Allen Lau, a pioneer of Canada’s technology renaissance of the past decade, is stepping aside as the CEO of Wattpad, a year after South Korean Internet giant Naver Corp. bought his company for US$660-million.
Mr. Lau, 53, co-founded the online storytelling platform in 2006 – in social media’s early days. Wattpad’s user base eventually expanded to 94 million people, and it became an intellectual property wellspring for book, movie and TV adaptations, as the company helped license its contributors’ works to other formats and produced some projects itself.
Naver operates South Korea’s largest search engine, the Line mobile messaging app and other Internet properties, including digital comics platform Webtoon and livestreaming platform V Live, which is used by K-pop celebrities.
Mr. Lau will remain an executive adviser to Webtoon. He called the move “a wise decision” and said he had no plans to leave Naver or start another company. He added that succession talks began soon after the acquisition. “It was an ongoing conversation, and we came to a point where [Naver and I] both felt this was the right time” for a transition. Wattpad president Jeanne Lam will assume leadership of Wattpad operations.
Ken Kim, the CEO of Webtoon Americas, called Mr. Lau “a visionary leader and entrepreneur who launched the careers of some of the world’s most-influential new writers” and whose platform “pioneered the web novel format and social-reading experience.”
Mr. Lau co-founded Wattpad as an online-reading app, initially uploading thousands of classics available for free because they are in the public domain. Business was slow until amateur writers started uploading their own works in 2008 in a range of genres, including vampire fiction.
Wattpad made the platform interactive so readers could comment on new works as they appeared, with writers responding to the feedback. The company established tight content guidelines that forbade the kind of hostile commentary common on other social media and strove to maintain a supportive, inclusive environment for nascent writers. Novelist Margaret Atwood was an early supporter, calling herself Wattpad’s “fairy godmother.”
Wattpad’s success made it a standout in Canada’s gloomy technology scene in the early 2010s. There were few startups of note in the country at the time. Wattpad attracted attention and venture capital, eventually raising more than US$115-million.
At the time, U.S. investors tried to persuade Canadian startups to move south, but Mr. Lau held firm. “I believed Toronto was the best place to build a technology company. It was gutsy, but nowadays it seems obvious. I am super proud of this. We played a big part in changing the narrative.”
“Allen is one of the OG [original gangster] founders of the Canadian tech ecosystem, which looks stronger than ever and that has seen the rise of many companies that have created completely new categories and developed into global champions,” said Vancouver venture capitalist Boris Wertz, an early funder.
Some writers who took to the platform became stars. The biggest was Anna Todd, who began typing out a romance called After on her smartphone in a Target checkout line in 2013, when she was 24. After became a sensation on Wattpad, and company executives tracked Ms. Todd down, helped her land a book deal and co-produced a string of movies based on her work.
After struggling to find ways to make money, Wattpad refashioned itself as “the next Disney,” using artificial intelligence to identify popular stories that had potential for adaptations. It struck licensing deals on behalf of writers and got into TV and film production and book publishing itself. There are now 100 Wattpad projects on the go globally.
Wattpad has also expanded efforts to generate revenues from the platform – which is free to use – by offering ad-free subscriptions, paid access to select stories and in-app purchases. The company has paid out $3-million to authors who participate in its paid access program.
“When I think about Wattpad’s success, I think about how well we support writers,” Ms. Lam said.
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