I often read Professor Georges Ugeux’s posts at Columbia Law School Blue Sky Blog, noting the cult-like followers of cryptocurrency prophets and tech visionaries.
Professor Ugeux: You wrote about Masayoshi Son in 2021, and again, in November last year. You’re two for two! Masa Son has had ANOTHER terrible year. The situation (as of mid November 2022) has become so bad that Masa personally owes SoftBank about $4.7 billion, due to additional Vision Fund 2 losses. CEO’s compensation plan backfiring amid plunging valuations (emphasis mine):
Masayoshi Son is now personally on the hook for about $4.7 billion on side deals he set up at SoftBank Group Corp. to boost his compensation, after mounting losses in the company’s tech portfolio wiped out the value of his interest in the second Vision Fund.
The Japanese billionaire’s controversial personal stakes in SoftBank’s investments drew fire from investors, who pointed to the mix of personal and company interests as a corporate governance concern. Son — who holds a more than 30% stake in SoftBank — has denied there was a conflict of interest…
I found an interview of Masa published by Harvard Business School Review in January 1992. Curious about Masa’s background story? I was! With Japan Inc. enthusiasm and many years before any hint of the Lost Decade(s) to come, it begins with this preface by the American HBR interviewer. Japanese-style Entrepreneurship: An Interview with Masayoshi Son:
…high-tech startups begun by young entrepreneurs who contribute their fresh global outlook and new generational attitudes... Masayoshi Son, 34, exemplifies this… Born in Japan of Korean heritage, Son attended high school in the United States — graduating in two weeks — then graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where he started several businesses and, at the age of 20, used his technological skills to invent and patent a device he sold to Sharp Corporation for $1 million. He returned to Japan in 1981 and a year later, started Softbank.
He graduated from an East Bay high school in two weeks? Oooookay. About those early days, in 1982, Masa said:
In a loud voice, I said to my two workers, “You guys have to listen to me because I am the president of this company. In five years, I’m going to have $75 million in sales. In five years, I will be supplying 1,000 dealer outlets, and we’ll be number one in PC software distribution.” A year and a half later, we were supplying 200 dealer outlets. Now we supply 15,000.
“We specialize in the PC industry’s knowledge”
In ten years, we’ve gone from two part-time employees to 570 employees doing software distribution, book and magazine publishing, telephone least cost routing, system integration, network computing, and CAD-CAM and making about $350 million.
He had two key insights. The first was that personal computers would be a very important product for all of society in 10 or 20 years. There was plenty of PC hardware in Japan but very little business software. The few software producers at the time had no distribution network to sell their software.
If you go back to 1981, everything wasn’t so obvious. The PC was only a toy then… Nobody even knew what kind of software was available in all of Japan. The big, grown-up businesses did not know about the PC industry. They weren’t even all that interested in it. Today in Japan, only 2 million PCs are sold each year, which is one-fourth the number sold in the United States.
PCs were used mostly for games and for hobbies. The second growth stage was business applications like word processing and spreadsheets. The third growth stage is here now — the networked company.
Son’s goal in 1992 was to be number one in computer networking. He already had a joint venture with Novell for this.
His other key insight was to found his company in Japan, for cultural reasons. He knew that doing so would be more difficult in the short term, but would yield value longer term.
…the entrepreneurial climate in the United States is much more responsive to someone who’s trying to start a business. There’s more capital. Japanese banks will not loan money to you because they are more conservative. And because of the culture, it’s harder to attract the best employees. They like to work for the big companies or for the government because Japan is a lifetime employment country.
Yet he hired and trained people from many backgrounds for SoftBank, and they were grateful and stayed.
It’s for the dream that everyone has together. The dream of making the company successful. it would be easier to keep the loyalty of the employees if the headquarters were in Japan. Japanese workers work harder, they have a stronger loyalty to the company, and they tend to stay in the company for a very long time.
Ugeux is correct in comparing Masa to Elon, as both are bright engineers but even more so, have business insight. Masa had a very unusual situation. He had insights about the future of PCs and networking. He also had unusual knowledge (at that time) of the Gen X generation in Japan AND the U.S. He became very wealthy, quickly! He doesn’t seem to have kept that ability with Gen Y nor in general, although he tried. Along the way, he convinced others (like the Emir and the Crown Prince) that he still did.
Perhaps Elon will be different. That remains to be seen.