SoftBank’s Masa Son has been humbled but he’s not beaten yet
SoftBank just reported its first loss in more than a decade — all because of its big bets on splashy, money-losing tech startups such as WeWork and Uber.
CEO Masayoshi Son admitted on Wednesday that the company just had a terrible quarter. He said that he learned a “harsh lesson” from the collapse in WeWork’s valuation, and that Uber has had “issues.”
But the billionaire businessman also made clear that he’s standing by SoftBank’s Saudi-backed $100 billion Vision Fund and its biggest investments, and has every intention of plowing even more money into artificial intelligence.
Son’s extraordinary conviction persuaded investors like Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund to commit billions to form the Vision Fund. He has grand ambitions to invest in companies that he believes will dominate in a future driven by data and artificial intelligence. And he says he needs a second mega Vision Fund to make those dreams come true.
Humbled by WeWork
Rather than further developing that vision for the future or detailing what would change in SoftBank’s approach, Son spent a good portion of Wednesday’s lengthy earnings presentation explaining what went wrong with WeWork.
SoftBank had to rescue the office sharing company with a $10 billion package that left WeWork with a valuation of $7.8 billion, far below its previous high of $47 billion.
The bailout included a massive payout for controversial WeWork founder Adam Neumann, whose disastrous attempt to take the company public exposed serious governance problems and an overly inflated valuation.
“I overestimated Adam’s good side” and often “turned a blind eye” to his negative side, “especially when it came to governance,” Son said on Wednesday. His remarks were translated from Japanese by a SoftBank interpreter.
“I learned from the WeWork case that we also need to focus on the governance for founders and management, and we need clear standards for that,” he said, without going into detail.
The crisis at WeWork, combined with Uber’s plummeting share price over the last quarter, cost the Vision Fund $8.9 billion. That wiped out earnings from the rest of SoftBank’s operations, forcing the company to report its first quarterly loss in 14 years, according to Reuters.
Not giving up
While Son was apologetic, and humble at times, he was also often defiant. Son said he is powering ahead with the formation of the second Vision Fund, even though he acknowledged that WeWork and Uber have caused “concern” among some investors. Shares of SoftBank are up about 18% this year. The tech-heavy Nasdaq, meanwhile, has jumped by 27%.
Despite the recent massive losses, returns at the Vision Fund overall more than offset last quarter’s hemorrhage, according to Son.
Vision Fund’s value “grew by 1.2 trillion yen ($11 billion) in terms of its cumulative investment,” he said.
Shares in several portfolio companies have fallen since their IPOs, but Son says the Vision Fund bought into the companies at much cheaper valuations. Its stake in Slack, for example, is worth five times what SoftBank paid for it and Guardant Health has increased more than 100%, he added.
The SoftBank founder also brushed off claims that he and the Vision Fund are contributing to a tech bubble and driving bloated valuations of private companies, saying the criticisms are “like deja vu.”
When people were criticizing internet companies 20 years ago, “I had confidence and vision in [them],” Son said. When it comes to artificial intelligence and the portfolio companies in the Vision Fund, “we have the same confidence in them,” he said.
The Vision Fund closed last month, and held investments in 88 companies as of September 30, according to SoftBank’s earnings report.