Jan 6, 2020

Scoop: SoftBank shafts startups

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

SoftBank Vision Fund has walked away from investing in several startups, months after submitting term sheets worth hundreds of millions of dollars and promising that closing delays were only temporary, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: This is highly unusual behavior, even for the idiosyncratic SoftBank, and threatens its ability to invest in highly sought-after companies. SoftBank, which has invested record amounts into startups over the past few years, confirmed that it has "regret" over these situations.

  • "Hurry up and wait" is how numerous sources describe negotiations with SoftBank, saying that the process was time-consuming, expensive, and ultimately fruitless.

Honor is a San Francisco home care company for older adults that's raised over $100 million from firms like Andreessen Horowitz, Naspers, and Thrive Capital.

  • It received a term sheet from SoftBank in mid-November, with subsequent reports putting the deal size at around $150 million.
  • SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son gave his blessing during a meeting at his Woodside, Calif. estate with Honor CEO Seth Sternberg.
  • Per a source familiar: "SoftBank kept saying it had to run some 'process stuff' before getting the term sheet fully-signed, but said they wanted to get it funded by year-end, so it started confirmatory due diligence—law firms, background checks, EY going through stuff, etc... There was no reason to think there was going to be a problem."
  • SoftBank killed the deal one week before Christmas, telling Honor that Son had changed his mind. Son did not personally communicate his decision or rationale to the company.

Seismic is a San Diego-based maker of B2B sales software that's raised over $180 million in VC funding, most recently at a $1 billion valuation, from firms like General Atlantic, Jackson Square Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and JMI Equity.

  • It wasn't looking to raise money but, over the summer, SoftBank came with a term sheet that was hard to refuse. High valuation, an opportunity for early investors to sell some secondary stock, and a promise to take Seismic into Japan.
  • The two sides struck a deal by early August, with CEO Doug Winter getting Son's initial okay via a phone call.
  • "It was originally supposed to be the last company in Vision Fund 1, but SoftBank kept dragging its feet so suddenly it's supposed to be the first or second deal in Vision Fund 2," says a source close to the situation.
  • Winter traveled to Japan in October for an in-person meeting with Son, after which Seismic was given "three more boxes to check... not substantive things —busywork to make things last longer."
  • The deal died shortly thereafter.

Creator is a San Francisco-based developer of hamburger-making robots, whose backers include Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures.

  • SoftBank signed the company to an exclusive, six-month term sheet for a round that was many multiples of the $25 million it had raised to date.
  • "Totally screwed," is how one source close to Creator refers to what happened next. Like with the other examples, it was unexplained delay after unexplained delay, and at one point said it wanted to add a co-lead investor.
  • The company pushed back, and SoftBank agreed to wire between $10 million and $15 million as a show of good faith.
  • But the "hurry up and wait" persisted, with multiple sources telling me last month that the original deal was dead. Things may have since changed, however, as a source close to SoftBank says negotiations remain active.

Company executives and investors all declined to speak on the record, when contacted by Axios.

The big picture: SoftBank's reasons for its reversals are unclear.

  • Some sources believe a driving factor is SoftBank's struggle to raise Vision Fund 2. In short, outside money still hasn't materialized.
  • Vision Fund 2 so far has done five deals, although that all appears to be via SoftBank Group's $38 billion commitment to the fund.
  • They also think the WeWork debacle played a role, creating a sort of shell shock in Tokyo.

What they're saying ... SoftBank sent Axios the following statement:

"Given we’re a fiduciary and investing very large amounts of capital, our investment process is more rigorous than unregulated investors and typical VCs.  There have been a few cases where our process took longer than anticipated, which we regret. We’re always upfront with founders about what to expect and we try to keep them informed every step of the way."

The bottom line: Time is one of a startup's most valuable assets, and several startups and their CEOs have been robbed of time by SoftBank's actions.

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