Decoding the brain behind SoftBank: 14 nuggets of wisdom from Masayoshi Son

16th Jan 2016
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Many Indian entrepreneurs in the audience at Vigyan Bhawan and around the country watching the live stream of the Startup India event would have been waiting for one person - top investor and self-confessed Indophile Masoyoshi Son, Founder and CEO of SoftBank. Son did not disappoint the audience that was hanging on to his words with bated breath. Here are the top takeaways from his session on 'Fostering the Spirit of Innovation':

  1. What he looks for in an entrepreneur "Whenever I invest, I look at the eyes of the entrepreneur. I look at the field they are challenging. Are they unique, do they have a passion, do they have a great team? Is the market itself growing?" says Son, who has backed Snapdeal, InMobi, Housing and Oyo in India in recent years. To a question on what he saw in the eyes of Kunal Bahl, Co-founder of Snapdeal, and Ritesh Agarwal, Founder of Oyo, Son said: "Their eyes were sparkling."
Is India still a $10-billion market for him? Son, in an earlier visit to India, had said he would invest $10 billion in India over a decade. He said if he rescales his plans for India, it will only be upwards. In the last year, SoftBank has invested $2 billion in Indian companies. On what Son finds exciting about India, Son said:The people are smart, 800 million young generation, IT, sunshine, English-speaking, largest democracy in the world. All this makes me believe 21st century belongs to this country.
  1. When will Indian startups give returns Son said for a startup profits are not the most important parameter in the first five to 10 years of starting up. "It is the customer acquisition, the business model, the customer satisfaction and overall business model - that should be created. When you get enough momentum and active user base, then think about profitability," he said. Son, however, said that companies should not burn money stupidly. To a question on which companies are not spending money stupidly, Son answered: "The companies we have invested in are (spending) in smart way."
  2. Speed-dating with startups When he invested in Alibaba in 2000, Son said he did not have much of a team to do background checks. "It was almost an instinct," he said. That's not the case now. But he said even with preparation it is like "falling in love with a beautiful girl". Son said logic can only do so much. Feelings and instinct is what finally matters, he said.
Change in investment approach Earlier SoftBank was focused on companies like InMobi that were targeting the global market. Now it is investing in Indian startups that are focused on the Indian market. Son said:The time has come; the stage has come. The Indian economy will be big enough. Just like China has done in the past 10 years. India could be bigger in momentum.
  1. Indian startups taking on global competition Son said that in areas like e-commerce, local context becomes very important. "The local entrepreneurs have a huge opportunity," said Son. In a small country with a small market, even if the entrepreneur is talented and has capabilities, sometimes it is too small to fight against a global player. China and India have huge domestic market and opportunity to fight back.
  2. What's different from 2000 Son said: "I truly believe this is the beginning, especially for India, of a big bang."
  3. AI surpassing human intelligence Son admitted that he is good at predicting what things would be like 30 years hence. He recalled that he had predicted 30 years ago that everyone would have a PC or a PC-like device. “In coming years, I see artificial intelligence surpassing human intelligence in many ways. It will be one million times faster to calculate, one million times more storage and one million times faster to communicate via artificial intelligence. When that happens, the business model, lifestyle and technology will be very different.” He said businesses should use the power of computing and deep learning to disrupt the traditional way of doing business.
  4. Role of government Son said if a government needs to give a license, then that becomes a bottleneck. Taking out all the obstacles - that should be the main role of the government. The second role is that of taking care of infrastructure. Specifically for India, Son said the government should ensure availability of mobile broadband infrastructure and electricity.
  5. The India e-commerce IPO Son believes that the Indian e-commerce IPO will happen in the next five to 10 years. He said that he will continue to pump in money into Indian e-commerce. He said there is no need to hurry.
  6. On being rich Son recalled how in 2000 he was richer than Bill Gates for three days. "The next year the share price fell 99 per cent," recalled Son. He said it is only passion that will help you recover from setbacks like that.
  7. SoftBank's vision “Our vision is to be the number one provider of wisdom and knowledge. That never changed." He said that information revolution, powered by wisdom and knowledge, will be 100 times bigger than the industrial revolution.
  8. Entrepreneurs coping with failure Son said the captain of the ship has to make up his or her mind from day one that he or she will be the last person left on the ship. Son said: "Whenever there is a danger or crisis, the entrepreneur should feel the responsibility that he will save the ship. That will make people follow you."
Biggest risk in India Son said that with Indian startups attracting big cheques, entrepreneurs sometimes forget that they have become rich without yet delivering. Son said:They should not misunderstand that just because investors are writing big cheques, they are already big fish.

(With inputs from Syed Tausif Alam)

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