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LEARNING FROM THE BEST

Merely observing Masayoshi Son during meetings is a lesson in decision making

Softbank-Masayoshi-Son
REUTERS/Issei Kato
“Don’t hurt my return!”

I woke up extra early. This was the day I would submit the Snapdeal 2.0 plan to two groups: the founders and the board.

Everything needed to be crisp and perfect. I sat on my bed, bathed in the glow of my laptop. Over and over I scanned each of the 100 slides hunting for typos, spacing blunders, or transposed digits. I refused to allow errors which could cause the founders or the board to dismiss our plan to save the company.

As I reviewed the presentation, I thought back to two meetings I’d had several months earlier involving Masa (Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son). One of these took place at the rooftop restaurant at the Leela Palace hotel in Chanakyapuri, Delhi.

Masa had been in town for a day but was tied up meeting with the prime minister. He finally arrived around dinner time for a series of meetings.

His manners are soft and gracious. But make no mistake, entrepreneurs do not come more competitive than Masa.

The meeting was casual. Masa and Kunal (Bahl, co-founder of Snapdeal) were at one table and I and a few others at another. Snapdeal needed money bad. If Masa was in a deal-making mode, the goal was for Kunal to pin him down on a deal to shore up Snapdeal’s cash burn.

That night Masa was his usual polite and jubilant self. His manners are soft and gracious. But make no mistake, entrepreneurs do not come more competitive than him. Masa had seen how Jack Ma had carved out Alipay, which went on to become a $150 billion online and mobile payment platform. Alipay’s success had stirred Masa’s competitive juices; he was keen on advancing into the digital payments space. So much so, he was interested in buying FreeCharge from Snapdeal.

Here’s how fast Masa took action. He grabbed a napkin and scribbled out a possible deal. Ultimately, that deal didn’t come to fruition. But that’s how quick SoftBank could move. I knew that if our Snapdeal 2.0 plan was ill-received, and we were unable to gain buy-in from the board to implement it, that’s exactly how fast SoftBank might sell us to Flipkart.

I then reflected on a different Masa meeting that had taken place during my transition from Housing.com to Snapdeal. That meeting was held around a sleek mahogany boardroom table at the Leela.

SoftBank president Alok Sama arrived dressed in a suit. That was a bit unusual, he typically dressed more casual (think Steve Jobs). Seated around the table were a handful of their Indian CEOs and founders, which now included companies like Hike, Grofers, Inmobi, Oyo, Ola, and Snapdeal, among others. Masa was flying his private jet from Saudi Arabia and was running late.

When he arrived, he apologised for his tardiness before launching into an exuberant discussion about a historic moment in business. In fact, he was so excited he couldn’t sit. The news? Masa said he was going to create the largest-ever fund in business history, something that would later become known as the Vision Fund.

“I’m so excited!” he said. “We’re raising the largest fund ever in history—$100 billion!” He explained that he had just been with MBS (Mohammad Bin Salman), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. In a forty-five minute pitch, he’d secured $45 billion.

“What do you think about that?” Masa exclaimed.

We were astonished. Masa then explained that he wanted to raise a $100 billion fund every few years because he planned to deploy the cash fast. The whole thing seemed unbelievable; we thought he was exaggerating, as this would be by far the largest fund ever created.

He’d also apparently had a phone call on the way from the airport from the founder of Ola, Bhavish Aggarwal, who now sat with us in the room. “And on my way from the airport, Bhavish and I were discussing doing a deal involving one million electric cars! So exciting!” Masa said as Bhavish smiled at him.

Good grief … why can’t I be Bhavish?, I thought.

Masa’s animated delivery made it next to impossible not to smile.

People like to joke that there’s very little that doesn’t excite Masa. His passion for deal-making and entrepreneurship are infectious. And when it comes to a grand vision, few can hold a candle to him. So it should have come as no surprise when he later pulled off his historic $100 billion Vision Fund.

“If you’re a winner, there will be unlimited money for you. But if you’re not, I will have no money for you.”

Masa’s mind is always future-focused. He’s a believer in what’s known as “the singularity,” the belief that the convergence of technology and human biology will create a world only seen in sci-fi movies, one where technological growth and artificial intelligence (AI) hit an inflection point that triggers seismic, irreversible alterations to human existence. How far does he think it will go?

Well, Masa has even presented on telepathy (which seemed to me an eerie coincidence to the Harbinger character Harada). Bottom line: Masa’s vision is one of the rarest in the world.

When he finally got down to the business at hand, Masa made his expectations crystal clear. “You are part of this Softbank family,” he said. “If you’re a winner in your space, there will be unlimited money for you. But if you’re not, I will have no money for you.”

His directness let every CEO in the room know that he meant what he said. He added, “I have a track record of 44% IRR (internal rate of return or annualised return), so don’t hurt my return! I will only invest if this expected return is met or exceeded!”

No pressure.

With those two realities floating in my mind—that investor decisions can happen with blinding, back-of-a-napkin speed, and that performance would seal the fate of future funding—I submitted the Snapdeal 2.0 plan to the founders and the board.

Then, we waited.

Excerpted from Jason Kothari’s Irrationally Passionate with permission from HarperCollins. Kothari, an entrepreneur known as a turnaround expert, is the former CEO of Indian real estate portal Housing.com, and has also served as the chief strategy and investment officer at e-commerce major Snapdeal in the past. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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