SoftBank’s Futuristic Vision Fund Takes on the Real (Estate) World
In the last two months Michael Marks has turned down a dozen offers to make keynote speeches at conferences. His company, construction startup Katerra, is three years old, but the attention surge is very recent. “Construction technology has gotten kinda buzzy,” he says.
That may be. But more likely, interest in Katerra has spiked because in January, the company landed an astounding $867 million in venture funding led by the SoftBank Vision Fund. A deal of that size, led by the venture industry’s most talked-about fund, will put a company on the map overnight. Marks had been planning to raise around $500 million, but in a pattern that’s become familiar, once SoftBank got involved, everything got bigger.
The SoftBank Vision Fund—a source of fascination and fear among rival venture investors—is known for its investments in cutting-edge technology. But now it’s making a big bet on one of the stodgiest industries around—real estate. The $93 billion fund’s sheer firepower has the potential to shape winners and losers in any market it decides to enter, and it is quickly doing so in real estate. The fund has met with at least 50 potential investments in the category, according to managing director Jeffrey Housenbold. That’s resulted in four big bets, with more to come.
A month before the Katerra deal, SoftBank led a $450 million investment in startup real-estate brokerage Compass, and a $120 million investment in home-insurance startup Lemonade. In August 2017, the fund invested $4.4 billion in coworking giant WeWork.
SoftBank is holding deal talks with OpenDoor, a startup which buys homes directly from owners and sells them, according to sources familiar with the situation. Founded in 2013, OpenDoor is now buying more than $1 billion worth of homes per year. SoftBank would not comment on potential investments. OpenDoor declined to comment.
At first blush, real estate technology doesn’t seem to fit Son’s stated thesis of a future dominated by artificial intelligence, robots, and big data. But the fund’s reach extends beyond the singularity. That’s by necessity—$93 billion is a lot of money to put to work in AI or robotics companies.
Housenbold tells WIRED the Vision Fund’s mandate also includes aspects of human needs or desires that won’t be replaced or destroyed by technology. Even when robots and AI are a prominent part of our lives, he says, “we will still need to eat and have a roof over our heads; we will still have a desire to learn, travel and connect on a deeper, more personal level.” The Vision Fund believes categories like real estate will be enhanced—not replaced—by technology.
The real estate sector’s central appeal is its size. A mega-fund like SoftBank’s demands mega-opportunities. (The fund’s minimum investment is $100 million.) Real estate provides the kind of unfathomably large numbers SoftBank’s team needs to get excited: $228 trillion in global real estate asset value.
Further, the real estate industry is fragmented. For example, the largest residential brokerage and real estate services company in the US, Realogy, owns around a dozen different brands and controls a single digit percentage of the market. And real estate’s leading players have been slow to adopt technology. “Traditional real estate players are fundamental value investors looking for current yield. They just think about the world so differently,” says Ryan Scott Abbe, head of real estate investment banking at JMP Securities. “They’re scratching their heads at all of these technology solutions.”
The availability of data is making the market more efficient, making it harder for real estate investors to earn a return by simply buying low and selling high. Investors, brokers, financiers, and related players must increasingly rely on technology to move faster and make more strategic decisions, or face new, tech-enabled competition. “It’s probably the last great bastion of the global economy that has not seen that type of disruption,” says Richard Sarkis, CEO of Reonomy, a commercial-real-estate data platform in which SoftBank invested in before the Vision Fund was created.
The opportunity has drawn venture capitalists of all stripes to the sector. Investment in real-estate-focused tech startups (called “proptech” by insiders) surged to $9.8 billion in 487 deals in 2017, up from just $546 million in 133 deals in 2013, according to CB Insights. It’s a big leap, even setting aside the Vision Fund’s $4.4 billion WeWork investment.
But few can move as quickly or invest as aggressively as Softbank. CEO Masayoshi Son, who likes to talk about 300-year timeframes, is known for pushing entrepreneurs to raise more money than they’d originally planned and expand their ambitions beyond their wildest dreams.
In November 2017, Compass, a New York City-based residential brokerage chain, had just secured a $100 million round of funding led by Fidelity Investments. The company was not looking to raise more money. “The Fidelity round was all we needed for what we had set out to accomplish,” says CEO Robert Reffkin. But that changed after a meeting with Vision Fund executives. “They wanted to support a more ambitious vision that we have,” on a much faster timeline, Reffkin says. A month later Compass announced a $450 million investment from the Vision Fund. The allowed the company to compress its three-year growth plan into one year. The company now aims to control 20 percent of the residential real estate markets in 20 cities by the end of 2020.
In many cases, the real estate market’s outsized opportunity is matched by outsized capital requirements. Any startup that deals in physical assets needs a lot of cash. Katerra, which manufactures building parts to be assembled on-site, has opened capital-intensive factories in Phoenix and Spokane. WeWork is now the second-largest private office tenant in New York City; each of its office spaces must be meticulously built out and decorated to suit its chic aesthetic. A few months after its mega-funding from SoftBank, WeWork shelled out $850 million to acquire the Fifth Avenue Lord & Taylor building.
Lemonade is attempting to remake the insurance industry without relying on legacy players to underwrite its offerings. Most of its competitors are worth tens of billions of dollars and nearly a century old. “For us, having the gumption and wherewithal of an investor like SoftBank is a game-changer,” CEO Daniel Schreiber says. “It sends a strong message to our competitors who sit on tens of billions of dollars.”
SoftBank has made its real estate plays in obvious areas—construction, brokers, office space, and housing insurance. But the fund is not approaching the category with a narrow view. Housenbold has a long list of subsectors he’s evaluating for future investments: Real estate applications for 3D printing and scanning; financing including primary and secondary mortgages, insurance, and title escrow, as well as alternatives like crowdfunding; blockchain technology related to title insurance; platforms for home services professionals like cleaning and repair; software for commercial property managers; in-home technology including solar panels, Wi-Fi, home automation, doorbells, smart assistants and security; drones that could help spot problems at properties and construction projects; and storage (“Americans are kind of hoarders and spenders and storage is a pretty high profit category, he says”). In other words, anything that remotely touches the physical world we live in.
Other SoftBank’s investments, some of which predate the Vision Fund, already touch those categories. MapBox is focused on location data. Improbable’s stated ambitions include improving cities. SoFi, a personal finance startup, offers mortgage refinancing. Proptiger is an Indian real estate portal in which Softbank owns a stake through its merger with Housing.com.
SoftBank’s real estate strategy is an “an ecosystem approach” similar to the fund’s numerous investments in ride-hailing, according to Alexander Paci, a real estate analyst at CB Insights. There, SoftBank has invested in Didi Chuxing in China, Ola in India, Grab in Singapore, 99 in Brazil, and Uber in the US. In some cases, the companies have forged partnerships. Didi acquired 99 and Uber’s China operations. In others, they remain bitter rivals, as with Uber’s India operations and Ola.
In the year it has been investing, the Vision Fund has offered opportunities for its portfolio companies to partner with one another but not pushed for any formal collaboration. The fund hosts regular networking gatherings and private dinners, often around conferences. So far, the fund’s real-estate investments have struck fairly small partnerships that could have happened regardless of their shared investor. Some of Compass’s real estate brokers operate out of WeWork offices, for example.
More interesting pairings may come from SoftBank’s forays into the traditional real estate market. The company recently acquired Fortress Investment Group, a private equity firm with $44 billion in assets under management including large real estate and real estate credit funds. SoftBank also reportedly plans to buy a sizable stake in Swiss Re AG, the reinsurance giant. (The firm declined to comment on reported deals.) Some observers view the Fortress and potential Swiss Re deals as a way for SoftBank to offset risky startup bets like Lemonade or WeWork with a more conservative, reliable business with steady cash flows.
Son’s dealmaking has been called a form of king-making. The Vision Fund identifies startups seeking global domination of a new market, where having the most money means they can become the biggest, the fastest. “They’re manufacturing these opportunities,” says Brad Greiwe, managing partner at Fifth Wall Ventures, a real estate-focused venture firm. “The problem is it’ll take seven to 10 years to watch these things mature and monetize to see if they’re right.” But in the scheme of Son’s 300-year plan, 10 years is a blip.