Everyone can appreciate a good self-made man story, particularly when the protagonist overcomes great odds to achieve success. Masayoshi Son, the Japanese-born (with Korean descent) billionaire entrepreneur, built the tech and telecom giant SoftBank (OTC:SFTBF) from scratch, only to see the company and most of his own wealth nearly vanish during the dot-com bust.
But as with most great stories, Son fought his way back to the top.
The first million is the easiest
Son started off his entrepreneurial career as a student at the University of California, Berkeley. There, he leased arcade games like PacMan and Space Invaders to bars and music venues in California, which quickly earned him nearly a million dollars (only slightly more than my own data-entry job in college).
But Son did not stop there.
His first foray into the technology world was when he teamed up with Forrest Mozer, a physics professor at UC Berkeley, to create and patent a pocket dictionary. Once the device was developed, Son began contacting companies looking for a buyer. Eventually Sharp purchased the tech for a cool $456,000 in 1979, the equivalent of about $1 million today.
His business acumen and unique perspective continued to benefit him as he moved back to Japan after college to start one of the biggest mobile Internet companies in Japan.
Two steps forward, $70 billion back
In 1981, Son started SoftBank, which is now a major tech and telecom conglomerate that includes the third largest mobile carrier in the world.
What started out as a PC software distributor quickly turned into a company that created and invested in new tech and telecom ventures.
One the most notable early moves for SoftBank was when the company created a system where Japanese customers could select local and long distance phone services based on how much companies charged. It was a revolutionary move at a time when Japanese phone users did not have much choice for providers.
As the Internet took off, Son made sure SoftBank invested heavily in new start-ups and eventually created a partnership with Yahoo! to launch its Japanese division in 1996. Son ran that business until May 2015, when he stepped down as Chairman. A strong relationship between the two companies still exists, and SoftBank still owns a 36% stake in the company.
But as his exposure to Internet companies grew, so did the risks. When the dot-com bubble burst, Son watched SoftBank deflate with it. Between its peak in the tech bubble to its low point in the early 2000s, the company lost 98% of its value.
Personally, Son saw his net worth fall by more than $70 billion by the end of the crash. Despite that massive loss, according to Quartz, Son still does not believe there was a bubble.
Rising from the dot-com ashes
There are more than a few steps Son and SoftBank took in order to turn their fortunes around, but a few stand out in particular.
One of the first steps of the rebuilding process was to have Softbank invest heavily in releasing fast and cheap DSL over old copper wires Son leased from Japan-based Nippon Telegraph & Telephone (or NTT). To give you an idea of how out-of-the-box this move truly was, Softbank speeds topped 12 megabits per second (Mbps) for just $21 per month -- half the price of NTT high-speed Internet at the time (and a much better deal than the $30 per month for 6 Mbps that Time Warner Cable charges in my area).
This infused a massive amount of competition into Japan's high-speed Internet space and paved the way for the company to move into new ventures, including mobile. In 2006, SoftBank purchased Vodafone KK (based in Japan) for $15.4 billion to build out its mobile business. That buyout added lots of debt to the balance sheet but also helped boost its mobile presence and set the stage for Son's next move.
While many Japanese carriers were focusing on Japanese mobile products, Son bet that the brand new Apple iPhone would be a huge success. At the time, it was a risky gamble, but in hindsight, the iPhone gave SoftBank a significant leg up on the competition.
As ComputerWorld said a few years ago:
Initially, analysts were unsure how the iPhone would be greeted by Japanese consumers, so Softbank's commitment to launch the phone was a bet of faith, but the phone proved to be a success. Its introduction woke Japanese consumers up to the existence of quality beyond the nation's shores, and sent Japanese handset makers into a tailspin from which they are yet to recover.
SoftBank was the exclusive iPhone carrier until late 2011, and up until that time, the phone helped boost the company's subscriptions and outpace competitor growth.
SoftBank went on to buy Sprint in 2013 for more than $21 billion, giving the company a 70% stake in a U.S. carrier and solidifying itself in the mobile carrier space.
And as for Son's personal fortune, much of that has recovered as well.
In 2014, Son was named the world's 38th most powerful person by Forbes Magazine and the richest man in Japan that same year. He has since fallen to number two in Japan (you can't win 'em all) with a net worth of about $15 billion.
More than just building businesses
In all his entrepreneurial ventures, Son has also been keen on giving back. Following the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami in 2011, Son pledged $120 million of his fortune and annual salary until he retires to help victims.
And through SoftBank, Son also provided free mobile service for orphans of the earthquake until they are 18 years old, as well as homes for 1,200 people in a city most affected by the earthquake.
Son, now 57, says he plans to retire in his 60s. In May 2015, SoftBank said Nikesh Arora, who just became Chairman of Yahoo! Japan, is his likely successor. But until then, you can bet Son will continue to make bold moves in the tech and telecom space, just as he always has.