When it comes to the future of Wattpad, his innovative story-sharing site, Allen Lau isn't thinking small. In fact, he wants Wattpad to be the next YouTube.
"When someone is looking to discover new reading content, I want them to think of Wattpad as the No. 1 destination," says Mr. Lau, 45, of his Toronto-based website.
As it turns out, Mr. Lau is well on his way to reaching his goal. He has 19 million users in 200 countries. They spend 4.5 billion minutes a month on Wattpad, and the numbers continue to grow. The millions of stories on offer run the gamut from fan fiction and sci-fi to romance and poetry, with some of the most popular authors drawing more than 1 million views.
But Mr. Lau and his partner Ivan Yuen haven't just created a vibrant online community, the median age of which is 18. Wattpad is disrupting the traditional publishing model and changing the way the world reads.
"People don't just want to pick up a book and read," Mr. Lau says. "They want to comment on the work, interact with their favourite authors, share it with others and post their own stories. Instead of a few gatekeepers choosing to accept or reject manuscripts, the public is deciding what they want to read."
Mr. Lau's keen insight into the future of reading originated a decade ago – before the iPhone, before Kindle – as he sought to solve a problem he faced personally.
"I'm a huge reader, and I wanted to be able to read stories on my mobile phone – a Nokia that displayed five lines of text at a time," Mr. Lau says. "There wasn't an easy way to do this, so I set out to build a solution myself."
It wasn't until several years later, in 2006, that Mr. Lau found what he was looking for. He received a message from Mr. Yuen, a former workmate living in Vancouver, who wanted feedback on a mobile reading app he was building. Mr. Yuen had also created a website that allowed users to share and upload stories to their mobile phones easily. Mr. Lau immediately caught a plane to Vancouver to begin planning what would become Wattpad.
"Being the geek that I am, I figured if there was no solution to a problem that I faced, there must be a market opportunity," Mr. Lau says.
YouTube had just been sold to Google for $1.65-billion, and Mr. Lau envisioned how the concept of mobile, social, user-generated content could be applied to publishing. With Wattpad, people could follow their favourite writers, share with friends and be notified every time a new chapter was added to the story they were reading.
Perhaps the most forward-thinking idea Mr. Lau had was to tailor Wattpad to mobile devices, allowing users to read and write stories whenever and wherever they like.
"People don't really read on their PC, they read on the go and they read when they want to escape into another world and be entertained," Mr. Lau says. "Today over 85 per cent of time spent on Wattpad is coming from phones and tablets."
Mr. Lau also bucked the notion that in this era of texting, Twitter and videogames, teens don't read. A key part of Mr. Lau's success was to combine reading with two things young people love: mobile phones and social media.
"We're seeing tons of teens reading and engaging on Wattpad," he says.
Mr. Lau says another important element of his success has been to let the site grow organically, rather than try to sell users on what's "hot" or on-trend. "Wattpad is where trends emerge, it's not a platform that dictates what the trends are," he says.
As an example, the site's fastest growing story category is fan fiction. There are 4.7 million such tales on Wattpad, based on characters from TV shows and movies such as The Vampire Diaries and The Hunger Games.
But how does the site make money? As Wattpad's numbers continue to grow, there has been pressure to monetize.
Mr. Lau says they are experimenting with a "fan funding" program, similar to Kickstarter or Indiegogo, where readers can contribute to their favourite artist's new work in exchange for rewards such as having a character named after them. The site also recently partnered with the publishing company Sourcebooks, which will be releasing the works of select Wattpad authors in either print or e-book format.
But Mr. Lau says he's in no rush to attempt full-scale monetization before he feels the community is ready.
"We'll be trying many different things before deciding on our approach," Mr. Lau says. "But our No. 1 priority right now is continuing to grow the Wattpad community."
"I always say that when we have a community of a billion users, there will be a million ways to make money."