SoftBank, the global tech guru, wobbles

The Japanese conglomerate has invested tens of billions of dollars in start-ups. The latest, WeWork, whose IPO was a disaster.

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Masayoshi Son, the boss of SoftBank, Tokyo, October 14th.
Masayoshi Son, the boss of SoftBank, Tokyo, October 14th. CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP

Is Masayoshi Son a visionary or just a stubborn and blind investor? Tuesday, October 22, the boss of SoftBank decided to fly to the rescue of WeWork, the US giant of coworking (rent of shared offices), in which the Japanese conglomerate had already invested more than 10 billion dollars (9 billion euros) . The planned IPO of the New York company failed, it was going to be short of cash.

Masayoshi Son then decided to double the stake, putting another 9.5 billion on the table. And too bad if society accumulates losses, and has no clear prospects for generating profits. Too bad if its valuation has sunk from 47 billion dollars in January to 8 billion today … "This is the kind of growth crisis that many of the biggest innovative technology companies are facing"he commented, philosopher.

He has seen others. In the early 2000s, the boss of Softbank, who invested heavily in the first start-up of the Net era, sees his heritage rolled by the explosion of the Internet bubble. He who likes to say that he was briefly the richest man in the world sees his fortune amputated 70 billion dollars overnight. Even though he was close to ruin, he has not lost any of his taste for innovation and risk taking.

Develop all the hair and kill the competition

This is reflected in the shift he has made to SoftBank in recent years. From a modest software business to a telecommunications empire (SoftBank Mobile in Japan, Sprint in the US), Masayoshi Son has now decided to make its group ($ 12.5 billion in net income in 2018) an investor in companies with high technological value. First by taking over in 2016 the ARM chip design specialist, but especially by launching the following year the most powerful investment fund of the planet in the field of technology: Vision Fund, endowed with nearly 100 billion dollars, thanks in particular to the 60 billion contributed by the sovereign wealth funds of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

In August, the 62-year-old boss claimed that "The future of our company will reside primarily in Vision Fund". In his eyes, SoftBank should become the flagship of an armada of innovative companies, all destined to become unicorns (young companies valued at more than $ 1 billion).


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