Canadian picture-book title, Red Is Best, pops into my mind. I'm meeting Allen Lau, the impresario behind Toronto-based reading-and-writing website Wattpad, and he's wearing a collared polo shirt, with horizontal stripes of fire-truck red and maroon.
No surprise, this: In many published images I've seen of him, he's sporting tops in, well, 50 shades of red. The latter is a more apt literary reference-, since Wattpad writers contribute more riffs on the bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey than they do bedtime stories. "Serials are what we do best," Lau says. "And the authors get input on each chapter as they go. If Charles Dickens were alive now, he'd be on Wattpad." (1)
The most popular contributors to the site, founded in 2006, draw adulation from a young audience–nearly 80 per cent of Wattpad's 34 million users are under 25. The Victorian populist would have basked in that sort of attention, but he also liked to be paid–and none of the site's contributors currently are. "You can build a huge fan base here," Lau says. "A platform."
It's been a big year so far for the 46-year-old. In March, investors led by OMERS Ventures announced they were pouring $46-million into Wattpad, bringing outside contributions to date to nearly $70-million. (2)
In April, Lau and his now 89 staffers moved from uptown Toronto to plush offices in a tower near the foot of Toronto Street. Wattpad played a part in the promotion of one of the summer's big movies in its demographic, the young-love-vs.-cancer tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars; 20th Century Fox hired Wattpad authors to write branded stories paying tribute to the film's source material, John Green's young-adult novel of the same name. "They helped build buzz for the movie," says Lau matter-of-factly.
Notwithstanding the breakthrough year, Lau doesn't sound overexcited. His shirts may be vivid as a rule (on the day of our photo shoot, he sports a dour black), but his talk is bland, burdened with deadening words like "unique," "optimize" and "interesting," that least interesting of words. Clearly the tech side, not the literary one, drew him to this venture. "We're mobile first. We moved to mobile early. Almost my entire career, I was focusing on mobile." He does the interview in a boardroom, since he sits out on the floor, among his employees. He says of his own desk: "I keep it pretty empty." No books, editorial mess? "I always have at least four mobile devices on me."
His is a private company, and efforts to get him to show me where the money is with Wattpad come up short. "Our investors are aligned with our main goal of building this community to a billion members–and we have a realistic chance of doing that."
His efforts to increase Wattpad's user base have often been savvy. Writers here can go anonymous, allowing their heartfelt stories of callous families to go live with minimal risk of exposure. The site helps supply handsome images to use as online book covers, making users feel like real authors. Notifications of new chapters in your favourite series come right to your smartphone, helping the site compete against attention-grabbing mobile games.
Nine-10ths of the comments for the writing on the site are positive; few are invective-laden, perhaps since authors can delete nasty ones themselves. "We worked very hard to build a supportive community, for people to find their voices, and share their stories with an international audience. We crack down on cyberbullying immediately." In the absence of real critiques, it must be said, the writing, as a rule, is poor, full of elementary grammatical and storytelling errors.
Still, no less a figure of the literary establishment than CanLit queen Margaret Atwood has been an early adopter and booster, praising the site (in an essay in The Guardian) for promoting literacy–if not producing polished literature. "Reading and writing improve with practice. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones," Atwood wrote. The author has volunteered to judge Wattpad's poetry contest, and posted some original zombie-, werewolf– and ghost-filled verse of her own. (3)
Wattpad took off in the U.S. in 2009, after a slow start–for the first three years, Lau and his co-founder Ivan Yuen kept their more lucrative jobs at a mobile advertising start-up. Lately, nearly 70 per cent of its traffic comes from outside North America, with explosive growth in the Philippines, Turkey and Latin America, and more moderate gains in Germany and England. "You have an advantage building a global Internet company in Toronto," the Hong Kong native says, "with more people here who were born outside Canada than in it. Almost all our staff are bilingual and can help foster growth in various language communities."
I press Lau again to speak of his business model, but again, he won't. "If we can build a strong community optimized for a billion users, then it will be insanely valuable." So is an exit his motivation? "The main thing is that these were stories that were untold. Now they're being written and read. It's life-changing."
(1) The founders named the company Wattpad in part because texters, using the dumber phones available in 2006, could type each letter without pushing twice on the dial-pad.
(2) Most early backing came from Valley VCs headed by the likes of Yahoo founder Jerry Yang and Vinod Khosla, ex of Sun Microsystems
(3) Ghost Cat, one of the poems Atwood uploaded, generated much feedback, some admiring ("I might be a ghost cat because somehow I relate to this completely"), some envious ("I'd sell my soul if I could write like this")