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Since 2006, Toronto-based Wattpad has worked to revolutionize how people discover, share, and connect through stories. We spoke with their CEO and Co-founder, Allen Lau, to understand how they connected a monthly audience of over 55 million while working to co-produce a catalogue of over 375 million free to read books and stories.
How did Wattpad come to be?
The idea for a mobile reading app came to me in 2002, but technology at the time didn’t provide the best experience. In 2006, Wattpad’s co-founder Ivan Yuen reached out to get my thoughts on a project he was working on. We realized that our projects were similar, but that he had gone a step further by adding the capability to write.
We took it as a sign that we were on to something big and met in person during a stop-over of mine at the Vancouver International Airport. Our plan was developed there on a simple napkin. A year later the iPhone was announced, followed by the app store. The rest is history.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs and tech-startups in Toronto?
In the early days of your business you should pay attention to trends in the market and on your platform to make educated decisions on where to direct your focus. It’s about supporting emergent behaviours then leveraging those learnings to create a defensible business.
Fanfiction is one of our most popular categories, but we never set out to build a fanfiction platform. We simply provided the best tools for people to write and share fanfiction and other stories, thereby growing an audience for an emerging trend.
At Wattpad, we actively monitor shifts in consumer behavior and trends in the entertainment space. We know people will continue to crave entertainment, but we understand that every few years how they want to be entertained will be drastically different.
It’s this understanding that led us to release Tap by Wattpad, a new app for short, chat-style stories. It’s hard to stand out in the attention-economy. With Tap, you can enjoy a snackable read or create your own story in minutes. In this way, we’re disrupting ourselves. If you don’t pay close attention to trends on and off your platform, it’s likely that a competitor will disrupt you in the future.
Outside of this, entrepreneurs should spend time developing the most valuable product they have – themselves. I gave a talk about this subject at TechToronto, the video is viewable here.
Is there an advantage for Canadian tech startups?
Most definitely. It’s an amazing time for the Canadian startup ecosystem. Funding is at an alltime high, growth has been consistent, and more and more tech companies are choosing to build north of the valley.
Brand Canada is gaining awareness because of the factors that set us apart: diversity, inclusiveness, access to talent, and infrastructure. One of the competitive advantages of basing Wattpad in Toronto is our access to global talent. If you’re looking to build a global tech company, the city of Toronto is like a mini U.N. Over 50% of the population was born outside of Canada and the perspective they can bring to your business is invaluable.
Another trend to watch is the growing strength of Canadians in the field of artificial intelligence. If we can encourage more of these future leaders to stay North, there will be huge potential for us to capture this market.
Machine learning and A.I is something we’re already leveraging at Wattpad. The machine helps us predict which writers have the highest potential for success and helps us keep track of content trends. This type of work is extremely valuable for our growing entertainment focus. In our spare time, we’re even helping train A.I with Wattpad stories!
What’s in the future for Wattpad?
There’s an endless supply of content being uploaded to Wattpad everyday – leveraging the value of this data led to the formation of our Wattpad Studios division that co-produces stories for film, television, print, and digital.
There’s a massive amount of data insights we can supply our partners. For example, between January and March of 2017, people spent over 57 million minutes reading free horror stories on Wattpad. We’re tracking over a billion unique data events daily, so there’s no shortage of information.
Early work here has been great. Last year Universal Cable Productions partnered with us to receive exclusive data and content related to the growing categories on Wattpad.
With our technology, data, and community-driven approach to entertainment, we represent the future of the multi-billion dollar industry. Our vision is to entertain and connect the world through stories, and we are well on our way.
Reinvention is something we’re very good at. We’ll continue to refine our Wattpad Studios model, native ad offerings, and produce new mobile products to engage audiences through storytelling. I drafted this ten year master plan for our blog if you’d like read the full vision.