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Masayoshi Son says SoftBank now has “$80 billion in cash on hand” just in case

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Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, has had a topsy turvy year or two, but the story he is eager to tell is that he is back and in the black.

Such was the overarching message delivered at a virtual Dealbook conference earlier today, with Son joining from Tokyo and sounding sanguine about a wide range of issues, from TikTok’s future (SoftBank is an investor in its parent company, Bytedance); to the future of ousted WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann, a company on which SoftBank has lost billions of dollars (“I’m a big believer that someday he will be very successful”); to SoftBank’s ability to shop opportunistically, thanks to a massive asset sell-off that Son says has provided SoftBank with “$80 billion in cash on hand.”

In case you missed the chat, we’re bringing you some highlights, starting with the one thing that is causing the “optimistic” Son to feel “pessimistic in the short-term.”

On COVID-19:

Son says that in March, he was accused by local medical professionals of trying to cause a panic after tweeting about his concern over the coronavirus.

SoftBank has since begun operating the largest private testing facility in Japan, a country of 126.5 million that is currently seeing roughly 1,300 new cases each day (compared to the U.S., home to 328 million people and currently seeing more than 166,000 new cases each day).

Son credits Japanese citizens with the country’s success to date in battling back the pandemic, saying they “all wear a mask by themselves . . .they are very conscious about this.” But he said that “any disaster” could happen “in the next two to three months” before the mass production and distribution of a vaccine.  A “major company could collapse” causing a domino effect, not unlike what happened when Lehman Brothers was abruptly forced to file bankruptcy in 2008, shaking up the entire banking industry.

“Anything can happen in this kind of situation,” said Son, adding, “I think it’s getting better with this news of the vaccines’ success. But I still want to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, so that’s why today we have almost $80 billion cash in hand ourselves.” Son went on to say that SoftBank has “enough funding,” but that “I thought cash is very important in this kind of crisis.”

On that massive cash pile:

Interviewer Andrew Ross Sorkin did not ask, and Son did not remark, about Elliott Management, the hedge-fund firm believed to be the second biggest shareholder of SoftBank and which reportedly pressured Son to sell off assets and buy back some of the company’s own shares, whose price had fallen precipitously earlier this year.

In the meantime, Son suggested that it was his own decision to snatch up depressed SoftBank shares, saying that when in March, its stock had sunk almost 70% in value, “I said, ‘Oh my god, this is the best time for me to buy back shares, when our discount to the our underlying asset went over 70%, like 75%.’ So I could buy our own company for one-fourth the price of underlying assets. I said, ‘Oh my god, I should buy, I should buy it.’”

Son did answer whether part of that asset sale was also driven by an interest in plugging more money into SoftBank’s existing portfolio companies — some of which have suffered during the pandemic — or whether he anticipates being able to swoop in and buy up other, new assets.

Unsurprisingly, Son said that “If we can invest in these front end companies, if we can invest more into those opportunities, I will be aggressive,” noting that pricing for so-called unicorns that need funding has improved.

On the WeWork debacle and lessons learned:

Speaking of unicorns, Sorkin brought up WeWork, the coworking company into which SoftBank somewhat famously jammed at least $18.5 billion — “billions” of which it subsequently lost, acknowledged Son.

Sorkin asked what lessons were learned from SoftBank’s involvement with the company, but Son, who later said in the interview that he is someone who accepts his bad decisions so he can learn from them, didn’t exactly acknowledge a failing on SoftBank’s part, pointing the finger instead at cofounder and former CEO Adam Neumann, who was elbowed out the door of the company roughly a year ago.

Said Son: “I think this is a lesson that Adam Neumann himself is telling himself he made a mistake. He’s a smart guy. I think he admits he made a few mistakes. I think that he’s a smart guy, he’s an aggressive guy, he has lots of capability, he can convince people, he’s a great leader. But he made some mistakes. Any human makes some mistakes.”

The furthest Son went was to say that, “I’m part of the responsibility of his mistake,” before continuing on regarding Neumann, saying: “So, I still love him. I still respect him. I’m sure he would come back and do some great stuff in his rest of the world and his life. So I’m a big believer that someday he will be very successful. And he would he would say he has learned a lot from his prior life.”

On the Trump administration’s efforts to ban TikTok in the U.S.:

Son has a vested interest in TikTok’s success. It was roughly two years ago that it led a $3 billion round in TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance, which was valued at $78 billion at the time and which is currently raising a new round from investors that would value the still-private company at a whopping $180 billion, according to recent reports. (It’s very much a SoftBank-style deal in this regard, and it will be interesting to see if SoftBank is leading this next round at more than twice the company’s previous valuation.)

As for the pressure that Bytedance came under this fall to sell its TikTok’s U.S. operations, with Oracle and Walmart both involved in the bid, Son called it a “sad thing” if a service that “people enjoy a lot gets discontinued because of some political concerns [over] something that is actually not happening.”

Indeed, Son insisted that, based on his discussions with the company’s top brass, Bytedance has no interest in compromising the privacy of its users or the national security of the countries in which TikTok operates, be it the U.S., India, Japan, or European countries. He added that for those regions with lingering concerns, there is “always a solution, like putting servers in each country where the politicians may feel much more comfortable about protecting security national security . . .there is always a technical solution.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Pinterest tests online events with dedicated ‘class communities’

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Pinterest is getting into online events. The company has been spotted testing a new feature that allows users to sign up for Zoom classes through Pinterest, while creators use Pinterest’s class boards to organize class materials, notes and other resources, or even connect with attendees through a group chat option. The company confirmed the test of online classes is an experiment now in development, but wouldn’t offer further details about its plans.

The feature itself was discovered on Tuesday by reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong, who found details about the online classes by looking into the app’s code.

Currently, you can visit some of these “demo” profiles directly — like “@pinsmeditation” or “@pinzoom123,” for example — and view their listed Class Communities. However, these communities are empty when you click through. That’s because the feature is still unreleased, Wong says.

When and if the feature is later launched to the public, the communities would include dedicated sections where creators will be able to organize their class materials — like lists of what to bring to class, notes, photos and more. They could also use these communities to offer a class overview and description, connect users to a related shop, group chat feature and more.

Creators are also able to use the communities — which are basically enhanced Pinterest boards — to respond to questions from attendees, share photos from the class and otherwise interact with the participants.

When a user wants to join a class, they can click a “book” button to sign up, and are then emailed a confirmation with the meeting details. Other buttons direct attendees to download Zoom or copy the link to join the class.

It’s not surprising that Pinterest would expand into the online events space, given its platform has become a popular tool for organizing remote learning resources during the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers have turned to Pinterest to keep track of lesson plans, get inspiration, share educational activities and more. In the early days of the pandemic, Pinterest reported record usage when the company saw more searches and saves globally in a single March weekend than ever before in its history, as a result of its usefulness as a online organizational tool.

This growth has continued throughout the year. In October, Pinterest’s stock jumped on strong earnings after the company beat on revenue and user growth metrics. The company brought in $443 million in revenue, versus $383.5 million expected, and grew its monthly active users to 442 million, versus the 436.4 million expected. Outside of the coronavirus impacts, much of this growth was due to strong international adoption, increased ad spend from advertisers boycotting Facebook and a surge of interest from users looking for iOS 14 home screen personalization ideas.

Given that the U.S. has failed to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control, many classes, events and other activities will remain virtual even as we head into 2021. The online events market may continue to grow in the years that follow, too, thanks to the kickstart the pandemic provided the industry as a whole.

“We are experimenting with ways to help creators interact more closely with their audience,” a Pinterest spokesperson said, when asked for more information.

Pinterest wouldn’t confirm additional details about its plans for online events, but did say the feature was in development and the test would help to inform the product’s direction.

Pinterest often tries out new features before launching them to a wider audience. Earlier this summer, TechCrunch reported on a Story Pins feature the company had in the works. Pinterest then launched the feature in September. If the same time frame holds up for online events, we could potentially see the feature become more widely available sometime early next year.

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SpaceX targeting next week for Starship’s first high-altitude test flight

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SpaceX looks ready to proceed to the next crucial phase of its Starship spacecraft development program: A 15km (50,000 feet) test flight. This would far exceed the max height that any prior Starship prototype has achieved so far, since the current record-setting hop test maxed out at around 500 feet. Elon Musk says that SpaceX will look to make its first high-altitude attempt sometime next week.

This tentative date (these are always subject to change) follows a successful static test fire of the current SN8 generation prototype — essentially just firing the test spacecraft’s Raptor engines while it remains stationary on the pad. That’s a crucial step that paves the way for any actual flight, since it proves that the spacecraft can essentially hold together and withstand the pressures of active engines before it leaves the ground.

SpaceX’s SN8 prototype is different from prior versions in a number of ways, most obviously because it has an actual nosecone, along with nose fins. The prototypes that did the short test hops, including SN6, had what’s known as a mass simulator up top, which weighs as much as an actual Starship nose section but looks very different.

Musk added that the chances of an SN8 high-altitude flight going to plan aren’t great, estimating that there’s “maybe a 1/3 chance” given how many things have to work correctly. He then noted that that’s the reason SpaceX has SN9 and SN10 ready to follow fast, which is a theme of Starship’s development program to date: building successive generations of prototypes rapidly in parallel in order to test and iterate quickly.

We’ll likely get a better idea of when the launch will take place due to alerts filed with local regulators, so watch this space next week as we await this major leap forward in SpaceX’s Starship program.

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Police case filed against Netflix executives in India over ‘A Suitable Boy’ kissing scene

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Netflix, which has invested more than $500 million to gain a foothold in India in recent years, is slowly finding out just about what all could upset some people in the world’s second-largest internet market: Apparently everything.

A police case has been filed this week against two top executives of the American streaming service in India after a leader of the governing party objected to some scenes in a TV series.

The show, “A Suitable Boy,” is an adaptation of the award-winning novel by Indian author Vikram Seth that follows the life of a young girl. It has a scene in which the protagonist is seeing kissing a Muslim boy at a Hindu temple.

Narottam Mishra, the interior minister of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, said a First Information Report (an official police complaint) had been filed against Monika Shergill, VP of Content at Netflix and Ambika Khurana, Director of Public Policies for the firm, over objectionable scenes in the show that hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus.

“I had asked officials to examine the series ‘A Suitable Boy’ being streamed on Netflix to check if kissing scenes in it were filmed in a temple and if it hurt religious sentiments. The examination prima facie found that these scenes are hurting the sentiments of a particular religion,” he said.

Gaurav Tiwari, a BJP youth leader who filed the complaint, demanded an apology from Netflix and makers of the series (directed by award-winning filmmaker Mira Nair), and said the film promoted “love jihad,” an Islamophobic conspiracy theory that alleges that Muslim men entice Hindi women into converting their religion under the pretext of marriage.

Netflix declined to comment.

In recent days, a number of people have expressed on social media their anger at Netflix over these “objectionable” scenes. Though it is unclear if all of them — if any — are a Netflix subscriber.

The incident comes weeks after an ad from the luxury jewelry brand Tanishq — part of the 152-year-old salt-to-steel conglomerate — which celebrated interfaith marriage received intense backlash in the country.

For Netflix, the timing of this backlash isn’t great. The new incident comes days after the Indian government announced new rules for digital media, under which the nation’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting will be regulating online streaming services. Prior to this new rule, India’s IT ministry oversaw streaming services, and according to a top streaming service executive, online services enjoyed a great degree of freedom.

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