Not far from the storied venture capital firms on Sand Hill Road, there’s a palatial estate where Masayoshi Son, Silicon Valley’s newest kingmaker, shapes the future. Reaching him requires driving into a leafy enclave filled with mansions overlooking Palo Alto before passing through a gated entrance into a sprawling compound where waiting attendants escort you inside.
Startup founders fortunate enough to earn an audience with Son, a 60-year old billionaire with a global network and vast funds, recall being led down a hallway lined with artwork to make the pitch of a lifetime. Some were ushered into a large conference room with an enormous table, spotless marble floors and ornate woodwork. Others found themselves in a small side room illuminated by chandeliers waiting for the meeting to begin. Eventually they met Son in an intimate sitting room where a two-seater couch faces a couple of chairs and a small coffee table.
Matt Barnard remembers time moving slowly in that side room as he awaited his chance to convince a man he described as “larger than life” to bet on his indoor farming startup, Plenty. To help make his case, Barnard brought along a seven-foot tower of mustard greens and bok choy grown by his startup. It was just tall enough, it turned out, to whack one of the chandeliers. “How perfect,” Barnard said. “I walk into this immaculate and impressive home and manage to almost break a chandelier.”
Son’s fund would go on to lead a $200 million investment round in Plenty after the meeting.Barnard wasn’t the only one to have an anxiety-inducing moment in the house. Mohit Aron, founder and CEO of the data storage startup Cohesity, remembers Son staying silent throughout much of his pitch. When Son did speak, it was to ask Aron how much bigger he thought the company might really grow with an infusion of capital. Aron told him it could one day capture much of the world’s data.
Son pondered that pitch for 30 seconds before saying “OK” and shaking Aron’s hand, sealing a deal to lead a $250 million investment round in the startup. The deal done, Son led Aron to the front door and bid him goodbye. “He is a man of few words,” Aron says. “He doesn’t say much. He will just shake hands and that’s it.”The $100 Billion Gatekeeper
That’s how it is when you’re the visionary leader of SoftBank, one of the world’s most influential and aggressive technology firms. Under Son’s guidance, the Japanese conglomerate, which he founded in 1981, has repeatedly shaken up entire industries with blockbuster acquisitions of companies like Sprint and prescient investments in startups like Alibaba.
Son capitalized on the rise of personal computing in the 1980s and bet so heavily on the dot-com boom of the 1990s that he is said to have at one point owned 25% of the Internet. He lost billions in the dot-com bust, but sinking $20 million into Alibaba in 2000 helped revive his fortune. Son is now worth about $15 billion — and, remarkably, maintains his tremendous appetite for risk and long-term thinking. At a time when most CEOs look no further ahead than the next quarter, Son forges ahead with a 300-year plan for his company.
At the heart of his plan lies the Vision Fund, a $93 billion pool of money that Son intends to use to shape the future for centuries to come.
If that kind of timeline seems odd, well, Son is something of an eccentric. He often quotes Yoda, passionately prepares for the singularity, and has been known to make big bets on companies based upon what he once called his “sense of smell.” He plays an active role in SoftBank’s investment decisions, and Aron recalled being told that Son has “final say” on each Vision Fund deal.
That’s not entirely true, according to a spokesperson for SoftBank Investment Advisors. Son sits on an investment committee that performs a final review of potential investments. Still, he does meet with the CEO of every company SoftBank invests in, according to a longtime SoftBank employee speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal company matters.
Such meetings have grown increasingly frequent since last year, when Son launched the Vision Fund to invest in technology startups that he believes will fundamentally change the world. The fund, backed by the likes of Apple and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, has already pumped $30 billion into companies including Uber, WeWork, and Slack.
Not everyone celebrates this. Rival venture capitalists complain that Son and his immense VC fund wield an unprecedented ability to inflate startup valuations and pressure companies to take money they may not need — or want. And they know Son is only getting started. During SoftBank’s annual shareholder meeting in June, Son said he plans to devote “97% of my time and brain” to investing in technology companies.
SoftBank, he said, is now “a unicorn hunter.”
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Son has always had a penchant for making deals. As a student studying economics at UC-Berkeley forty years ago, he convinced Forrest Mozer, a professor who had invented a talking calculator for the blind, to join him in building a pocket translator.