David Rubenstein Interviews Masayoshi Son

SoftBank Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son recently spoke with David Rubenstein for “The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations.” The full interview is embedded below. Not a particularly deep conversation, but still interesting as I wasn’t familiar with his story.

Some highlights below (any mistakes are my own):

  • On his US$100bn Vision Fund: He thinks that machines will become more intelligent than humans across a wide range of subjects within the next 30 years, an event referred to as the singularity. This will have a profound and largely positive impact on humankind. The fund will invest in companies that underpin the global shifts brought on by artificial intelligence.
  • On his upbringing: He is of Korean descent. His grandfather moved to Japan and his parents were born and grew up there. He says he suffered some discrimination growing up, but feels that it made him stronger. He had to work harder to prove he was not inferior. At some point, the Japanese government forced Korean immigrants to adopt a Japanese surname. It was not their intention to change their family name. 
  • On the meeting that changed his life: He grew up in a small town in southern Japan. Was inspired by a book written by Den Fujita, the founder of McDonald’s Japan. He flew to Tokyo for a 15 minute meeting him when he was 16 years old. Fujita advised him to pursue a career in the computer industry as it was the future.
  • On his time in the US: He attended Berkeley, where he says he was a good student. Was always looking for ways to earn money on the side. Thought the most efficient use of his time was to try and invent something. He eventually patented an electronic dictionary, which he sold to the Sharp Corporation. He used the money to start SoftBank.
  • On moving back to Japan: He could have stayed on in the US, but he promised his mother he would come back to Japan. It was around the time of the personal computer revolution. He initially focused on aggregating and selling software to PC stores (hence the name SoftBank).
  • On the Alibaba investment: Invested US$20m early on in the company’s history. He met with Jack Ma, who at the time had no business plan, zero revenue and only 35-40 employees. Still, he could tell from the way he talked (with “strong, shining eyes”) that he had a vision and impressive leadership skills. Similar story with Jerry Yang and the Yahoo! investment.
  • On losing US$70bn during the dot-com crash: Very difficult time as the company almost went bankrupt. He had to rebuild the business. By then, he was convinced that the internet would become a mobile internet. Made a big bet that he could turn around Vodafone’s mobile telephone business in Japan but had to convince the banks to finance the deal.
  • On his recent investment in ARM: Biggest investment to date. UK-based semiconductor company that has an overwhelming market share for semiconductor designs used in mobile phones and other mobile devices. He says they will ship more than 1 trillion IoT chips in the next 20 years.
  • On next steps: He recently turned 60. By the age of 69, he wants to find a successor and pass on the baton. He will still find ways to stay involved as he enjoys what he is doing. Looking back, he wouldn’t do anything differently. Having said that, he doesn’t think he would be able to get to the same outcome again given how often he has been close to the cliff.