Valu, the Startup in Japan That Lets Anyone Hold a Personal IPO

Nuko Numano is a cosplayer in Japan who regularly hosts livestreams for her fans, but only to a select few who own five of her shares priced at $38 apiece. That seems like a bargain, considering they were trading for as much as $585 in July.

The 23-year-old, who dresses up as anime characters and bunny girls, is one of 60,000-plus users on a Japanese startup called Valu Inc., a cross between a trading platform and crowdfunding site. “I plan to use the funds to buy expensive clothes that I couldn’t afford before, and enter international cosplay events,” said Numano, which isn’t her real name.

Anyone -- from fishermen and YouTube celebrities to pastry chefs and social-media mavens -- can sell shares to raise funds in a manner similar to an initial public offering. They attract buyers by offering gifts and services; for example, a blogger may offer exclusive posts that can only be viewed by shareholders, or a cosplayer may share signed photos.

With just a handful of rules, tokens -- known as VA and exchangeable (unsurprisingly) with bitcoins -- are bought and sold like real securities. There are rallies and crashes, and blowups that could be considered market manipulation. It’s all legal, because VAs are made-up shares on its website, and don’t fall under Japan’s financial-product regulations. “We were working with Japan’s regulators, and they have helped us figure out what we could and couldn’t do under current laws,” said Suno Nishiyama, a spokeswoman for Tokyo-based Valu.

Source: Valu Inc.

Valu was criticized by local press and prominent bloggers, which accused a group of YouTubers of buying each other’s shares and coordinating to sell them off. After joining Valu last month, Hikaru, one of the group’s members, posted on Twitter and Valu’s message board on Aug. 14 that he wanted to do something interesting and “move his Valu shares in one moment.” His shares skyrocketed. The next day, Hikaru and two others sold their shares, netting the equivalent of 54,650,000 yen ($490,000) and causing their VA tokens to decline in value.

While other users and bloggers accused Hikaru and his friends of market manipulation, Hikaru told his 1.2 million followers on Twitter it was never their intention to profit off of Valu and that their goal was to find material for online videos. Vaz, a talent agency that represents the YouTubers, said it consulted with its lawyers and concluded that no laws were broken, and that steps were taken to compensate users. Hikaru didn’t respond to multiple emails seeking comment.

Officials at Japan’s Financial Services Agency said the trading of Valu’s tokens wouldn’t fall under securities regulations. The incident wouldn’t be considered a financial fraud case, according to Koichiro Ohashi, a partner at Greenberg Traurig’s Tokyo offices. “It is a relatively easy environment for a new fintech startup,” he said, adding that a similar scheme in the U.S. would probably results in lawsuits and closer scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Valu has tweaked its rules since the scandal, limiting stock sales to a tenth of total shares issued per person in a single day. That’s on top of other restrictions such as users being limited to 30 transactions per day, and limiting one-day price swings to a decline of 50 percent to a climb of 200 percent.

The recent incident also illustrates how Japan -- known for bureaucracy and over-regulation -- has recently taken a more relaxed approach to financial technology in the hope of fostering an environment for startups. The country’s fintech market is projected to climb to 80.8 billion yen by March 2022, according to Yano Research Institute.

For Numano, though, Valu is proving to be a decent financial cushion. While the cosplayer’s shares may not be worth as much they used to, she’s issued 5,000 of them; based on current bitcoin prices, that gives her a market capitalization of about $218,000.

— With assistance by Takako Taniguchi

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