E VERY DAY, from 8am to 10pm, Son Masayoshi sits in his mansion in Tokyo doing what entertains him like nothing else: sizing up technology entrepreneurs and handing out money. Working from home has not slowed down the billionaire boss of SoftBank. At the Japanese group’s earnings call on May 12th Masa, as he is universally known, boasted of backing 60 companies in three months. Between January and March he doled out $210m a week.
In the past four years SoftBank has poured $84bn or so into startups. It was the world’s biggest tech investor even before complementing a $98.6bn vehicle it runs, the Vision Fund, with a sibling that now contains $30bn. The 224 tech firms it has backed range from early-stage startups to established giants like ByteDance, owner of TikTok, a Gen-Z time-sink. Names such as Plenty, Better and Forward imply missions to transform industries like food, health and banking. Going by the valuations used by SoftBank and other venture-capital (VC) funds, the backed companies are collectively worth a colossal $1.1trn, according to PitchBook, a data provider.
In spring 2020 SoftBank’s entire tech edifice nearly came tumbling down. As covid-19 spread and markets convulsed, SoftBank’s lenders took fright. Yields on its bonds surged. Investors wondered how—or if—Mr Son’s punts might weather the pandemic. His signature approach—big bets based less on spreadsheets than on “feeling the force” of a deal—looked riskier than ever. The initial public offering (IPO) of WeWork, an office-sharing firm, collapsed in late 2019, before the pandemic. Between February and March 2020, SoftBank’s share price plunged by over 50%.