Taking the Risk

SI Team
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
SI Team
Ask sci-fi fanatics, how they celebrated their holidays in the fall of 2015, and the majority would probably say by gaping the latest Star Wars' episode. And why not since the beloved character Han Solo-played by Harrison Ford-was back again. What an adventurous ride to stardom it had been for Ford, from being a carpenter to becoming the lead actor of the most successful, multibillion-dollar franchisee of all time. All thanks to the visionary, George Lucas-the creator of Star Wars-for taking the enormous risk in Ford and choosing a mere woodworker over other eminent actors for the role of protagonist. Taking risk is the virtue of brave, and just like George Lucas, Nikesh Arora, President, and COO, at SoftBank, trusts his inner voice more than facts and statistics. "Numbers will not take you to the finish line. To fulfill dreams, one must have the will to take up risks and challenges," says Arora. These words-risks and belief-have always motivated Arora, they propelled him when he was the Chief Product Officer at Google and they motivated him again when he recently rolled the dice for the biggest challenge of his life.

"How much risk appetite do you have?" asked Masayoshi Son, the Founder and the Chairman of the Board-in a challenging voice to his COO. " Do you believe you can transform SoftBank into a company two, three, five times its size? Now is the time to take the risk." Being a billionaire investor who founded SoftBank and transformed it into renowned conglomerate-Son wanted to ensure if Arora can succeed him and mimic same results. Indeed Arora was the man for the job, but Son wanted to know for sure if he still has that fire inside him that directed about 200 Bn yen worth of deals for SoftBank including investments on startups such as Snapdeal, Housing.com and taxi-booking service Ola.

A week later, Arora came back with a plan to buy 60 billion yen ($483 million at the time) in SoftBank shares, more than any insider purchase by an executive in Japan in at least 12 years-according to Bloomberg data. He would become the company's second-largest individual shareholder and borrow heavily to do it. "I took him seriously," says Arora. "As long as I can protect my family, I am willing to take any amount of risk in my business endeavor." It was not just his inclination towards his company that compelled Son to anoint Arora as his successor. Since meeting Arora about five to six years back and engaging with him in conversations and negotiations, he believes that Arora is a peer to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jack Ma.

Arora's new gig will present obstacles he has never encountered before. Without ever having worked in venture capital, he is now one of the world's most visible and free-spending VCs. His boss and board do business in a language he barely speaks. And he's pouring huge sums-almost $4 billion so far-into highly valued, late-stage startups just as other investors, notably Fidelity and other mutual-fund giants, are becoming more cautious. Arora is figuring things out as he goes. "Every job you get into, you bring 50 percent of the skills you need, and you learn the other 50 percent if you're lucky enough," he says. However, to make it to 100 percent and to survive SoftBank's transition, Arora will have to win over board with the same thing that won him the trust of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin: irrefutable, home-run results.

With almost $80 billion in revenue in the past year, Son calls for a meeting with his 14 member board members to decide the future course of the company. Son looks over to Arora, who was the only one wearing an earpiece to translate Japanese to English with a stern look on his face. There were many topics that were seen hoisted up-from setting up the ground rules to invest in the companies to taking risks in the growing market like India. India is one of the major fields where Arora intends to rappel down his anchor and make investments in millions. He reiterated Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's three Bs -Bay Area, Beijing, and Bangalore-the world's hottest investing destinations. Not only in India but in the Silicon Valley as well, instead of putting small amounts in early-stage companies, Arora is searching for startups with proven business models backed by motivated and resilient entrepreneurs. "We first invested in Alibaba 15 years ago and haven't sold a single share. We want to work with founders. We are looking for 10 to 15 people who will run billion-dollar companies in the future," says Arora. "I only invest in founders who are willing to be my friends, hang out with me, and build large companies," he added.

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