It’s a bright September morning in San Carlos,
California, and Masayoshi Son, chairman of SoftBank, is
throwing me off schedule. I’d come, as he had, to meet
with the people he’s tapped to run the Vision Fund, his
$100 billion bet on the future of, well, everything. After
almost four decades of building SoftBank into a telecom
conglomerate, Son, an inveterate dealmaker, launched
this unprecedented venture two years ago to back startups
that he believes are driving a new wave of digital upheaval.
He has staked everything on its success—his company, his
reputation, his fortune. We’d both arrived with the same
basic question: Where is this massive vehicle heading? But
because I wasn’t the one footing the 12-figure allowance, I
understood that I’d be the one to wait.
In the hubbub of Son’s visit, my 9 a.m. meeting gets
rescheduled multiple times until it’s set for 4: 30 p.m.
When I finally arrive at the Vision Fund’s offices, just off
California’s Highway 101, I’m struck by how mundane they
are. Son is known for big, showy statements. He reportedly paid $117 million for a home in Woodside in 2013,
the highest price ever in the U.S. This glass and concrete
building, on the other hand, could be found in any part of
The room where I wait is spartan. There is an empty
desk in one corner, and a conference table with a fake-wood veneer. I try to read the pale gray scribbles on
a whiteboard, hoping they might shed light on what
happens in this place, but the surface has been too well
scrubbed. The interior glass walls of the conference room
have been lined with a white, papery substance that turns
anyone on the other side into apparitions.
Finally, Rajeev Misra, CEO of the entity overseeing the Vision
Fund, rushes into the room, smiling broadly and apologizing profusely. Misra, who has flown in from London for these meetings,
looks exhausted but jacked up, as if he’s gotten a shot of adrenaline.
Son has this effect on people. It is an exceptionally busy day at the Vision Fund. Not only is the big boss in from Tokyo, but unbeknownst
to me, the team is preparing to announce billions of dollars in new
investments: a $1 billion round for Oyo, the Indian hospitality
startup; $800 million split evenly between Compass and OpenDoor,
two real estate disrupters; $100 million for Loggi, a Brazilian delivery startup. It also would lead a $3 billion round in Chinese startup
ByteDance, which makes several popular news and entertainment
apps, including Tik Tok. At the same time, Son and his partners are
in the midst of launching a second $100 billion fund, with plans already underway to raise an additional $45 billion investment from
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia—the Vision
Fund’s primary backer. Neither Misra nor I knew it then, but this
relationship would soon get complicated.
“So what do you want to know?” Misra says, clapping his hands
loudly. “You want the road map? I’ll start from 10,000 feet. . . .”
On the surface, the story of the Vision Fund is about money. How
could it not be? The numbers are eye-popping. The Vision Fund’s mini-
mum investment in startups is $100 million, and in just over two years
since its October 2016 debut, it’s committed more than $70 billion. Son,
61 years old, will also back companies he likes via SoftBank itself or
other means: He’s put some $20 billion—and counting—into Uber and
WeWork through a combination of financial instruments. (Son’s machinations have always been highly complex and it’s not worth getting lost
in the minutiae; regardless of the means, the deals are at his behest.)
His big-money bets agitate the venture capitalists who have long inhabited the dry stretch of lowlands between San Francisco and San Jose, a
place where any fund over $1 billion was head-turning as recently as
three years ago. Turns out, nobody likes competing with a bottomless-pocketed behemoth. “Have you seen the movie Ghostbusters It’s like the
Stay Puft Marshmallow Man tramping around,” one VC tells me before
I visit SoftBank. Then he asks me to ask Misra the question everyone in
town wants to know: Who is Son investing in next?
Underneath, though, lies a more complex story. Computers, Son believes, will run the planet more intelligently than humans can. Futurist
Ray Kurzweil coined the term “the singularity” to describe the moment
when computers take over—and he predicts it will be here by 2040.
The Vision Fund could move up this date. And Son is pouring unprecedented amounts of capital into the people and companies employing
artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize every industry
that affects our lives—from real estate to food to transportation.
When Son first detailed his vision, during an investor presentation
in 2010—slides depicted chips implanted in brains, cloned animals, and
a human hand giving a robotic one a valentine—there were plenty of
scoffs. Many see this machine-driven future as frightening, or even dystopian. But Son believes that robots will make us healthier and happier.
He has long told people, “I have a 300-year plan,” and that declaration is not just the fantastic ambition of a billionaire. He has the
means to pursue these dreams, and they’re starting to become very
real. He is one of the few people with the power to make decisions
that could have global consequences for the future of technology and
society for decades, if not centuries. As Facebook and Google have
demonstrated, machines take on the attributes of their makers. Algorithms, software, and networks all have biases, and Son likes to bet
on founders who remind him of himself, or at least share his ideals.
Son’s values, then, will become our own, dictating the direction of
this machine-powered world.
So where is this massive vehicle heading?
82FAST COMPANY FEBRUARY 2019