Sell a big vision with a defensible strategy | A Conversation wit Allen Lau

As CEO and Co-founder of Wattpad, Allen leads the company’s efforts to transform the reading and writing experience of millions of people around the world. In between travelling to and from Toronto, we caught up with the globe trotter to ask him his thoughts on Wattpad’s influence in the world of entertainment and storytelling. Highlights of the conversation are below.


DF: Can you tell us about your background and how you started Wattpad?

My name is Allen Lau and I’m the CEO and co-founder of Wattpad, a free app that lets people discover and share stories about the things they love. I’m also a serial entrepreneur.

Prior to Wattpad, I was the co-founder of FeedM8, a mobile advertising company that was acquired in 2008. In 2001, I co-founded Tira Wireless where I helped leading brands optimize content for mobile delivery.

The idea for Wattpad goes all the way back to 2002, before Facebook, smart phones, or apps. In 2002 there wasn’t an easy way to read stories on your mobile phone, so as an engineer I decided to build a solution myself. I created a prototype that let me read five lines of text at a time, but the overall experience was pretty horrible. I realized that my idea was too advanced for the mobile technology at the time, so I put it on the backburner.

In 2006, everything changed. That’s when Wattpad’s other co-founder Ivan Yuen asked me to check out his idea, another mobile reading project. We met in the Vancouver International Airport to discuss our respective projects, and at that moment, we knew that we were onto something great that we could build together.

We got started and after a few years of slow but steady growth, Ivan and I started FeedM8 to keep the lights on at Wattpad. After FeedM8 was acquired in 2008, we put our full focus back into creating the world’s largest community for people who love stories. We hit one million users in 2009 and growth at Wattpad has been explosive ever since.

Today, 40 million people spend 13 billion minutes a month immersed in original content on Wattpad, and 90% of traffic comes from mobile devices.

DF: Could you ever have anticipated Wattpad being a platform that builds the career of new authors?

We always knew that our idea would change the way people interact with and share stories. To see what’s changed, you just have to look at how people use Wattpad.

The Wattpad experience is serial, social, and mobile. At it’s core, it’s all about entertainment. Wattpad provides stories that fit any schedule or interest in a way that is consistent with today’s online social trends.

Anna Todd is one writer who leveraged these trends to change her entire life. Like most writers on Wattpad, she just posted a chapter at a time – often from her phone while waiting in line at the store or in-between errands. Her story, After, went viral because Anna connected directly with fans, replied to their comments, and made them part of the process. Today, her story has become an international bestseller with Paramount Pictures adapting it for film.

Hundreds of Wattpad stories have moved beyond the app. In the Philippines, Wattpad is synonymous with entertainment and stories are brought to life for weekly television series and blockbuster movies.

Today, Wattpad supports writers of all levels by connecting them with a variety of opportunities through ourWattpad Stars program. Writers like Rebecca Sky have taught online courses, Kevin Fanning has spoken on panels, and many writers have been commissioned by major brands to write stories.

DF: What do you write and read on Wattpad?

On Wattpad, I have a few short stories and non-fiction works. My first story was science fiction and my nonfiction works relate to my travels and family life. You can check out my Wattpad profile, here.

As CEO of Wattpad, I travel quite often. Sometimes, my travels take me to areas of the world where internet access is spotty at best. We have a Wattpad user in almost every country on the planet, so this gives me a prime opportunity to experience Wattpad in the same way that our global community does.

Right now, I’m enjoying a nonfiction story called A Life Wasted. It’s based on the life of Clay Waagner who was once on the FBI’s most wanted list. Clay’s daughter is taking his memoir and posting it serially on Wattpad. If you’re a fan of true crime, this is a must read. It’s also a gem from the growing nonfiction category on Wattpad.

DF: Who are your favourite authors/stories to read on Wattpad?

With over 200 million story uploads on Wattpad to choose from, it’s hard to pick a favourite. Since the introduction of our new multimedia feature, however, I’ve seen some great new use cases and content creators join Wattpad.

With the ability to add multimedia directly into Wattpad stories, we opened up the door to many new types of content. DC Comic’s Vertigo imprint released the first ever comic on Wattpad. Now, Toronto based creatives Nanomyte Studios are serializing a comic/graphic novel, and it’s a great read.

Last year we also welcomed many great nonprofit organizations onto Wattpad. Doctors Without Borders, Kiva, and WE.org are just a few great examples. And, who can forget Wattpad’s self-proclaimed fairy godmother,Margaret Atwood.

DF: What advice do you have for other start-ups who are looking for funding and are constantly getting rejected by the large Venture Capitalists.

You have to sell a big vision that comes with a defensible strategy. VC’s want to know that your big idea comes with a solid team and strategic plan.

For Wattpad, the differentiator was our massive global community and company focus. We provide a service for both content creators and consumers that’s changed the way people interact with stories and find entertainment.

On Wattpad, you can find content that relates to almost anything that interests you. Diverse and underrepresented voices share their stories with one of the most positive communities on the internet. The Free Your Body movement and Unslut Project are great examples.

We’ve lowered the barriers to entry for millions of people around the world who want to share a story. That type of scale and connection to content is what makes Wattpad a truly unique platform.

My second piece of advice is that the best funding is no funding. We bootstrapped Wattpad for many years and maintain a company philosophy of using only what you need. When you do earn your funding, use it wisely.

DF: What are you looking forward to seeing at Digifest 2016?

I’ve often said that Toronto is the best place to start a global internet company. Our talent in design, technology, and business are world-class. I enjoy seeing other entrepreneurs and creatives connect through ideas, at events like Digifest.

At Digifest, the people who’ll shape the future of design and technology will have the chance to share their ideas, I can’t wait to take part.

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