A look at the billionaire bromance between Masayoshi Son and Jack Ma

A look at the billionaire bromance between Masayoshi Son and Jack Ma
The logo of SoftBank Group Corp is displayed at SoftBank World 2017 conference in Tokyo, Japan, July 20, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato
In an earnings call during this time, Masa indicated that he speaks with Ma on almost a daily basis and that Ma likes to share his paintings with his friend despite Masa having no experience in art himself.

Who is Masayoshi Son?

  • Masayoshi Son is the founder of Softbank Group Corp. A lot of Americans know him largely through his relationship with Adam Neumann, the former chief executive officer and co-founder of WeWork.
  • He’s now 32nd on the billionaires’ list according to the Forbes’ July 2020 Billionaire edition, but it wasn’t always like this.
  • Son, or more commonly known as just Masa, was born in Japan. His grandfather worked as a miner and his father, a fish dealer and a farmer. His family was so poor that when Masa was younger, he slept with the pigs and sheep at the farm.
  • When he was 16, his McDonald’s manager told him to study in the United States, which he did.
  • In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Masa said that when he first announced to his family that he was leaving Japan for the United States, his mother cried saying that “it’s a bunch of barbarians who live in that country.” His father, on the other hand, didn’t say anything for several weeks because he knew that he wouldn’t be able to stop his son anyway.
  • So with that, he went to the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied engineering.

Was he always entrepreneurial?

  • Yeah, he was. He sold two companies during college and one right after graduating.
  • His first business was an electronic translator that he later sold to Sharp Corp. for US1.7 million.
  • Afterward, it was US$1.5 million that he made importing Japanese video games to the US market and installing them at dorms and in restaurants. Lastly, he sold a game software company originally called Unison World, now known as Kyocera Electronics, for an undisclosed amount.
  • When he was deciding on whether to establish his company in Japan or to stay in the US, he explained that the reason he ultimately decided to return to Japan was because although it was more difficult to attract loans and talent, because the culture is more conservative and risk-averse, that once you made it big, employees are much more loyal to you.
  • “I had a very long-term vision. I didn’t have any evidence, but I believed in myself. I believed that someday I would have a very big company, a global business, and a very successful company. If I were able to do that, my headquarters should be in Japan.
  • It’s more difficult to start a business in Japan, but once I started it, once I had the company, it would be easier to keep the loyalty of the employees if the headquarters were in Japan.”

How did he meet Jack Ma?

  • When Jack Ma first started looking for funding for his company, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. was closer to an idea than the actual company it is today.
  • Still a private company just looking for investors, Alibaba ended up finding Masa’s Softbank as an investor in October of 1999. The company had then only been formed for four months.
  • Nobody really knows the words exchanged whenever Ma and Masa first met, but the conversation led to a US$20 million investment from Softbank into a company that was still in its infancy.
  • Alibaba ended up obviously being a great investment for Softbank because when Alibaba eventually went public, Softbank turned that US$20 million into US$60 billion.
  • Both men ended up serving on each other’s respective company boards, and for nearly 20 years, their friendship and business relationship were tied together as they both supported each other’s visions.

What happened to Masa and Ma?

  • Following a year of bad investments including in the very public failure of WeWork’s initial public offering (IPO), both Ma and Masa left each other’s boards in July of 2020.
  • Relationship status changed: it’s complicated … Well, not really. Masa said that it wasn’t because of a bad relationship between the two.
  • “It’s not that there were disagreements. It is just a happy ending,” Masa said in a video conference with shareholders where Masa included a photo of the two friends together and smiling.
  • After making some controversial remarks about the Chinese government in November of 2020, Ma dropped off the grid for a while, but he continued to communicate with his longtime friend Masa.
  • In an earnings call during this time, Masa indicated that he speaks with Ma on almost a daily basis and that Ma likes to share his paintings with his friend despite Masa having no experience in art himself.
  • “So about 30 minutes or so before I go to bed, I draw some drawings and so on,” Masa said. “I haven’t shown him yet, but once I complete that, I can show him that too.”

What comes next for the duo?

  • Ma and Masa’s companies seem to be heading in different directions mostly because they’re in two completely different markets.
  • The Chinese market has been a little unstable over the past few months with the Chinese government cracking down on several industries, but mainly tech, with investors on the sideline wondering what’s going to happen next.
  • Ma’s Alibaba was also arguably the first to be exposed to the grip of the CCP, at least it was the most publicized, especially through the failed Ant Group IPO.
  • So while Softbank has been making acquisitions pretty much every week, Alibaba has sort of quietened.
  • As for their bromance, paint sharing and updates on how the other one’s doing on earnings calls though, it’s hard to imagine these two being anything but two great friends.

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