Bloomberg Businessweek USA - 02.03.2020

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Bloomberg Businessweek

(USPS 080 900) March 2, 2020 (ISSN 0007-7135) H Issue no. 4647 Published weekly, except one week in January, February, March, May, July, August, September, October, November and December by Bloomberg

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64


Venture capitalists may have breathed a
sigh of relief in February when the activ-
ists came calling for SoftBank Group
Corp. founder Masayoshi Son. The
Japanese company’s $100 billion Vision
Fund upended technology investing
when it began making outsize bets on
startups in 2017. Being the biggest ven-
ture fund in history meant its portfolio
companies didn’t have to worry about
profit anytime soon, while making it
harder for rival investors to get in.
Paul Singer may have put an end to
all that. Elliott Management Corp., the billionaire’s activ-
ist vehicle, has built a stake of almost $3 billion in SoftBank
and is demanding that Son refocus attention on its exist-
ing business. The Vision Fund accounts for just 10% of
SoftBank’s overall managed assets, runs the argument, yet
consumes 100% of investor attention.
Son’s plan to raise a larger second fund was already
proving difficult after last year’s ditched initial public offer-
ing of WeWork parent We Co. The fiasco highlighted major
defects in the way the fund, and by implication SoftBank
itself, is run. But VC firms would be wrong to think pres-
sure on SoftBank and the Vision Fund makes their lives
easier. Even if Son fails to raise the new capital, the Vision
Fund has fundamentally changed the landscape.
Venture capital is hard not just because it’s tough to find
the best investments, but also because the most promising
startups often have the luxury of choosing whose money to
accept. Storied firms like Sequoia Capital, an early investor

in Apple, Google, and LinkedIn, have a
significant edge over the arrivistes. To
get over that hurdle, the Vision Fund
weaponized its cash pile, bullying com-
panies into acceptance by threatening
to invest in rivals. “Rather than hav-
ing their capital cannon facing me, I’d
rather have their capital cannon behind
me,” Uber Technologies Inc. Chief
Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi
said in 2018.
To compete, rival funds have gath-
ered their own vast stacks of money,
helped by the dearth of good returns elsewhere. More
money poured into venture in both 2018 and 2019—the two
years the Vision Fund started investing—than had in any
previous year, as Sequoia, Andreessen Horowitz, and other
firms raised their biggest funds yet. And the average size
of new funds grew to the biggest in more than a decade,
according to data from PitchBook Data Inc.
These monster funds, while smaller than SoftBank, still
have to compete with one another. And they won’t have the
option of exiting by selling their stake to the deep-pocketed
Japanese firm. Son has also inadvertently changed public
investors’ expectation of startups. In addition to WeWork,
the disappointing market debuts of SoftBank stablemates
Uber and Slack Technologies Inc. have refocused attention
on old-fashioned metrics such as, dare I say it, free cash
flow. Somehow the Vision Fund has managed to make it
harder for venture capitalists to both invest and then find
ILLUSTRATION BY GEORGE WYLESOL an exit. <BW> �Webb is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion

By Alex Webb


SoftBank’s Woes Are Not


A Victory for Rival VCs


◼ LAST THING


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