Billionaire Masayoshi Son has long been that rarest of things: a risk-taking Japanese CEO who swings for the fences. It’s his outside-the-box reputation that drew global investors to his US$100 billion Vision Fund.
But these days, Son is going Japanese in the worst kind of way as he rescues WeWork from the grave. He is doing it in ways that risks not just his reputation, but SoftBank’s future.
Son’s status as a talent scout extraordinaire began in 2000 when he handed $20 million to an obscure English teacher in China. By 2014, Son’s stake in Alibaba was worth $50 billion when Jack Ma took his e-commerce giant public.
The Vision Fund that Son created in 2016 was designed to repeat that success. Oddly, he set his crosshairs on Adam Neumann, co-founder of WeWork. He then upped the office-rental startup’s status by calling it the “next Alibaba.”
As if. Or, if only.
Almost overnight, WeWork went from a unicorn that Son’s team valued at $47 billion to a basket case. After shoving Neumann out as CEO, Son is now saving WeWork from the financial reckoning it has so clearly earned.
Why WeWork doesn’t
In that way, Son, a corporate shogun famed for being uncharacteristically un-Japanese, is embracing Japan Inc’s worst instincts. He’s doing so by saving a zombie company he’d be better off allowing to fail as per the most basic laws of capitalism.
Alarm bells have been ringing over the last year as Neumann’s team burned cash with random abandon and embraced a governance structure that would have turned a 1990s tech-era CEO’s hair grey.
The core problem? WeWork’s unworkable business model.
It is truly odd that investors as smart as Son and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase would drink Neumann’s Kool-Aid. In recent weeks, both raced to save face – and WeWork’s future – by offering dueling rescue plans. Son appears to be winning out with a plan to grab almost total ownership, while offering Neumann a massive $1.7 billion payout.
How ridiculous is that? Neumann has just became a moral hazard personified, rewarded for spending with shocking abandon and expanding with astounding hubris.
Really, though, Son is saving a company that should be allowed to fail. And he is doing it Japan-style.
Japan Inc’s zombie addiction
Since the collapse of Japan’s 1980s “bubble economy,” Tokyo pursued a policy of public bailouts and corporate welfare to avoid job losses. Though it supported socio-economic stability, it deadened Japan’s economic animal spirit. Twenty-five years later, it’s curious that Son, of all people, would be reading from that same dubious playbook.
Granted, he’s trying to save face – to preserve his “Warren Buffett of Japan” street cred. But even after his bailout, WeWork is doomed by a stubborn and damning fact: It’s not a new economy tech disruptor, it’s an old economy property-investment play.
WeWork’s model is scoring the best real estate in the most vibrant cities in the world – and that’s a fantastically expensive endeavor. It was also one that was doomed to epic failure once investors started asking sensible questions.
Glaringly, it is an utterly stupid move for a supposed venture capital guru.
Venture capital’s defiance of gravity
Son would be better off letting WeWork fail and writing off the loss. Stubbornness has no place in disrupting the Silicon Valley status quo. Nevertheless, Son is intent on reversing the laws of economic gravity.
This is the moment Son could turn activist investor. A time to call startups as he sees them and to drop CEOs as any benefactor of his scale can and should. That would help restore an air of sobriety to an industry that let ambition outrun commercial realities. The question surrounding Son is: “Will he?”
Son may see the WeWork mess as an existential threat to his Buffett-esque status. But his tolerance of such mediocrity could, ironically, be his undoing.
The buzz is that Son’s efforts to unleash a second $100 billion Vision Fund are falling flat. Saudi Arabia, which put up $45 billion for the first fund, is playing coy this time. It’s hard to gauge the damage Son did betting big on one company with a model easily replicated and tied directly to the whimsical values of property it doesn’t own – but here we are.
WeWork’s demise is bad for entire cities around the globe – from San Francisco to London to Singapore. It could “negatively affect the valuations of surrounding office properties in those cities – even if they don’t have direct exposure to WeWork,” Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts warn.
The unicorn industry, too. Given the post-initial public offering performances of Uber, Slack and others, the venture capital industry is facing many, many uncomfortable questions.
But the real cost could be to Son’s reputation as a savvy investor and as a visionary worth throwing $100 billion at.