- SoftBank is the biggest funder in tech right now, writing huge checks to tech firms like Uber, WeWork, and Slack from its $100 billion Vision Fund.
- CEO Masayoshi Son calls the shots, and the Vision Fund is named after his vision of how humanity and technology will develop. It has sunk money into everything from food delivery to taxis and robots.
- Business Insider lived on SoftBank-funded companies for 24 hours and it revealed some flaws in Son’s grand vision.
- Life is expensive when lived through Uber, WeWork, and Oyo — and the services are far from perfect. I was recommended unhealthy food, was made late for a meeting, and had poor customer service.
- Click here for more BI Prime stories.
Most people jumping in an Uber have probably never heard of SoftBank, the Japanese conglomerate which has funded some of the buzziest tech companies in the world.
SoftBank is a telecommunications firm but its idiosyncratic founder Masayoshi Son has set up a $100 billion investment fund, the Vision Fund, to back companies that want to change how we travel, work, eat, and sleep.
The Vision Fund is named after Son’s “vision” and the CEO (nicknamed “Yoda”) has a grand 300-year plan for how we’ll all be living our future lives.
He outlined that vision in a startling 2010 presentation that was only widely publicised in 2017. It predicts humans will live to be 200 years old, that AI and robots will do most tasks, and that we’ll likely have some sort of chip embedded in our brains. You can see the full set of slides here.
SoftBank’s partners all seem to share in this big thinking. Uber wants to kill the car, Uber Eats wants to kill the kitchen, Oyo wants to change the way you use hotels forever, and WeWork wants to transform office working as we know it.
But given it’s 2019, we’re only a decade into this 300-year vision and it’s a little hard to see how successfully SoftBank and its portfolio are bringing this radical change.
To investigate, I spent a day living, working, and eating products from SoftBank-funded companies, to see if I could glean some insight into this vision of how we’ll all live. Not all SoftBank-funded companies offer products in the UK, so I mostly stuck to using Uber, co-working space firm WeWork, hotel firm Oyo and workspace chat service Slack.
I had a mixed experience.
These are services that are evidently targeted at a generation used to being on their phones and instant convenience, but that seems to be the only unifying theme. It didn’t always feel that convenient either — my Uber cab made me late and clearly wasn’t the right transport choice for navigating busy London at rush hour.
The same extends to Uber Eats. Food delivery services are already thought to be having an impact on kitchen sizes but, if apps continue to stick full English breakfasts and pancakes in their top recommendations, we’ll have a public health crisis on our hands.
Meanwhile, Oyo’s promise standardised service left me in a room with lovely towels, but a broken bathroom fan, an apparently malfunctioning radiator, and a cracked window.
Scroll on to read about my experiences.
I can only eat food from Uber Eats today, so I start the day with a breakfast delivery.
SoftBank has invested more than $7.7 billion into Uber, and reportedly plans to double its stake, which is my excuse to conveniently order breakfast on Uber Eats to my house in north London.
I order pancakes and immediately hit 1,000 of my recommended, 2,000 daily calories. I think this is probably something people shouldn’t do every day.
I’d normally have a healthy porridge or cereal at my desk in the office but the top recommendation on Uber Eats is pancakes or a fried breakfast from a nearby cafe called Cinnamon Village.
I don’t bother scrolling for the healthier choices, and choose maple syrup-drenched pancakes with fruit. I’m sure I could find healthier options if I try, but it’s pretty noticeable that all the unhealthy options are up top.
The overall experience is great, but it’s weird to have someone bring me breakfast.
Leyser, my delivery rider, turns up on a moped and drops off the pancakes. I can’t complain — they were the perfect temperature and dripping with maple syrup.
Still, I show off the pancakes to my colleague via Slack, the workplace messaging app.
It’s time to head to work, so I shun my usual bicycle and hop in an Uber cab.
In doing so, I’m ditching another healthy habit.
But my driver, Irfan, turns up promptly in a Toyota Prius, the car model that’s almost synonymous with Uber at this point.
Irfan thinks Uber is the best cab platform to work for.
He tells me that he mostly sticks to driving for Uber, despite the arrival of lots of competition in London. ViaVan, Bolt, Kapten, and many others all operate rival services and compete for the same pool of drivers.
But young people abuse the cheap offers from these apps, only using the services temporarily. They’re rude to the drivers, Irfan says, knowing that they’ll only use the service once. Uber passengers tend to be older, and have been using the app for longer.
There’s a lot of traffic, and we arrive later than I would have managed by bicycle.
I’ve never used Uber for getting anywhere in London in a hurry. It’s a congested city and roads are rarely the quickest way to get around on a weekday.
Uber’s a better fallback for when there are no other options like public transport, like when you’re travelling late at night.
Today, my Uber takes 30 minutes to make a journey that would have taken me 16 minutes on my bicycle.
If Uber really aspires to be a catch-all transport platform, it needs to become much smarter about using data to suggest the right transport method.
I’m late to my next SoftBank experience — a day working out of shared office spaces at WeWork.
My venue is a WeWork in Chancery Lane, central London. I’m being hosted by Suds Singh, a founder at production company Interesting Content, who is extremely gracious about my tardiness.
It’s about 9.30 a.m. at this point, and he points out one of WeWork’s most famous perks: the free beer, which will be available from 2 p.m. “Don’t all journalists drink?” he jokes.
WeWork has a crazy business model but I’m an immediate convert to the open, bright shared space.
At a high level, WeWork looks like an insane business. The company is an office-leasing firm, but with the valuation of a fast-growing tech company at almost $50 billion, helped by the hype of having raised billions from SoftBank.
Its culture sounds cultish, and it does weird things like invest in a wave-pool company and natural food firm.
Its central London property in Chancery Lane, however, is delightful. There’s an outside balcony with WiFi, comfortable seats, extensive hotdesking space, high-quality coffee and, of course, the free alcohol.
My host, Suds Singh, says WeWork is responsible for bringing in about a quarter of his business.
Singh’s firm makes corporate videos for clients such as banking startup Tide or flights aggregator Cheapflights. He’s been in the Chancery Lane WeWork for about four months, and says its sense of support and community is genuine.
“Almost 30% of our turnover has been from WeWork companies,” Singh said. “It’s a genuinely good place to work with good WiFi, coffee, lots of activities. Things that I, as a business owner, couldn’t provide for our staff.”
My next experiment is taking an Uber Jump bicycle through central London to my next meeting.
Uber’s Jump bicycles are neon red, “dockless” electric bikes that are dotted around central London. You find a nearby bike via Uber’s app, unlock it by scanning a QR code with your phone, and then off you go.
This is my first time on an Uber Jump and it is completely hair-raising — in a great way.
My first 10 minutes on the Uber Jump were a mix of exhilaration and pure fear. The bikes are pedal-assisted, meaning every time you pedal the electric battery gives you a little boost.
That feels a little alarming as you zoom past heavy traffic, but the ride goes surprisingly well. Occasionally when I’m too nervous to navigate major junctions, I get off and have to wheel the heavy bicycle over a crossing.
I’m a little sceptical about dockless bike-sharing schemes, having seen the pedals and other bits fall off rival bicycles mid-ride, but the Uber Jump feels sturdy, possibly because they’re still so new.
It’s a sweltering day in central London but the assist is doing all the work, and I arrive at my destination with zero sweat.
Jump bikes are clearly a smarter way of getting around some cities, when the infrastructure is right.
Uber cabs suit certain areas more than others. When I’ve visited family in Kolkata, India, there’s been negligible public transport and I’d die if I tried to navigate the insane traffic by bicycle. In the quieter streets, normal cabs are harder to come by, and so Uber makes sense. It isn’t good for pollution, but there’s no other reasonable way of getting around.
In London, there is better infrastructure for bicycles and electric bikes are much more common. The roads are in better shape, and the city is actively trying to cut down on congestion and pollution. It feels that Uber Jump is a much better way of getting around.
Sadly I’m stung for an extra £10 for leaving the bike in the wrong place.
Theoretically, taking an Uber Jump bike should be cheaper than cab, if not cheaper than public transport. They cost £1 to unlock, then 12p per minute. For my 20 minute journey, I’m charged £2.68.
But I’m then stung an additional £10 because I leave the bike outside a designated parking zone.
Uber Jump bikes are marketed as highly flexible, but you can really only leave them in certain limited areas. It’s a good idea in theory, since the area limits discourage people from leaving the bikes near busy highways or pedestrian crossings. But I’m hurrying to a meeting and don’t have time to walk to the parking zone — so I cough up the £10 and pay £12.68 in total. I might as well have taken a cab.
After my meeting, it’s time for lunch and my next Uber Eats order.
This time I try and be a little healthier and order gluten-free chicken nuggets and a crushed pea salad from Leon, the “healthy” junk food retailer.
On closer inspection, this is a 500 calorie meal. That’s not awful but I’d normally have a homemade salad for lunch.
I head back to the WeWork and help myself to a cheeky free cider.
By now I’m a sugary, stodgy mess of pancake, chicken nuggets, and cider.
Helpfully, SoftBank has funded a gym startup called Gympass so you can work off your SoftBank-induced food coma, but it’s only available to if you’re a WeWork member, or an employee at one of Gympass’ partner companies.
The logos dotted around are a bit cultish, but it feels like WeWork’s way of trying to build a coherent identity inside its offices and lots of companies do the same.
Singh says he pays about £500 ($625) a month for a dedicated office, which he and his staff share with several other companies.
Finally, the working day is over and I’m going to bed down in an Oyo hotel for the night.
One SoftBank investment that is still relatively new outside Asia is Indian hotel service Oyo.
The way it works is that Oyo brings ailing local hotels into its franchise and onto its site and mobile app, then promises a standardised experience across all of them.
In theory, all Oyo hotels have similar features — the bed, sheets, and towels must meet a certain standard, for example. The promise to the ailing hotel is a boost in occupancy rates and revenue.
The Oyo hotel I choose is in the expensive area of Belgravia, west London. I found Oyo’s booking site cumbersome, but eventually managed to get a room.
Another issue: my Oyo confirmation email doesn’t list the exact hotel address. I take an Uber to the approximate location, and then wander around until I find the hotel, with large “Oyo” branding outside.
A single 2014 Yelp review of the hotel gives it 1 star. Let’s see if it’s improved since then.
Customer service isn’t ideal. A man sitting in a dingy reception is on the phone talking loudly in Arabic. Still speaking into the phone, he hands a keycard to me and points me to my room.
On first glance, the room looks pretty good. The bed looks comfortable and the sheets seem clean. But I’m on the noisy ground floor by the road, and there’s a cracked window.
The bathroom is…fine but the fan makes a horrible noise when it’s switched on.
Have a listen:
The radiator is on, for some reason. It’s July. And 24 degrees. But this is what you get for £76 in central London.
A quick scan on Airbnb shows me it’s hard to find a nice room in this area of London for under £100.
And Oyo does offer more upmarket rooms on its platform at a pricier rate, such as its Oyo Townhouse hotels. You get what you pay for.
Business Insider approached Oyo for comment on the experience.
An Oyo spokesperson said: “We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience caused in during your recent stay at one of our network hotels and want to reassure you that we will do all we can to ensure there is a stark improvement in the quality of our services at this network hotel by the time you are in this hotel next time.”
The spokesperson said Oyo had recently invested in the property, and said this had already resulted in an increase in bookings.
It’s my home for the evening. I unpack, and settle down to order my third Uber Eats of the day.
I go for Turkish, because the only other option is pizza, which feels a little too close to pancakes.
The restaurant, despite my request, forgets to provide cutlery so I eat my lamb kebab with a teaspoon.
I leave a 2-star review for the restaurant for this error and then regret my brattiness.
One issue with having all your transport and all your food available on demand is that it makes you kinda…rude?
I eventually collapse into bed and find there’s a broken spring. In spite of this and the radiator, I manage six hours of sleep — and then the experiment is thankfully over.
I spent almost £200 ($250) on food, accommodation and transport during the day. That feels expensive!
Here’s how my costs broke down:
Uber Eats for one person and three meals: £65.35, including an £18.75 accidental food cancellation charge
Uber cabs: £30.73 for two 30-minute cab journeys, not including tip
Uber Jump: £16.56, including a £10 charge for leaving the bike in the wrong place
Total cost: £188.64
Parts of my day were really fun, like working in a WeWork and experiencing Jump bikes. But I don’t plan on re-ordering Uber Eats, or sleeping in an Oyo any time soon.
I’d take a Jump bike again, and in a city like London, it feels like electric bikes will only become more common.
Unless Oyo cleans up its act fast, I struggle to see how it can beat Airbnb in the eyes of consumers who are quite used to scouring hotel aggregators to find really nice rooms at a decent price. Its model clearly works in India, but made less sense to me here.
Finally, Uber Eats is fine as the Friday night treat. But the idea that it could replace more than one or two meals a week feels wild at this stage.
I’m not a genius with a 300-year vision, but SoftBank’s strategy looks pretty haphazard when experienced up close.
If there’s a coherent, unifying vision that ties these companies, I’m not sure I see it. How will booking hotels on the cheap have a major impact on humanity?