Masayoshi Son is as paradoxical a Japanese as you’ll find in public circles. The Softbank disruptor hails from a rabidly risk-averse, don’t-rock-the-boat society, and yet he’s the globe’s most important and audacious venture capitalist.
Adding to the puzzle, Son has deployed only token amounts of the US$100 billion his Vision Fund has been lavishing on tech startups since 2016 in his native Japan. Although the fund has thrown billions at startups in China, India, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, the UK and the US, its bets on Japan are negligible – often too small to bother disclosing.
But as Son launches Vision Fund 2, upping his firepower to $200 billion, it’s also a mystery how Japan’s splashiest financier can make it all work. Most Son-related headlines focus on how he’s single-handedly remaking the venture capital game. Or his penchant for overpaying for potential unicorns – possibly inflating new tech bubbles everywhere.
More focus should be on two other prickly questions. One, how SoftBank shareholders might make out. Two, how Japan can win more of Son’s money.
Too much future focus?
Issue No 1 fueled a cottage industry of analysts tantalized by Son morphing SoftBank into something approximating a hedge fund. Son’s team would never publicly accept that characterization, but his own words prove he views SoftBank as so much more than just a telecommunications shop.
It’s not only Son’s lofty talk of the “singularity,” or when artificial intelligence overwhelms humans. Or his desire to be the “crazy guy who bet on the future.”
The real dot worth connecting is an observation Son made in a 2016 Nikkei Asian Review interview: “I think I’m better than others at sniffing out things that will bear fruit in 10 or 20 years while they’re still at the seed stage, and I’m more willing to take the risks that entails.”
The confidence inherent in this view – some might say hubris – dates back to 2000. That was the year Son handed an obscure English teacher in Hangzhou, China, $20 million. That bet on Jack Ma made Son more than $50 billion when Alibaba went public in 2014. It also gave Son a Warren Buffett-like halo in Japan.
In recent years, Son has endeavored to recreate that success. Yet his scattershot investment strategy is pulling the Vision Fund’s risk profile in dozens of directions.
Along with grabbing chunks of the global ride-sharing business, Son is dabbling in chips, solar panels, robots, e-commerce startups, indoor farms, satellites, investment banking and shared-office hives. That last focus effectively put SoftBank in the real-estate game, too.
As Vision Fund 2.0 comes online, Son’s investments since 2016 are under increased scrutiny. That will test his ability to stay focused. At the moment, the first fund looks like an island of misfit startups. It’s time he showed investors how this cacophony of tech bets ultimately comes together.
Soon, too. In 2017, here’s how Son explained the time horizon of his tech bets: “We are doing it to win and to grow for the next 300 years. I am confident people will understand in time.”
Well, good luck with that. If Son can’t rationalize his bets over the next three years, never mind three decades, SoftBank shareholders might move to less vague pastures.
The good news, arguably, is that the mix of benefactors this time around might ask more questions than Saudi Arabia, which largely bankrolled Son’s first fund. The addition of Apple, Microsoft, Foxconn, Standard Chartered and some Japanese banks could increase the pressure for results.
Why no home-turf plays?
Getting Son to deploy serious money at home, issue No 2, is even more important. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes his latest election win – on July 21 – out for a spin, winning Son’s attention is a worthy goal all its own.
Since 2012, Abe has talked a bold game of raising Japan’s competitive game. Yet the deregulatory Big Bang he promised took a back seat to aggressive monetary stimulus. That ploy is now backfiring as the global trade war slams exports.
It’s high time Team Abe cut red tape, modernized labor markets and catalyzed a startup boom that creates new jobs and wealth.
Son could play an outsized role in that transformation. Leveling the playing field for young entrepreneurs would do what the Toyotas, Sonys and Mitsuis haven’t been able to: generate economic energy from the ground up.
Appealing to Son’s sense of country probably won’t work. But tapping into his thought process, what he’d like to see Tokyo doing to shake up a rigid economy could rejuvenate a reform drive stuck in first gear.
He is certainly willing to tell unvarnished truths. Earlier this month, Son chided Japan Inc as “underdeveloped” in its embrace of AI – lagging behind China, India and even Southeast Asia.
“It’s in a pretty bad situation, so Japan needs to awaken,” Son said, highlighting one way local players could win more of his Vision Fund 2 support.
The problem with Abenomics
For going on seven years now, Abe has relied on 1980s-style trickle-down economics. Though it’s pumped up stocks and gross domestic product, it failed to boost wages or attract notable waves of foreign-direct investment. Boosting asset values didn’t make Japan more productive or less reliant on exports for growth.
Tokyo also needs to raise its score on the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business tables. It now ranks 39th – quite a deterioration from 20th place in 2012. Nor has Abe tilted the tax code in favor of scrappy new ventures, opting instead to support giant exporters at the top of the corporate food chain.
A lack of early-stage investment targets is a major demerit for Son and his venture-capital ilk.
Japan, after all, is a G3 economy but – unlike G1 US and G2 China – is failing at the unicorn game. While developing Indonesia is produced twice the number of $1 billion-plus disruptors as Japan, Tokyo has a problem. On Monday, Son was in Jakarta pledging to up his $1 billion-plus bet on local-commerce start-up Tokopedia.
It’s a highly correctable problem, though. Abe’s Cabinet must get on with it – and urgently. If Abenomics can incorporate a bit of Son’s $200 billion vision, it could go a long way in beefing up Japan’s innovative mojo.