Softbank is in a high-risk business and has enjoyed many successes. But its very credibility is now at stake
The best laugh in the WeWork farce – better even than the loss-making property company’s claim to be “elevating the world’s consciousness” – was provided by Masayoshi Son, founder of Softbank, the Japanese investment firm that largely bankrolled the venture and has now rescued it from collapse. Reflecting on failures during his career, Son said last week that “the small crises that pop up here and there today are mere child’s play”.
One can understand what he was getting at, of course. Softbank has backed some big successes over the years – notably Alibaba, the huge Chinese online retailer – so you can’t blame Son for defending the idea that an occasional loss is part of the game when you’re in the business of spotting visionaries who can transform entire industries. He is, after all, still trying to raise $100bn for a second Softbank-led “Vision” fund.
Come on, though: the WeWork flop is more than a hiccup. The tale belongs in “what were you smoking?” territory. WeWork was never the type of next-generation technology company that is supposed to be a target for Softbank’s money. It’s a company that rents out offices and sub-leases the space to tenants, a business model that isn’t remotely novel. The London stock market has boasted one example for years – IWG, the old Regus group, which, unlike WeWork, makes hard profits, generates cash and pays dividends.
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