The least common denominator for writing and wanna-be writers: writing fan-fiction and feeding the slush pile—just became the most explosive market for mobile app users. Co-founder, Allen Lau risked putting together a seemingly iffy, mobile internet product called Wattpad in 2006—a blog app that focused on one niche that has been an age old hobby among kids: Writing and reading, and most importantly, sharing stories—short chapters—scene by scene installments—that sustain the reading fix of avid users. This rig was parlayed into the most rabidly successful mobile app / internet product since Instagram. After patiently waiting for the mobile market to mature, it seems Allen outsmarted everyone else in the field (mobile), most of whom were doing dumbed-down games in the mad scramble to get content on smartphones and tablets. Riding on the popularity of mobile among younger internet surfers, Wattpad has seen its user base double in just a year to 15 million unique users today. Allen humbly considers this growth (1 percent of the watermark he’d like to REACH in 2 years or so) as just a small step towards a bigger goal—make Wattpad as big as You Tube. Looks like Facebook will become a relic soon, as today’s generation of mobile web surfers choose a storysharing app over picture sharing on mobile. Allen Lau was in Manila just this September, at the 34th Manila International Book Fair, with country manager Kristel Tan, arranging a local roundtable Wattpad writer talk and an ‘Eyeball meetup’with app users in SMX, MOA. REACH magazine grabbed an interview with the Wattpad wizard...
Close to 3 million Filipinos use WATTPAD on their mobile devices, more than even FACEBOOK
REACH: Mobile apps are booming and Wattpad is among the most popular especially in the Philippines. Pinoys are the second biggest user base for Wattpad. Do you see any competition from any future mobile apps? How have other Asian reading communities fared with Wattpad?
Allen: Wattpad is very strong in mobile apps, I think the more that people get into mobile as access to the internet the stronger the brand will become. We have a very strong presence in mobile. Wattpad is very big in Asia. As you mentioned, the Philippines is number 2 behind the U.S. But there are other Asian countries getting traffic like Indonesia, and India. Another country that is picking up is Turkey. Wattpad is available in 30 different languages. If you want to write in German, Dutch, Chinese, you can.
REACH: For other internet entrepreneurs who commit to a vision for a uniquely engaging web experience, how strong must one's knowledge of the available technology be compared to marketing savvy and branding?
Allen: I think for mobile apps and websites to be successful in general—being tech savvy is a main strength, if you had to pick one. But at the end of the day, you really need to have a combination of each. For internet companies it is a little bit different. Viral marketing is actually more important. Or using creative effort for the product to spread virally among users is crucial to sucess. By the nature of the internet, things spread really quickly. And as an internet product you build a very native experience for your product that to spread virally among users is to your best advantage.
REACH: You've built a successful internet marketing company from the ground up then sold it off. Was it a choice of Wattpad over the other?
Allen: I’m very into focus. It is too hard to run two companies at the same time. And you have to pick the crest you want to focus on. To me it is a very natural decision to put the focus on Wattpad. To me it is the bigger opportunity of the two.
REACH: What advise would you give to anyone putting together an internet project?
Allen: I think a lot of people have unrealistic expectations on how quickly a mobile app or internet product can grow. People are getting spoiled by Instagram, or You Tube--they think they can hit the jackpot overnight. Ninety-nine percent of the apps and internet product are not like that. It takes a bit of time to build the user base and build a product or website to a certain quality bar before it can take off. Take Pinterest, which is getting popular these days, for the first year they got no traffic as well, it is the same story with Wattpad. The founder of Pinterest also got to know each of the users by heart because they were so few. The internet companies growth in the first year is always very slow before the product takes off.
REACH: Traditional publishers prefer to weed out a slush pile, while Wattpad has proven that a different publishing model does work—reader choice can really overwhelm established norms for what makes a good story. Is there really a trade-off?—will one choice mean a very good business model and the other choice be losing your shirt?
Allen: I don’t think it is as simple as one over the other. For one thing though, the internet is very good at connecting people. And before the mobile internet, the readers may not have had the choice to participate in the process of finding storytellers. But now because of the mobile internet it is easier to connect readers and writers together. Once the readers have a choice to be a part of the process they can provide the input to their system to self-select to some extent and that can be a very good thing. Because I think having diversity rather than a very narrow single selection process can benefit everyone.
REACH: Crowdfunding enabled entrepreneurs to get their deam rigs rolling; do you see the user base of Wattpad publishing their favorite reading as a viable monetization option?
Allen: That’s what we are trying to experiment with. The basic idea is to utilize the existent fan-base to get a better story experience for everyone involved. Basically the writer has built-in fans from their story posts. And fans utilize that to provide the funding to take the writer to the next level—get them a book. So I think that is a very exciting offering. Again the internet is very good at connecting people. Wattpad as the company can be the platform to help bring them together. We just want to connect between the readers and the writers. There may be more possibilities down the road.
REACH: Six years and explosive growth in user growth and interaction with Wattpad has attracted venture capital dudes who see more potential. For innovative new internet companies like Wattpad that focus first on building a user base, will monetization be a problem?
Allen: The problem of a website with a billion users making money is a nonexistent problem. Look at Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube. They started out with no idea how to make money until eventually a business model came along. Monetization develops organically. Sometime in the future, there will always be a business model that will always fit any internet product that has a good and solid user base. You want to look at You Tube that have up to a billion users and then harness that percentage of premium supporters or users. For now any internet product’s goal is to sustain and develop a massive user base.