In May 2020, Masayoshi Son gave an investor presentation that featured a now infamous slide deck. In one sequence, white clip art horses gallop up a steep hill toward a deep ditch, marked “Valley of Coronavirus.” In the last of three slides, two horses are nose-down in the ditch; the third has grown wings and a horn and is soaring away. In the same presentation, Son reported that the Vision Fund, his company’s investment vehicle, had lost nearly $18 billion over the previous fiscal year.
Over the past five years “Masa” Son has been perhaps the single most influential investor in global technology. His first Vision Fund, raised in 2017, had more than $100 billion in capital to invest in emerging technologies, from chipmaking to robotics to ride hailing and food delivery. He was an enthusiastic backer of tech companies in Asia, making huge investments across multiple rounds, pushing valuations up dramatically and promoting a winner-takes-all approach that burned cash to build market share and dominate market niches. SoftBank’s investments helped build household names across the region, such as South Korean e-commerce giant Coupang, Indonesian super app GoTo, and Indian payments company Paytm. In India, the company invested 10% of the total funding for all of the country’s unicorns.
But, over the last two years, the wings have come off SoftBank’s flying unicorn strategy, and headlines have focused more on the failures than the grand vision. There was a $375 million bet on Zume, a company promising pizza-making robots, which has since cut half its workforce, and the collapse of construction startup Katerra. And there was WeWork, whose bungled IPO and sudden fall in value prompted an industry-wide reevaluation of startup accounting, valuations, and governance — and an Apple TV series.
However, although the received wisdom is that Softbank is a spent force, it’s still a massive and influential investor in global technology. The company is still coming into new markets, making significant investments into African companies, including OPay and Andela — suggesting Son still has an appetite for new frontiers.