Founder Who Turned Down SoftBank Set to Become Billionaire

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At 23, Shunji Sugaya had what he calls a “life-changing episode.”

It was March 2000, and Sugaya had just won an award at a business contest where Masayoshi Son, the founder of what was then called SoftBank Corp., was a judge. He sent Son an email to thank him, the two met up, and before long SoftBank offered to buy Sugaya’s idea for $2.8 million or for Sugaya to join the company and receive stock options.

Sugaya turned it down.

“It gave me a big boost in confidence as I was a student — I was so happy I could dance,” he said in a video interview. “We were very grateful for the offer but we politely declined and decided to do it ourselves.”

So Sugaya started his own company, Optim Corp., which now provides business-management platforms using artificial-intelligence and internet-of-things technologies. The bet has paid off, with Sugaya moving ever closer to joining the ranks of billionaires in Japan alongside Son.

Optim’s shares have gained 66% this year, even as the broader market fell, as doing business remotely became a necessity during the coronavirus pandemic. Sugaya’s net worth, derived mainly from his roughly 64% stake in the company, has surged to about $918 million, according to a calculation by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index that excludes shares pledged as collateral.

The virus has accelerated a shift from analog to digital business practices at companies in Japan, according to Sugaya, who is Optim’s president.

“Digitalization has progressed at great speed during the past three months,” he said. “It feels like quite a tailwind.”

Sugaya, now 43, was a computer programmer as far back as elementary school, when he created games and sold them to his friends for a few hundred yen.

Optim, which he founded in 2000, started out providing internet video-advertising services. It got into AI and IoT as it worked with telecommunications giant Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. to create an internet-connection service. Optim came up with software so that subscribers could set up the connection themselves and later developed remote support services.

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