

  • I could smell him, right?

  • We are same animal.

  • He believes in the future.

  • He probably has the biggest guts in the world

  • on doing investment.

  • Yeah.

  • Right.

  • Very few people in the world have that courage.

  • Too much.

  • God, sometimes I lose a lot of money.

  • I know.

  • He had so much conviction in Jack Ma

  • and what the potential of Alibaba

  • was that all these times that it was in the money,

  • he never took a penny off the table.

  • He just wanted to ride it.

  • And he's been proven right.

  • It's one thing to find Alibaba, which is already impressive.

  • But it's another to have the conviction to stick with it.

  • The problem is that last autumn Jack Ma

  • made a pretty ill-advised speech in Shanghai

  • and it seemed to take a swipe at regulators.

  • The next thing we know the share price of Alibaba's

  • taking a really, really big hit.

  • Big problem there is that SoftBank

  • is a 25 per cent holder of Alibaba stock.

  • And where goes Alibaba, goes SoftBank.

  • It's kind of hard to describe SoftBank in one word.

  • It has so many pieces.

  • It's investment portfolio is diverse.

  • It has, obviously, its stake in the domestic mobile business.

  • The now separately listed mobile business

  • that has been absolutely core.

  • And a lot of investors have invested

  • in SoftBank because of the stability

  • that this telecoms business offers.

  • The 2006 Vodafone Japan deal, that's

  • a key moment because it creates a ballast

  • to keep the company stable.

  • Almost as important as buying Vodafone's Japan business

  • was the decision to be the launch carrier for the Apple

  • iPhone.

  • You have this outsider offering an American phone

  • to Japanese consumers.

  • And the whole question of whether Japanese consumers

  • would dump the Japanese product in favour of an American

  • product.

  • Like everything he does, it was a gamble

  • and it obviously paid off enormously.

  • The underlying theme, of course, is SoftBank's investment

  • into the future of technology.

  • The current state of the puzzle, it's

  • in flux because one of the key pieces

  • is in the process of being sold, which is Arm.

  • If you asked me four or five years ago what SoftBank is,

  • I would say SoftBank is a company with Arm at the core

  • and Masa running around the world telling everyone

  • that this company and its chip design

  • will be the basis upon which the internet of things

  • will be built off of, all these connected devices.

  • He didn't have the money to pay for Arm

  • and so he needed to find people who would put money in

  • to back the transaction.

  • What he does discover is that there's

  • a bunch of capital in the Middle East

  • that just wants to invest with him.

  • And that's how we get the Vision Fund.

  • The Vision Fund launched in 2017 as the world's largest

  • technology fund.

  • The largest investors in the fund

  • were the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi.

  • Saudi Arabia was also a big investor.

  • It was really a marriage of minds between Mohammed bin

  • Salman and Masayoshi Son.

  • On the one hand, a young authoritarian

  • leader who's in a hurry to transform a society

  • and wean it off oil.

  • Tech-obsessed, but is very concerned about looking

  • like dumb money on the global stage.

  • So in comes Masa and says, look, I'm the world's best technology

  • investor and I have Arm and I can

  • see the future of connected devices

  • and you're trying to build these megacities in Saudi Arabia.

  • Let's do this together.

  • Fast forward to today, Arm's operations under SoftBank

  • basically stunk.

  • The high-tech stuff, the stuff that was the future,

  • is basically a cash guzzling, cash burning disaster.

  • If he's nothing else, he is a consummate salesman.

  • He got asked once, so how did you

  • convince Mohammed bin Salman to give you $45bn in an hour?

  • And he says, no, $45bn in 45 minutes.

  • One billion every minute.

  • You've got so much money in a fund.

  • You're not just buying a little part of that industry.

  • You're buying the future of that industry.

  • He got $100bn with which he can say, OK, OK.

  • Maybe the market was one day going to come to the conclusion

  • that this company was going to be the dominant player.

  • But I'm going to leapfrog all of that and just make this company

  • the dominant player by pouring so much money into it.

  • What if he says, OK, if you don't take my money,

  • I'm going to go give quadruple that amount to your rival.

  • It's not all lovey dovey.

  • People don't see that brutal side of Masa.

  • He used capital as a weapon with the Vision Fund.

  • It poured money into various start-ups

  • from Uber, DiDi, Oyo, Slack.

  • Sent shockwaves through Silicon Valley

  • and brought the valuations of technology companies

  • to new heights.

  • They wanted to basically be more effective at investing

  • than Sequoia or Benchmark, the brand

  • name venture capital funds.

  • But it's really a bunch of ex-Deutsche Bank traders

  • who are running the show.

  • And so what do they know about venture investing?

  • So the first few years of the Vision Fund

  • are marked by, like, enormous mistakes.

  • These companies weren't making money.

  • And when it came time for them to do IPOs,

  • investors weren't convinced.

  • We had this crisis at WeWork that really raised questions

  • in the Vision Fund's strategy.

  • A office work-sharing company sold into this incredible hype

  • machine.

  • And the person feeding that hype of Adam Neumann, the founder,

  • was Masa Son.

  • I don't think he's necessarily the greatest

  • judge of character.

  • He falls very hard in love with other entrepreneurs.

  • I think if any of us in a room with Adam Neumann we'd probably

  • be like, I'd probably tone down the crazy

  • 'cause this is starting to look nuts.

  • Masa says, no, be more crazy.

  • And after the pandemic struck it also

  • showed the vulnerability of the Vision Fund

  • with some of the major bets like Uber and DiDi being hit.

  • Then that led to SoftBank suffering its biggest

  • ever annual loss.

  • But if you think about a venture portfolio,

  • if they're in 88 companies, maybe slightly more,

  • their point is, some of them will be duds, some of them

  • will be OK, and some of them may be Alibaba level potential.

  • Maybe not the full Alibaba.

  • And as long as they get enough of those

  • it doesn't really matter what the other stuff does.

  • Now you've got people so deeply involved in some area

  • of development, particularly the Vision Fund, again,

  • that they've become their own piece but are never more

  • powerful than him at the centre.

  • He recruited this Google man called Nikesh Arora.

  • Indian, very successful.

  • Nikesh wanted Masa to pay down his debt, take less risks.

  • These two had a spectacular falling out.

  • At the same time, another Indian who Masa had recruited,

  • Raeev Misra from Deutsche Bank, his rise

  • really begins and takes off as Nikesh's plummets.

  • He brings in a guy called Sago.

  • He is Goldman Sachs in Japan.

  • Super cautious.

  • And so you've got Deutsche and Goldman Sachs characters

  • now merged.

  • You've got a lot of complexity around everyone second guessing

  • what everyone else is up to.

  • Another character was Marcelo Claure

  • who was recruited into SoftBank and then put

  • in charge of Sprint and is now playing a major role

  • across the portfolio.

  • The Wild West is how the Vision Fund's

  • been described internally.

  • He likes a little bit of chaos and he

  • likes a little bit of tension.

  • It's a pirate ship and it's full of pirates

  • and they're all aggressive traders.

  • And what you have is, basically, Masa as the ringleader

  • of this pirate ship.

  • They're not co-ordinated, they don't get along,

  • everyone is briefing against each other.

  • That tension is all held in place when he's there<