Bigger is not always better, even in the financial world. Less is sometimes more when it comes to investing.
These are the lessons of the Son. No, not that Son. I’m talking about Masayoshi Son. If that name sounds familiar it’s with good reason. Masayoshi Son is the founder and CEO of SoftBank Group, a company that owns a beef stew of telecommunication and internet companies.
It is Mr. Son who made headlines around the world a few years ago by raising a $100 billion investment fund, aspirationally named the Vision Fund, a whopping four times the size of the biggest private equity fund ever raised. With a titanic fund like that, people figured Masayoshi Son could move small continents. Investors piled in, and none with more enthusiasm and commitment than Saudi Arabia, which plowed $45 billion into the Vision Fund, hoping it would become a component of the kingdom’s effort to create economic diversification for the country by moving it away from the dwindling prospects for its oil- and gas-based economy. The fund quickly bought stakes in all the most exciting startup companies, including Byte-Dance , DoorDash, Slack, Uber and WeWork. Silicon Valley venture capital firms started to fret about how they could possibly compete against this Sumo-sized fund. Shock and awe reigned.
It wasn’t just the sheer size of the fund, it was also the fund’s front-loaded style of investing, which perhaps accounts for the “vision” part of the fund’s name. Rather than giving its portfolio companies rounds of investment dollars, the Vision Fund opened the vault right from the get-go, figuring it would alleviate their companies’ concerns about raising additional capital. This way, company leaders could concentrate on acquiring talent and investing in the growth of their organizations. Then there were the synergies that were supposed to activated between the fund’s 86 portfolio companies, a type of managerial ecosystem where best practices were shared to the collective benefit of Vision Fund startups.
Masayoshi Son’s investing principles seemed to make a lot of sense at the time, but a funny thing happened on the way to investor returns. The Vision Fund stumbled — and badly. Three years into the fund’s 12-year lifespan, $84 billion has been invested and the fund is falling well short of Son’s expectations, as well as those of his investors. SoftBank announced in April its Vision Fund would suffer a $17 billion annual operating loss. There were some embarrassing stumbles along the way, chief among them the $4.7 billion loss connected to WeWork’s ill-fated IPO attempt, as well as the week SoftBank’s market value dropped about $10 billion following a Wall Street Journal report accusing the company of making a massive number of risky tech investments.
It turns out there’s a reason why venture capital firms refrain from giving startups too much upfront money, favoring instead to disburse investment dollars in rounds, and only after a portfolio company hits certain performance targets. VCs are dealing with high-risk capital, and they have no way of knowing with certainty whether a startup’s product or service will actually be properly executed and take hold. Hence, it’s important to keep some powder dry for subsequent rounds of financing, and to keep management teams at portfolio companies minding their P’s and Q’s. That’s why Silicon Valley VCs have long operated under this platitude: “Startups die not from starvation but from excess.” Good performance runs on empty bellies.
But the Vision Fund had so much money, it needed to put it to work — and quickly — so it flooded the market with tens of billions in investments to more than 80 startup companies.
As for Masayoshi Son’s synergistic notion of an ecosystem between his portfolio companies, that also hasn’t lived up to it advertisement. Let’s just say that too many of the heralded startups compete against one another and didn’t exactly fancy sharing their best practices with rivals.
All this bad news has put plans for Vision Fund 2 in jeopardy. The second fund was looking to raise $108 billion in commitments, but thus far has only the $38 billion committed by SoftBank itself. It remains to be seen whether the new fund can win pledges from investors who stocked the first fund, such as Apple, Foxconn, Sharp, Qualcomm and Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund. It’s been reported that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the biggest backer of the maiden Vision Fund, has suspended plans to invest in Vision Fund 2, clearly worried about the fate of the $45 billion already placed under Masayoshi Son’s care and feeding.
Let’s keep this in perspective, though. The Vision Fund is only one-quarter through its 12-year termination date. Masayoshi Son, the man from The Land of the Rising Sun, still has nine years to show the investors who placed faith in his Vision Fund that the sun is still rising.
Mike Consol (email@example.com) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter @mikeconsol to read his latest postings.