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Masayoshi Son's $58 Billion Payday on Alibaba

The Alibaba IPO is a huge win for SoftBank’s tech portfolio
Masayoshi Son
Masayoshi SonPhotograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Given the rapid-fire pace at which SoftBank President Masayoshi Son has funded hundreds of tech startups over the past two decades, his company’s $20 million investment 14 years ago in a tiny Chinese e-commerce operator called Alibaba.com was easy to miss. Son’s dealmaking synapses have been in overdrive since the dawn of the Internet age in the mid-1990s, and he has bet billions on unproven startups in search of tomorrow’s most promising technologies and online business models. “On the Net, everything moves so quickly,” Son said in an interview in 2000. “So you have to do things differently.”

That meant taking a flier on an Internet startup founded by Jack Ma, a former English teacher from the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou. Thanks to that initial investment and subsequent ones, SoftBank now owns 34 percent of Alibaba, which today is a powerhouse spanning business-to-business Web portals, online retail, shopping search engines, and cloud computing. The Chinese company filed documents on May 6 with the Securities and Exchange Commission to launch an initial public offering, expected later this year in New York, that may exceed the $17.9 billion raised by Visa back in 2008, making the stock debut the biggest ever in the U.S. SoftBank’s holding would be worth $58 billion, based on a consensus of analyst valuations compiled by Bloomberg that peg Alibaba’s market value at about $168 billion, and adds to a portfolio assembled by Son over the past two decades that includes control of Sprint, the No. 3 U.S. carrier; Yahoo! Japan; and about 1,300 other businesses.