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Masayoshi Son: the God of tech tests the faithful

Masayoshi Son, the founder of Japanese tech giant Softbank, has had a bad crisis. He has bounced back before, and will do again, he insists. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s performed miracles, says Jane Lewis.

In certain Japanese companies, founder-presidents are sometimes referred to as “kamisama”, or “god”, says the Financial Times. Not all deserve the title, but Masayoshi Son, the irrepressible founder of SoftBank, “has been Japan’s archetypal kamisama for decades. He has led, inspired and been worshipped.” To support the faithful, “Masa” has appeared to perform miracles – his early $20m investment in the Chinese ecommerce start-up Alibaba is now worth around $140bn and considered “among the greatest in tech history”, for example. Which might help explain why – when unveiling the worst loss in SoftBank’s history last week – Son compared himself to Jesus, noting that the Messiah was also “misunderstood and criticised” yet managed to bounce back. Time, he said, would show the value of his investments.  

An extraordinary resurrection

Son has always strived “to think big”, says The Japan Times. In 2010, “he laid out SoftBank’s strategy for the next 300 years”. But his most ambitious project yet – the $100bn Vision Fund, conceived as a vehicle to propel SoftBank to the forefront of emerging technologies like AI and robotics – has been floundering. The fund has suffered some $18bn in losses, led by heavy blows to Son’s flagship investments in tech firms such as WeWork and Uber. And while SoftBank itself is still very much alive and kicking (shares have rebounded 71% since their March lows), there are mutterings that Masa has lost his magic touch.

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Son, 62, has “an unshakeable belief in his own convictions”, says The New York Times: “He once threatened to set himself on fire in the offices of a Japanese telecom regulator unless policymakers gave him what he wanted”. His stubbornness is perhaps a legacy of being born into a family of second-generation Korean immigrants and being bullied as a child. 

The first big break came early, when Son took advantage of a study-abroad programme and flew to California at the age of 16 to attend college, says Forbes. From there, he transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in economics and met his future wife. Clearly no slouch, he was already in the money by the time he graduated in 1980. After selling an electronic-translator patent to Sharp, he made more than $1m importing refurbished arcade machines. The following year, he returned to Japan to start a business designed as a “software bank” – SoftBank. 

In an attempt to pivot away from his current difficulties, Son often invokes the past, says Forbes. As well as citing his Alibaba coup, he can also point to his extraordinary resurrection 20 years ago. No one made more riding the dotcom bubble via investments such as E-Trade and Yahoo – “for three days at the bubble’s peak, Son has claimed he was the richest man in the world”. And no one lost more. By the time the bubble burst SoftBank had lost 99% of its market cap. Yet, within a decade, he had earned his billions back. He thinks the same will happen this time around. Is he “the ultimate escape artist”, preparing for his third act? Or just “a bubble chaser”? History will judge.  

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