A peek at SoftBank’s strategic secrets in Masayoshi Son’s own words. All 303,513 of them

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 August, 2018, 11:57am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 August, 2018, 11:57am

Masayoshi Son has a lot going on these days.

The SoftBank Group founder oversees the largest technology fund in history and is putting money into ride-hailing, e-commerce, digital payments, satellites, semiconductors, agriculture and cancer detection – just for a start.

How to make sense of it all? Son uses earnings briefings to explain his evolving vision. So ahead of SoftBank’s first-quarter results, Bloomberg News analysed his comments from previous presentations to see how his focus has changed and what may lay ahead.

Natural language processing software helped sift through briefings from the past 12 years, spanning more than 303,000 words. Son has shown impressive fortitude over that stretch: He hasn’t missed a single one of the 48 reports.

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Son has sharply increased his references to artificial intelligence in recent months, proclaiming that it will redefine every industry and create many new ones. His comments about AI, robotics and the Internet of Things spiked after SoftBank’s US$32 billion acquisition of chip maker ARM Holdings in 2016.

Now, Son is increasingly turning to the topics as a unifying theme for his wide-ranging deals. Pepper, SoftBank’s humanoid robot, shared the stage with Son in 2015, but has faded in prominence since then.

The internet was the centrepiece of Son’s vision of the future for years. That evolved into the mobile internet with the advent of the smartphone, when Son got exclusive rights to sell the iPhone in Japan. The topics come up less and less now, even though SoftBank’s stakes in e-commerce giants Alibaba Group Holding and Yahoo Japan are among its most valuable assets. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

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Son couldn’t stop talking about Sprint in the years when he was struggling to turn around the money-losing US carrier he agreed to buy in 2012. The agreement in April to sell a controlling stake to T-Mobile US Inc. has freed him to focus on SoftBank’s longer-term future.

The idea of an information revolution may conjure up visions of 1999 for most people. Not Son. He’s using the term more than ever now that he’s building a US$100 billion investment fund and wielding unparalleled influence among the world’s entrepreneurs.

For Son, it’s a synonym for disruption. He thinks no industry is safe from seismic, technological change. The includes his own wireless business, which is part of his motivation in evolving toward something new.

Son likes to talk about creating a company that can last 300 years. Far-fetched, yes. But he has shown a surprising ability to evolve from one business to another.

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When he was 19, he invented an electronic translator and then sold it to raise money for his own company. Since then, he’s resold software, published magazines, organised trade shows, offered broadband services and managed wireless operators on two continents.

Today, he says he wants to create a digital-age conglomerate with hundreds of portfolio companies. He calls this the “cluster of No. 1s” strategy – the idea of taking non-controlling stakes in industry-leading companies and encouraging them to cooperate.

Will it work? He has a few more years to try.