The Son way to rise | Book review: ‘Aiming High: Masayoshi Son, Softbank Group and Disrupting Silicon Valley’ by Atsuo Inoue


In business, it has been observed that there are three main types of entrepreneurs. The first are those who come from business families and are able to scale up operations and create extraordinary value through agility and innovation. They evidently have an initial advantage. The second set are well qualified persons who have the pedigree of the right university degree and are able to break out from the traditional mould of working for others and start enterprises from scratch and make a mark. Here, too, there is an advantage of background as they often come from upper middle-class families but no traditional backing.

The third are those who do not have such advantages and are what would be called commoners and who rise from the bottom and ascend to the top. When one looks at Masayoshi Son, the profile falls in the third category.

Aiming High is an interesting story of the founder of SoftBank and in many ways resembles stories of other successful entrepreneurs who have risen from the ground. A Korean by descent and raised in Japan as an immigrant, Son went to the USA and started a life of enterprise dealing in voice translators. He was driven by ambition and had a large capacity for risk taking. In fact, as a college student, he earned his first million dollars for the invention of an automatic voice translator.

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Before the creation of the now legendary SoftBank, whose name is associated with all enterprises that are driven by technology and innovation, Son dabbled in computer parts, quite removed from the role of financier or investor that he now represents. He always aimed to have the number one Internet company and SoftBank Group he founded in 1981 now ranks among Japan’s five most valuable listed companies, owning stakes in many market-leading tech firms.

The author, Inoue, has followed Son and his life for several years and has spoken with several persons associated with his life, including friends and partners, to put together this rather inspiring book. It tells us everything about the man and his business acumen and also about his failures and successes.

The book not just talks about his remarkable risk-taking ability, but also how he wooed his future wife. Hard work is what he attributes his success to, which, ironically, is also reflected in the fact that he turned up late for his own wedding! Never afraid of failure, Son also survived chronic hepatitis. Having written a 50-year life plan to build his destiny, he can be proud of his achievements now in his mid-sixties.

He was quick to spot opportunities in the Internet and smartphone revolutions. He was able to pick up Vodafone Japan and Sprint mobile phone businesses and also invested heavily in Alibaba. His Vision Fund is focused on the AI revolution and invested in more than 150 tech companies, putting in more capital than it needed. His belief in AI is 100% as he believes that it is the most incredible thing humans have ever made. Masayoshi Son can be called the most powerful person in Silicon Valley, having invested in some of the most exciting and influential tech companies like Uber, WeWork, ByteDance, Slack, and many others.

Son’s career trajectory is a testament to the virtues of good planning and sticking to it. The first phase in the twenties was to create a company, and the product or service did not matter. One would make a name by doing so. Phase two was to amass a war chest of 100 billion yen, which lots of critics would say was delusional. Third was that when in the forties he would challenge a big company for dominance. In in his fifties and sixties he had to be certain that the business was a success before passing on the mantle to the next generation. Based on this plan, one cannot refute the fact that Son has stuck to the task.

The one winning point for Son in his journey was the ability to invent and also have the courage to implement his ideas. Son believed that there were three main approaches to invention. First was searching for solutions to problems. Like how the idea of making square-shaped pencils came from the fact that rounded ones tended to roll off the table. A simple solution for an irritating problem.

The second was lateral thinking or looking at things from the opposite perspective. Turn something around and make it square was his dictum. Make what has traditionally been red look white. Or make something big, small. For traffic signals his solution was to throw in geometric designs into the mix and hence triangles, squares and circles were thrown into signals so that colour blind people could tell which phase of light was on.

Last was to combine pre-existing things and keep things simple. Like taking a radio and tape recorder and putting them together to make a radio cassette player. Most of his inventions came in the third category, which worked well in the USA.

This book can be inspiring for someone keen to be innovative, though admittedly every story would not always play out this way.

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, Bank of Baroda

Aiming High: Masayoshi Son, Softbank Group and Disrupting Silicon ValleyAtsuo InoueHachettePp 338, Rs 599