Masayoshi Son, a man who lost a fortune only to build another one

What makes every tech start-up want to be associated with Softbank? It has something to do with its deep pockets and everything to do with the golden touch and the forward-thinking of its founder Masayoshi Son.

Many envy Masa, as he is popularly called, in his post-2010 avataar, where he is – sitting on a $100 billion tech fund, is the richest man of Japan and the 55th most powerful man in the world according to Forbes.

But his story is inspirational. Consider this

  • A South Korean born in Japan in 1957, a time when ethnicity-based discrimination was highly prevalent, to a family with humble means. His family adopted the Japanese surname Yasumoto. Son used this surname as a child
  • He dropped out of high school at 15 after reading a book by Ryoma and moved to the US.
  • During the dotcom boom he was briefly richer than Bill Gates. When it went bust, reports say that Son’s personal net worth plummeted 99% from $76 billion to just $1.1 billion. While still a billionaire, he still lost a whopping $74.9 billion.

At 15, the worldly perspective of Ryoma, a Samurai, spurred him on. In fact, SoftBank’s logo, two silver even bars, has a close resemblance to Ryoma’s banner. ”Ryoma was the beginning stage in my life,” he has been quoted as saying, emphasising ‘how insignificant and small we are in context to the bigger things in life.’

Around the same time, he was highly influenced by the founder of McDonald, Japan, whose advise – to learn English and pursue a career in the informatics industry – he took to heart and reached the US.

When he landed on American shores with his family, he started school again only to finish it in three weeks. He made his first million from a multilingual electronic interpreter he developed while learning at the University of California at Berkeley. Soon he returned to Japan to establish SoftBank. He was 24. He reverted to his Korean surname ‘Son’.

Son is fixated on what’s to come – so much so that he has a 300-year business plan for Softbank. “If I were to choose only one thing, it wouldn’t be a chip, or software, or hardware. I would want it to be said that I have created an organizational structure that can potentially grow for 300 years. That I have created a company, a group, that will continue to evolve without stumbling,” he told shareholders in 2010.

He has a reputation of meeting specifically with world pioneers to talk business. Recently, he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and discussed SoftBank’s $10 billion interest in India’s innovation journey. His far-sightedness can be gauged from the fact that he met Donald Trump, when he had not yet taken office as the 45th US President. Son promised to invest US$50 billion in US technology startups and create tens of thousands of jobs in the America.

At 60, he wants to remembered as”Crazy guy who bet on the future.” He bet on China’s Alibaba Group when the company was an unknown internet firm in 1999 and is today worth $480 billion. At a Bloomberg Global Business Forum, Son said that he was drawn to Alibaba not because of the business model or technology, but because of the charisma and leadership of founder Jack Ma.

When asked by a reporter from Mint newspaper, if betting on the future is a skill that can be acquired Masa narrated the following story, albeit in broken English.

My family migrated from South Korea to Japan to start from zero, negative actually. So I was very very poor as a kid. Then my father made little money, we became little bit average or above average. Whenever I went to play with other kids in the summer time I wanted to eat ice candy. I buy ice candy with my little money I had but with all the remaining money I bought the candy for all my other friends so that I can enjoy eating without feeling bad.

So my grandmother saw me doing that and she said ‘Masa why are you doing that. Money is important, money is precious. Don’t waste money. You are wasting your money.’ I said no grandma I am not wasting my money, I am giving to my friends. That is not wasting, that’s a friendship. And she said money is not unlimited, you will lose all your money if you continue to do that. I was like 10 years old. I said grandma maybe I understand what you are trying to say but I said ‘money is going to come from the heaven. When I grow up, money is going to come from the heaven as long as I do good things. When the money comes from the heaven, I will give to my friends again!’ And she said ‘you are hopeless!’

So anyway, half I am born like this, the other half is my effort. I try to be a meaningful person. So that is my effort.

Son met his wife, Masami Ohno, while in university. They have two daughters. He lives in Tokyo in a $50 million three-story mansion that houses a hi-tech golf range that can mimic weather conditions and temperature of the world’s top golf courses. He has a $117 million home near Silicon Valley in Woodside, California. He owns Softbank Hawks, a professional Japanese baseball team, but  in 2011 Son pledged to donate $120 million and his remaining salary until retirement to help support victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

Son imagines that in 30 years a single computer chip will perform as well as a human with an IQ of 10,000. “I really believe this,” Son said. He is betting on AI and Telepathy and clean energy.

Here is something that Son said in 2010. Worth pondering over.

In 300 years, maybe Softbank won’t be a mobile phone company anymore. Softbank could be a telepathy service provider. And then as chips are communicating with each other wirelessly, people speaking different languages from Chinese to English to French will be able to use them for automatic translation. Computers will automatically translate what a person is saying. I think that day will come. Maybe we’ll even be able to communicate telepathically with dogs.

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