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Masayoshi Son

Japan’s legendary technology investor takes a long-term view, with a $100 billion plan over 30 years

SoftBank is a global technology investment company based in Minato, Tokyo. It primarily invests in companies operating in technology, energy, and financial sectors - and also runs the Vision Fund, the world's largest technology-focused venture capital fund, with over $100 billion in capital.

Masayoshi Son is the billionaire founder of SoftBank. and the man behind the world’s largest technology investment fund. Born in 1957 to a Korean immigrant family in sparsely populated Saga Prefecture, he flew to California when he was 16, and to finish college then study economics at Berkeley. There, he invented an electronic pocket translator he sold to Sharp for ¥100 million which he used to launch his first company on returning to Japan.

As a 24-year-old, he launched a software distribution company with two part-time employees in Fukuoka. One morning he stood on a makeshift podium to deliver an impassioned speech to his staff about how the company would eventually grow to be among the world’s giants, counting revenue in the trillions of yen. The two part-timers thought their boss was out of his mind.

In the dotcom boom of the late 1990s Son lost most of his money but was fortunate to invest his last $20 million for a 25% in a business that would later become known as Alibaba. At the time of Alibaba’s IPO, the value of his share had grown to over $20bn.

Since than he acquired Sprint Telecom for $22 billion, and semiconductor designer ARM for $32 billion, the largest tech acquisition in European history. He is now owner or major investor in Boston Dynamics, Grab, Nvidea, OneWeb, Supercell, and Uber, amongst others. Some investments have not worked out so well, included workspace company WeWork, but then as Son says, “taking big risks means that you will sometimes fail big too.”

Softbank has evolved into a global technology conglomerate, and Son into a legend in his native Japan, where comic books depict his rags-to-riches story from a poor neighbourhood to the nation’s richest men.

He now leads a $100 billion technology investment fund, SoftBank Vision Fund focusing on emerging technologies like AI, robotics and the internet of things. “I make investments based on a vision,” says Son. In fact, he plans to raise an additional $100bn of funding every year, investing about $50bn a year in start-ups, accelerating the pace of investments and innovation, and rapidly turning his future vision into profitable reality.

He is a great optimist, and as an investor has learnt to ride the waves of fortune as well as change. Whilst many of his investments have been spectacular, others like WeWork have demonstrated that there is also huge risk in new businesses seeking to create new sectors.

However, it is the human future which inspires him most, saying “I believe the continually advancing information revolution will lend us the wisdom and strength to address humanity’s previously unsolvable problems and help us make a positive impact on all of society.”

In 2010 Son created a 30-year strategic framework for his business, focused around how technology enables people to live better lives. He says he first came up with this framework when he was 26 years old and has been testing it for the last three decades. It is a pyramidal structure partly based on Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” with 5 levels, and within them 25 components each of which are important factors in weighing up decisions:

  • Ideology: Road, Sky, Terrain, Leader, Systematisation
  • Vision: Summit, Information, Strategy, Seven, Battle
  • Strategy: One, Wave, Offensive, Defensive, Group
  • Leadership: Knowledge, Trust, Benevolence, Courage, Strictness
  • Tactics: Wind, Woods, Fire, Mountain, Sea

Even though his document is entitled a 30 years vision, it actually takes a much longer perspective: “This vision is designed with the time span of 300 years the next 3 decades is merely the first step” he says in the introduction.

In the framework, Son talks about exponential technologies, how the difference between humans and amoeba’s intelligence today, will be the one that will exist between humans and Artificial Intelligence in the next 100 years. He considers telepathy as a form of communication between people, how we will all understand all languages, how we will live with collaborative robots and how most of the new inventions will be invented by AI. He also explores the potential disasters that could annihilate our world and how we must be prepared to fight them.

However, the key theme is Son’s focus on bringing happiness to all humans. He analyses the main sources of unhappiness in people, such as death of loved ones, loneliness, despair and sorrow, and considers how to combat them. “Information Revolution = Happiness for everyone” he declares.

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