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SoftBank Should Take Its Yahoo Merger Live With M17

Tim Culpan

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Six months ago, a largely forgotten unit of SoftBank Group Corp. announced a complicated merger aimed at expanding its Japanese internet and e-commerce footprint.

Z Holdings Corp., better known by its former name, Yahoo Japan, and instant-messaging company Line Corp. are on track to join forces by October. The deal combines Z Holdings’ e-commerce and content prowess with its counterpart’s strength in chat. Social media and commerce are a powerful combination, evidenced by how effective Tencent Holdings Ltd. has been in leveraging the two, and in Facebook Inc.’s bold plans to follow a similar path in India and Southeast Asia.

But now it’s time for SoftBank to ink one more deal.

For inspiration, it can look to the big bet that burnished Masayoshi Son’s reputation as an investing guru: Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. China’s period of Covid-19 lockdown combined with consumers’ eagerness to shop highlighted the power of e-commerce live-streaming. This phenomenon even made superstars, and millionaires, of those with the gift of the gab.

SoftBank is well aware how lucrative video can be in attracting and keeping audiences. The remaining unicorn in its Vision Fund portfolio that still offers hope of a mega initial public offering, Bytedance Inc., has become a global phenomenon thanks to its short-video services TikTok and Douyin. Lockdowns helped accelerate uptake from both consumers and creators.

In its April investor presentation, Z Holdings outlined one of its business strategies succinctly: Its various services will get more users collectively than separately.

That lines up with a key goal for global internet companies: Beyond merely getting users onto your platform, keep them there. A minute spent on your app is a minute not spent elsewhere. It’s an extra opportunity to serve up an ad or entice users to shop.The march toward live-streamed e-commerce seems unstoppable. It makes sense, then, that Z Holdings gets into the business by adding to its Yahoo-Line merger. The company could do this by building from scratch, but a better way would be to buy an existing player. 

Turns out, there’s one such startup that could probably benefit from an exit strategy, and be snapped up for less than $1 billion.

After a disastrous failed IPO in 2018 — which ended with a co-founder throwing expletives at its banks Citigroup Inc. and Deutsche Bank AG on social media — Taipei-based M17 Entertainment Ltd. has knuckled down and started building what may actually be a sustainable business.

Its flagship app 17 lets content producers broadcast in real time while audiences can reward them with virtual gifts and tokens that are exchangeable for cash. Competitors include Japan’s Showroom, Singapore’s Bigo Live, and China’s JOYY Inc. and Momo Inc. Bigo itself might have made a good target, but was snapped up by JOYY two years ago. Showroom could also fit, but it’s owned by rival internet company DeNA Co. That makes M17 one of the few live-streaming startups that has the scale, traction, product and independence to be attractive for Z Holdings.

Having recently disposed of its internet-dating business Paktor in a curious transaction with a little-known Singapore company, M17 is now focused on expansion into the Japanese market. Moving away from its Taiwan base has been crucial to shedding the baggage that helped kill its New York Stock Exchange debut two years ago.

Among the investor concerns at the time was that 48% of revenue came from just 500 big spenders and 71% went to only 500 content streamers. Japan was always a key market, but back then the nation of 127 million accounted for 22% of revenue, versus 72% for Taiwan (population 23 million). 

Revenue in Japan boomed during Covid-19 and as M17 spent more effort expanding overseas. Even with the knowledge that such an uptick isn’t sustainable when life returns to normal, there's the possibility that more consumers have been introduced to the service and may stick around.Combining M17 with the internet properties of Yahoo Japan and the chat app Line could not only lower the cost of user acquisition, a key concern for startups, but provide the new owners with yet another way to keep customers on board and spending. Of course, there’s no guarantee such an acquisition won’t turn out to be yet another headache for Son and his companies. At the very least, M17 needs to prove its business can be profitable in its own right.

Merging two internet companies that were heading toward mediocrity was a savvy move for SoftBank. Adding a fallen angel to the mix could be the brilliant step to make it a hit.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

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