Editor's note: Thinking big – or not thinking enough?

Nov.November 01, 2019 12:00 PM

Stuart Elliott

He’s the guy that told Adam Neumann he should act more crazy.

Masayoshi Son is the eccentric-but-gifted entrepreneur who launched SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund that went on to invest in a crop of promising startups, including WeWork.

Of course, what looked revolutionary even six months ago now looks like a mess. With WeWork’s implosion, other SoftBank-backed, real estate-focused companies — including Compass, Opendoor, Lemonade and Katerra — are all under increased scrutiny as many in the business world question whether their valuations hold up.

In our cover story by E.B. Solomont, we look at how Son is facing harsh criticism, with some saying his Japanese conglomerate stoked a trend of overvaluing firms. WeWork, which recently scrapped plans for an IPO, saw its valuation plunge from $47 billion to less than $8 billion as it ousted its co-founder and CEO Neumann, who was accused of reckless spending and self-dealing. Neumann alone had taken almost $1 billion in personal loans and credit lines from WeWork and its lenders.

Neumann recalled to Forbes that when the two firms closed their deal in March 2017, Son turned to him and asked: “In a fight, who wins — the smart guy or the crazy guy?” Neumann chose the latter, and Son said, “You are correct, but you and Miguel [McKelvey, WeWork’s other co-founder] are not crazy enough.”

That level of disruption might not be a big deal to Son, who famously lost $70 billion in a single day when SoftBank’s stock tanked during the dot-com bust. And it might not matter to a man who was once the richest in the world and thinks in 300-year time horizons (Son has said that he wants the Vision Fund to help further his company’s growth for three centuries and that spending $100 billion was “too little”.)

But “disruption” is not just an academic term, as any residential broker will tell you when it comes to Compass, which SoftBank backs. Started in 2012, Compass has grabbed major market share, been accused of aggressive poaching and, overall, shaken up the traditional order of things in the brokerage world — some agents may wish that Son had just put all that money in Treasury bills instead. In another story, we look at how the resi brokerage rocketed to a $6.4 billion valuation upon a promise to disrupt the industry. Now that number is being examined, along with the lingering question of “Compass is supposed to be a tech brokerage. So where is the groundbreaking tech?” Make sure to also check out Kathryn Brenzel’s story on Katerra. The SoftBank-backed construction tech company has seen C-suite changes, layoffs and other issues. But is it a different beast than WeWork?

That said, thank god for techies, as Erin Hudson writes. The residential market might be struggling, but buyers who work for tech companies are a bright spot. And as behemoths like Google and Facebook expand in the city, it’s fueling even more activity.

Then there’s the market that may be in the worst shape of all. The retail scene has been bleak for years now, and things could get even worse. As of the beginning of last month, U.S. retailers had announced plans this year to shutter almost 8,600 stores, a figure projected to far surpass last year’s and also break the record number of store closures in 2017. One part of the equation is the rise of e-commerce, as we’ve reported on many occasions. But the spectrum of store bankruptcies is spreading to even higher and lower tiers, and as national brands continue to topple, landlords are being forced to get creative to fill their spaces.

Bottom line: there’s disruption everywhere these days.

Enjoy the issue.


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