The ALIS Project raised 430 million yen [$3.87 million] with its Japan ICO in 2017. In this series entitled “The coming age of ICOs? Asking the experts,” we seek out a variety of perspectives on the ICO phenomenon. In this interview with CEO Masahiro Yasu, we asked about the lead-up to the ICO, his view from the inside, the current situation and challenges they have faced.
Discovering ICOs through Bitcoin
Yasu: I got interested in cryptocurrency and blockchains when I attended a Bitcoin seminar in March 2017, and it was as I was learning about these that I discovered ICOs. I was already planning to quit my company in May to start my own business, and was right in the middle of trying to decide what kind of business to pursue. I saw great potential in blockchain technology and wanted to attempt an ICO.
When I looked into how tokens are used in existing Dapps, the model of the social media platform Steemit seemed promising. Based on that, I came up with the idea for ALIS with user evaluation and trust as the value proposition.
I was also interested in a user-led media service because in my previous job I saw issues with ad business. The structure of media using the ad revenue model makes it hard to criticize advertising clients. However, the current word-of-mouth era has made trust built on user reviews much more important, and that is the type of media I’m aiming for with ALIS.
What is ALIS?
ALIS is a social media platform that connects users with trustworthy people and articles. By distributing tokens to those who write trustworthy articles and those who find them the quickest, it motivates use and improves quality. As of July 2018, it is offering an advance registration-based closed beta version.
Choosing Japan for the ICO amid uncertainty
My colleagues and I established ALIS in May and quickly produced a white paper. At that time, we hadn’t yet decided where we would do the ICO. Japan’s tax system was undeveloped, so our preparations were full of trial and error. At one point we considered doing the ICO in Hong Kong, but since we really wanted to do it in Japan, that was what we ultimately decided.
We were also concerned about whether we’d be able to continue conducting business in Japan if we ICOed as a foreign company. For example, if a regulation was introduced that made it illegal for foreign companies to serve Japanese users, we would be finished. For these reasons, we thought it better to do it in Japan at that time.*1 Now, however, the situation has changed and that may not necessarily be the case.
*1: See the following blog post for the complete backstory to Yasu and ALIS’ decision to ICO.
What Japan needs is clarification of rules
What is most needed right now is for Japan to make clear the legal standards and rules for doing ICOs in Japan in a way that makes it easy for venture companies to attempt it. We fumbled our way to an ICO without rules. However, circumstances have changed dramatically since then and now companies need a cryptocurrency trading license to ICO. But the conditions for obtaining this license make it a high hurdle for venture companies with little capital or track record, and impossible in practice. If rules are to be formulated and an environment enabling ICOs is to be developed, it should not rely on capital, as reliance on capital pushes out venture companies and stifles innovation in Japanese industries.
The United States is fertile ground for the innovation industry. Uber and AirBnB are not overwhelmingly prominent business models. However, by not over-regulating them, the US nurtured the seeds of innovation and they grew massively. As for cryptocurrencies, the US appears to be strictly regulating them, but they are also producing qualified investors that are aggressively investing in ICOs. The result is the accumulation of knowledge regarding blockchain business and technology. Speaking briefly with US blockchain players was enough to make me keenly aware of this difference.
In that sense, US regulations are finely measured and aimed at acquiring both the financial market and blockchain market. At this rate Japan, on the other hand, will let the possibility of acquiring the market slip through its fingers.
Excessive regulation hinders development
I don’t mean to say that all regulation is bad. However, to regulate simply because there’s risk is a minus for both Japan as a country and the development of the industry. If we fall back on the existing finance rules, we won’t be able to compete against the US. The US will take the lead in the new potential of blockchains, just as it has in the financial markets.
If Japan is aiming to develop the industry, it must reclassify it as a new thing, not finance. I think the revision of the Payment Services Act is a good example of this, but after that, an over-emphasis on consumer protection tightened regulations to the point of constriction. Of course consumer protection is important. In fact, a number of incidents have occurred that make regulation unavoidable. However, excessive regulation will cause the industry to stagnate. Without risk, there can be no development.
Even as increased productivity is being demanded in all fields, the most influential factor is IT. Finance is also shifting toward IT, and this is producing a groundswell called FinTech. Cryptocurrency and the blockchain are at the very heart of this groundswell.
ICOs are an innovation-promoting fundraising method
The advantage of ICOs is that the standards for due diligence (evaluation as an investment target) are different than the fundraising methods up until now. Evaluating on the premise of a certain degree of profitability and certainty means that completely new, unknown businesses don’t become investment targets. Even for entrepreneurs, giving top priority to investor and shareholder returns makes it tough to try new things. But ICOs are different, making them a suitable method of fundraising for venture companies to innovate.
One big issue for ICOs is that while they make it easy to raise funds, there are also a lot of scams. However, when the Internet first appeared, there were things suspect about it. But because the country embraced it rather than regulating everything, it enabled the past and present development. Blockchains and ICOs must be understood in the same way. Furthermore, as opposed to trying to solve everything with legal regulations, using mechanisms like the DAICO can make it physically difficult for scams to occur.
This is truly a technology-driven market, so we believe that the solutions must also be technology-driven.
“Visualization of trust” is the aim
With the ALIS Project, we’re attempting to create a unique economic zone established by the ALIS token itself. It is a world in which the ALIS token is traded not with yen, a fiat currency, but with other things of value.
For example, if someone posts an article with ALIS, it is evaluated and they receive ALIS tokens. They could exchange these for vegetables or even something with intangible value such as instruction in how to operate a drone. ALIS tokens are an incentive to promote the use of services, but the underlying principle is the visualization of trust. ALIS tokens can be given or exchanged as proof of trust. They are an abstraction of value within a community, like a local currency.
However, if exchange with fiat currency is the premise, the token is likely to be subject to speculation. If it becomes a means of payment, it will come into direct competition with Bitcoin and Ethereum. This would be a tough contest as it would be decided by scale. Worse still, cryptocurrency, which was born as a counter to existing finance, would ultimately become merely a part of finance.
Taking a pragmatic approach to price and listing
This is all idealistic – we need to expand the service and token potential if we want to make it into a business. The service is social media, and we are thinking about the ease of monetization and how to involve the token. Some ALIS token holders have purchased it for speculative purposes and we want to make it attractive in those terms as well. In the future, I’d like to list the ALIS token in Japan. Watching regulatory trends, conditions seem poised to become extremely difficult, but that’s precisely why we want to attempt it.
However, increasing the price of the ALIS token must not become our primary purpose. It is paramount that the token price rise only as a result of ALIS being highly rated as a service. The token price rising without the value of the service changing is a problem.
Advancing the project with a sense of urgency
ALIS released a closed beta version in April. While many ICO projects are delayed, I believe that ALIS is on track. In order to gain trust as an ICO project, we believe that it’s important to disclose as much information as possible and be as transparent as possible.
As the ones doing the ICO, our feeling is that if we make it this open and take it on this seriously and it still fails, then there’s no future for ICOs.
Looking at the beta version usage, results have exceeded expectations. Above all else, ALIS emphasizes the existence of a community. In fact, we’re seeing spontaneous activity between users and are working to encourage this. As regulations tighten, we’re exploring how to structure it as a business. I hope we can move the project along with a sense of urgency and steadily hit milestones.
Interview date: June 20, 2018
Editor: Makoto Nakazato
Photographer: Ayano Tomozawa
CEO, ALIS Co., Ltd.
After majoring in nuclear fusion at Kyoto University, Masahiro Yasu joined Recruit Co., Ltd. in 2011. He began in product planning for career change media and new business development in HR tech and was eventually put in charge of business development in natural language analysis and machine learning. In 2016, he received the planning department’s highest award. In September 2017, he held an ICO to launch the blockchain-based ALIS, raising 430 million yen [$3.87 million].