The Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank Group said it would lose a staggering $24 billion on investments made through its Vision Fund and bets on the co-working real estate company WeWork and satellite telecommunications company OneWeb.
Ultimately, the company expects the losses to help generate a $7 billion total loss for the technology giant for the year as its ambitious bets on early-stage companies come up short.
Over the past two years SoftBank and its founder Masayoshi Son have staked billions of (other people’s) dollars and its own fortunes on a vision that investments in machine learning technologies, robotics and next-generation telecommunications would reap hundreds of billions in financial rewards.
While that was the vision that Son and his team sold, the reality was multiple billions of dollars invested into real estate investment plays like WeWork, OpenDoor and Compass, and companies with direct-to-consumer merchandising plays like Brandless, pet supply businesses like Wag and the food delivery business DoorDash. Add the hotel chain Oyo to the mix and the investment selection from the Vision Fund looks even less visionary.
Over the past year, several of its investments ran aground. Though none of them imploded as spectacularly as WeWork — whose valuation was slashed from more than $40 billion to around $8 billion — many have struggled.
Brandless went bust earlier this year, and real estate investments in Compass along with investments in travel and tourism-related businesses like Oyo have suffered in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, which has shuttered economies around the world.
While many SoftBank and SoftBank Vision Fund bets were made into companies that have failed, seem to be on that path or perhaps may struggle in the economic downturn, not every wager is a clunker. The Vision Fund put lots of capital into Slack before it went public, and the company has caught a huge tailwind in the remote-work boom that we’re currently seeing in light of COVID-19.
Perhaps the most visionary of the SoftBank investments (and one not included in the Vision Fund), OneWeb, too, collapsed under the weight of its own capital-intensive vision for a network of satellites providing high-speed global telecommunications services. Zume, SoftBank’s robotic pizza delivery business, also folded.
The only reason all of these gambles haven’t completely destroyed SoftBank is that the company still has a cash cow in its Alibaba stake and a relatively strong core business in telecommunications and semiconductor holdings.
“The difference in income before income tax is, in addition to the above, mainly due to the expected recording of non-operating loss totaling approximately JPY 800 billion for fiscal 2019 on investments held outside of SoftBank Vision Fund, including The We Company (WeWork) and WorldVu Satellites Limited (OneWeb),” the company said in a statement. “This will be partially offset by the gain relating to the settlement of variable prepaid forward contract using Alibaba shares recorded in the first quarter of fiscal 2019 and the dilution gain from changes in equity interest in Alibaba recorded in the third quarter of fiscal 2019, as well as an expected year-on-year increase in income on equity method investments related to Alibaba.”
Ultimately, it seems that Son was too enamored of the mythology he’d created around himself as a maverick and a visionary. To the detriment of his company’s outside shareholders and investors.
As Bloomberg noted in an op-ed earlier today:
Son’s insistence that startups grow faster than their founders planned, and strong-arm them into taking more money than they might have wanted, has turned into a burden. And that’s become a huge liability to investors in the Vision Fund and SoftBank, too.
By throwing cash around, dozens of startups became addicted to spending instead of building fiscal discipline into their business models. For years, it seemed like a sound strategy. By having more money than rivals, SoftBank-backed companies could win market share by offering bigger incentives, taking out more ads and luring the best talent.
Today, SoftBank has a major stake in sector leaders like Uber Technologies Inc., WeWork, Grab Holdings Inc. and Oyo. But climbing to number one doesn’t mean being profitable.