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It’s a bold vision: 50,000 new American jobs to be created by a series of investments from Softbank Capital. And with the investments coming from a $100 billion fund, that jobs number feels like a sure thing. What’s not certain, however, is where those jobs will be located.
“We don’t mind where the companies are,” Ron Fisher, SoftBank Capital’s cofounder and managing partner, told CNBC’s Jon Fortt last week. The two were in conversation at a VentureBeat event to launch our Heartland Tech channel and upcoming Blueprint conference. “If we find a great AI company in Austin, we’ll put money behind that. We don’t have a natural bias to only invest in the Silicon Valley area,” Fisher said.
The two spoke about supporting entrepreneurs and creating jobs across America: from Kansas to Kentucky and beyond. Fisher described the process as Softbank investing in “a combination of early stage technology companies and later stage technology companies, which will then grow their work forces wherever they are.”
The following is a transcript of the conversation between Fortt and Fisher. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Jon Fortt: Growing up in Silicon Valley and reporting, I learned early on — at least I was told — that there were a few key ingredients you needed if you wanted to create a Silicon Valley. You needed universities that attracted smart people. You needed corporations, big companies. You needed venture capitalists to invest in new ideas. And you needed culture, a beautiful place, a place where cultured people wanted to live. Is there any way to hack that? If we’re really going to have tech prosperity outside of the traditional places, it seems like we have to somehow hack that in a different way.
Ron Fisher: We approach things a bit differently. We come from a very pragmatic point of view. We’re looking to create jobs by investing in great entrepreneurs, backing entrepreneurs and helping them grow. We’re somewhat agnostic as to where that happens. Obviously, in terms of deal flow an enormous amount of deals happen in Silicon Valley, so our investment teams are primarily based in Silicon Valley.
But when it comes to making investments, it’s an entrepreneur that determines where their work force is. We’re there to help those companies grow. There was the mention of 50,000 jobs that Masa committed to creating for the U.S. That’s a derivative of investing, we think, over the next several years, $50 billion in the U.S. economy. That’s going to be a combination of early stage technology companies and later stage technology companies, which will then grow their work forces wherever they are.
Fortt: If one of your portfolio companies came to you and said, “We have a great idea to build out an office in Lexington, Kentucky, because the cost of living is lower there, there’s a university, people might want to live there,” would you say, “Sure, why not?”
Fisher: Of course. In fact, we’re going through a couple of situations — one company we invested in recently, a company called OneWeb, which is building the next generation of low earth orbiting satellites, they decided for obvious reasons to go to Florida, where the space center is. They’ll be hiring 2000 to 3000 engineers in that area. You’re talking about providing the right kind of jobs based on where that makes sense for them. We’ve invested in an ecommerce company which saw an opportunity to buy a manufacturing entity in the Philadelphia area — a very good place to save a lot of jobs, more than 600 jobs. It’s really focusing on what’s best for the company.
Fortt: You’re the vice chairman of Sprint, based in Kansas City. Are there advantages to being there for a company like that, as opposed to being in other places? Would you encourage companies, perhaps portfolio companies, to look for opportunities in non-traditional places?
Fisher: I never visited Kansas City before we made the investment in Sprint, but it’s turned out to be a very good place to do what we’re doing around building a mobile operator. People, once they move to Kansas City, don’t want to move out. It’s a good schooling system, affordable housing, and now more of a technology ecosystem. The whole downtown area of Kansas City has been totally revitalized. A lot of small companies are moving in. Google Fiber is in Kansas City. It’s become a good ecosystem for Sprint, being able to attract talent. We have a marketing group based downtown. That’s been very good for us.
Fortt: Interesting challenge that even a place like Austin is held up as being a second-tier tech hub, on par with the likes of New York, and increasingly LA. But I keep hearing from people around Austin that it’s a great place to start a company, but it’s a tough place to grow a company, because the capital that’s based around Austin likes making smaller bets. If even Austin is having trouble creating the big companies you need to have an ongoing engine, is there something that needs to shift to make that happen?
Fisher: I think that’s more a comment on how venture capital has worked traditionally, in that venture capital has for the most part been very much a local technique. You have the Silicon Valley companies that don’t invest a lot outside Silicon Valley. One of the advantages we’ve seen with the focus on what we’re trying to do in terms of global scale — again, we don’t mind where companies are. If we find a great AI company in Austin, we’ll put money behind that. We don’t have a natural bias to only invest in the Silicon Valley area. We’re looking at it on a global basis. In fact, I believe one of our companies, ARM, has a big operation in Austin. Once again, they’ll find the people and we’ll come in to grow that. ARM will grow a lot bigger over the next several years. I’m sure that facility will continue to expand.
Fortt: ARM is based in the United Kingdom, in Cambridge, a college town, but not a bustling metropolis. How much does that influence the way a company like that goes about investing?
Fisher: It’s interesting. Everyone sees ARM as a Cambridge-based company, and that is its origin. The genesis of the company and the genesis of the culture is in Cambridge. It’s an amazing engineering culture. I think the genius of ARM is they’ve been able to take that culture and move it to the rest of the world. We have several thousand people in the United States at ARM. Cambridge is an important element for us, but we have pretty close to the same amount of people in the U.S. Acquisitions are a good part of that, but we’ve also moved a number of people to keep the culture. Or they moved before we acquired the company. They moved people to keep their culture. Simon Segars, the CEO, is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Fortt: A lot of the cities in the U.S. are there because of the way trade worked in the 18th and 19th centuries. They’re on train routes, waterways. You mentioned Kansas City and Google Fiber. Is broadband the new trade route? Is there some resource that policy makers, entrepreneurs, and big companies ought to be thinking about? Where are the locations I can get that, if I’m thinking about moving outside traditional locations?
Fisher: That’s a key point. Infrastructure and broadband access are critical to development across the country. That’s going to be through a combination of factors. One is the traditional fixed line, whether it’s cable or fiber. But I think there will be two other elements to that. One is 5G. You’re going to have high-speed access through the cellular networks. At Sprint, we’re doing a massive densification, which will then position us for 5G. That will give very high-speed access for any kind of mobile users. And then in the longer term — the five- to 10-year period — that’s when we see satellite being very important. Today, most of the satellite technology has been geosynchronous in terms of distance. LEO is probably 30 times closer to earth. What that means is the latency of communicating with the satellite is the same as you’re getting on LTE today. You can start to use satellites with very high-speed access to anywhere in the world.
Fortt: But if we’re talking about the sort of bandwidth that a corporation, a major company, is going to need in order to set up in City A versus City B — are we talking fiber access? Should policy makers be saying, “If we want to revitalize Pittsburgh, if we want to attract tech companies to St. Louis, we need fiber there”?
Fisher: Absolutely. We need fiber. We need high-speed connectivity. But I think that’s also a policy issue. I’m not sure the government has to lay those lines, but it has to create the right kind of environment to reward the investment in building those lines. That becomes a key policy issue. How do you encourage the investment in next-generation broadband? You make sure that the market dynamics are right. These are scale businesses. We’ve said very openly that even in the mobile business, it’s a scale business. You need to allow the companies to get to significant scale in order to justify the investment. Otherwise, we’ll never have 5G or the kind of investment we need in fiber. I think the current administration is right in taking a more laissez-faire attitude as far as, “Let the market decide what the best capital structure is.” No Title II.
Fortt: So, net neutrality — I don’t equate net neutrality with Title II. But net neutrality the way some people articulate it, as being inextricably tied to Title II, it doesn’t work for middle America if you’re thinking about it that way.
Fisher: If it restricts capital investment, it’s wrong.
Fortt: And you’re saying it restricts capital investment if it ties those two together?
Fisher: In certain areas, it’s restrictive. But I think one has to look at problems based on the requirements in particular areas to get that capital investment. What’s the best solution? Is it fiber? Is it encouraging the cable companies to open up their broadband networks? In the long term is it satellite, which can create the same kind of bandwidth as you talked about with fixed line?
It comes back to policy. How do you encourage companies to make investment, as opposed to simply increasing their dividends, or not investing in the next generation? What’s critical for the U.S. — it’s a global issue — unless we encourage the kind of capital investment for the next generation of broadband, we’re going to fall behind the rest of the world. From a policy perspective, that affects all the communities we’re talking about, as well as major cities. We’ll fall behind the world in terms of innovation unless we encourage that kind of capital investment.
Fortt: Are we talking about infrastructure in the right ways here in the U.S.? We talk about a trillion-dollar infrastructure fund, lots of plans-to-be that may come before Congress. Do you hear enough talk about broadband and about technology being worked into the infrastructure plan?
Fisher: The broadband conversation is just starting to happen. The new FCC chairman [Ajit Pai] is much more focused on what the FCC needs to do in order to encourage that kind of investment. That’s a welcome change in the administration.
Fortt: He grew up in rural Kansas, right?
Fisher: That too. But I think that’s exactly the right kind of conversation. I’m very hopeful. The much broader infrastructure I’m less attached to. We’re focused on digital infrastructure.
Fortt: I don’t know that the FCC talking about it is going to get it into a plan that Congress drafts. Do you feel that’s enough to spark the right kind of conversation?
Fisher: I think they’re setting the framework for the discussion, and that will allow private companies to make decisions on whether they want to get into that. I’m just not a big fan of Congress saying, “We will invest in this.” You set the environment in place where the right things happen between companies. What do we need to get to scale that will give you the payback on investing $250 billion over the next 10 years in 5G? What encourages companies to do that?
Fortt: What have you found, in particular, does that, looking globally?
Fisher: Again, not to be overly restrictive in terms of what companies can and can’t do. There are obviously lots of other things, like the tax system. If we really do change the tax system and allow companies to bring back to the U.S. the several hundred billion dollars sitting offshore, that will go into capital investment.
Fortt: How can you be sure it doesn’t go into buybacks and dividends?
Fisher: That’s where there’s the give and take. If you create the right kind of tax infrastructure, you can architect it so that it doesn’t get paid back to shareholders.
Fortt: You think that would be okay, to architect it in such a way that if you bring this money back, we’ll put some conditions on that?
Fisher: I absolutely believe that. I think it’s the right thing to do for the U.S.
Fortt: If there were one thing at the corporate level, at the government level, at the grassroots level that should happen to lay the groundwork for big companies to be more likely to move to some of these unlikely regions or cities, what would that be?
Fisher: I’m not sure there is a — this is a cop-out — but I’m not sure there is a single solution. Just having observed it across a lot of our companies, you have to have what you sounded off. You need the educational system. You’re not going to create tech jobs without education. That’s where Pittsburgh has done a really good job. There’s a lot of AI work happening out of Carnegie Mellon, which will attract a lot of capital. You have to have the infrastructure in place like we’ve been discussing. And then you have to have the ecosystem. You have to have companies more like what we do, which is to say, we really are agnostic. We’re going to back the best companies, and where they operate is going to be most effective for them, as opposed to what’s convenient for me because I live in the Bay Area.
Fortt: Thank you.
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