Globe Telecom invests in Wattpad

Wattpad founder

Globe Telecom Inc., the second largest mobile phone company in the Philippines, has invested in mobile content platform Wattpad which now counts the Philippines as its second largest market globally, just behind the US.

Globe Telecom’s Kickstart Ventures, China’s Tencent and other international investors infused $51 million in Wattpad in January 2018. The funds will support investments in machine learning and interactive storytelling, expanding the company’s entertainment footprint in Southeast Asia and around the world.

Wattpad has more than 65 million users globally, including 17 million in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, Wattpad has seven million users every month, according to Wattpad co-founder and CEO Allen Lau.

Wattpadders in the Philippines read more than 400 million minutes each month, and Filipino writers shared more than 24 million story uploads on Wattpad.

“Wattpadders in the Philippines have embraced the future of entertainment, where technology and storytelling come together to empower new voices,” Lau says.

“Filipino readers, writers, and entertainment executives were first to understand the true scope of our vision to entertain and connect the world through stories. As a result, hundreds of Filipino Wattpad stories have been turned into books, TV shows, and films, changing how entertainment gets made in the country,” he says.

Kickstart Ventures president Minette Navarrete says Wattpad has transformed entertainment in the Philippines and around the world.

“They’ve built a community and technology that taps into our shared desire for stories, the most intimate and powerful form of human expression. Now they’re building a new, data-based framework for entertainment, sharing Filipino stories and voices with a global audience,” she says.

Wattpad has worked with publishers and TV & film producers across the Philippines to adopt Wattpad stories. The Philippines has adopted more Wattpad stories for print, TV, and film than any other country in the world, it says.

In an earlier interview with Manila Standard, Lau says his goal is to broaden Wattpad’s user base to 1 billion, a level that will probably make Wattpad the next Facebook, from its humble beginnings in Canada just seven years ago. Wattpad was conceived in 2002, but it was only in late 2006 when Lau and his friend and fellow engineer Ivan Yuen drafted the business model for what is now a global phenomenon on a piece of table napkin at the Vancouver airport’s food court.

Young Filipino writers, many of them teenagers in schools, took to Wattpad to create interesting stories that have attracted thousands of readers and the attention of book publishers and movie studios. Among the Filipino writers who hit it big on Wattpad are Ariesa Domingo, Louisse Carreon, Sic Santos, Freesia Lockheart and Denny.

Among the Wattpad stories that made it big is Diary ng Panget, a series of romantic comedy novels written by college student Denny and published by Viva-PsiCom Publishing Corp. It eventually became the country’s bestselling book and a top-grossing movie.

Lau, who has been to the Philippines a number of times as an IT consultant before he established Wattpad, was born in Hong Kong and studied at University of Toronto’s Electrical Engineering program.

He has been living for nearly 30 years now in Canada, the headquarters of Wattpad. He is married and has two daughters.

Lau says the Philippines has become one of the popular markets of Wattpad for several reasons. “Every single Filipino has a mobile phone and Filipinos are very social on the Internet. They are very active on social networks. Wattpad is a community that connects readers and writers. It is a social place for readers and writers. The combination of mobile, social and serialized stories, where writers upload stories chapter by chapter, that increases the opportunities for the readers to interact with the writers. Writers have the opportunity to interact with the readers, every time they upload. Because of that, it fits really well for the Filipino culture,” he says.

On why Wattpad became big, not only in the Philippines, but globally, Lau says it changed people’s reading experience. He says Wattpad is the first platform that gives the readers and writers the direct connection. “If you look at traditional reading, it is a very solitary experience. You don’t interact with anyone. You do it all by yourself. But on Wattpad, you can have the direct connection with the writers. People can post comments. You can see a lot of emotions on the comments. And that’s very unique and new. No other platform, no other company, no other product was doing something similar,” he says.

Lau says the interesting social connection between writers and readers makes Wattpad so unique. “That’s our main differentiator,” he says.

The rise of smartphones played a big role behind the success of Wattpad, Lau says.

Wattpad also gives writers the flexibility to publish stories as they write them. “Writers upload chapter by chapter. Everytime they upload, the read is much shorter. It really fits into people’s life and schedule. People may not be able to have access to desktop PC. But in the bus, they can use those 15 minutes or 20 minutes during their commute to read a chapter of the story that they love,” Lau says.

Lau is an engineer by profession and an avid reader. “I am not a writer. The reason I started this is because I read a lot. In a way, I designed this for readers. I am trying to do something to solve my own problem. The problem I tried to solve in the past is that because I was so busy, I wanted to bring the reading materials with me on the go. That’s why I started this company,” he says.

“The idea started in 2002. I was born in Hong Kong but moved to Canada to attend university [University of Toronto]. I have stayed there ever since. I have lived there for over 25 years now. I am a senior entrepreneur. Wattpad is not my first company. It is my third company,” he says.

Lau says the first company he established was a mobile gaming publisher. “”We published our own games, but we also helped other companies like Disney or Sony to publish their games. It was like 12 years ago when I started that company. But I am not a gamer. I don’t play games. So that’s one of the reasons why I started this Wattpad idea, way back 12 years ago,” he says.

“My background is mobile, professionally and my passion is reading. I want to combine the two together and that’s why I started this idea. But in 2002, as you know, the most popular phone was Nokia phone and its screen size was this small. It was very hard to read a book on the phone. I knew the timing wasn’t right,” he says.

Lau says while he had the prototype as early as 2002, he was not actively pursuing the idea. “First of all, I had my own company at that time and number two, I knew the time wasn’t quite ready for this. Then fast forward to year 2006. By that time, the most popular phone was the Motorola Razr. Its screen size was not this small anymore and it was this big. So reading a book on the Razr was quite comfortable. But of course, compared to the screen that we have today, that was quite primitive. But it was okay,” he says.

“I resurrected the idea that I had in 2002. I started to develop the application on my spare time again. Interestingly, a good friend of mine, Ivan Yuen, who used to work for me in my mobile gaming company and was my employee number one in fact, he left that company and moved to Vancouver in 2006,” he says. Yuen was also born in Hong Kong but grew up in Canada, where his family moved when he was six.

“In 2006, one day out of the blue, Ivan instant messaged me, saying he was launching a new product and asked me to check it out and give him some feed back. I clicked on that link on the instant messenger and when I looked upon, wow, he was working on a mobile reader app as well. Same idea as mine, but he went a step ahead of me. Not only did he create a mobile reader app, he also created a website for the readers and writers to share,” Lau says.

That became the predecessor of Wattpad, he says.

“A few days later, I flew to Vancouver to meet with him [Yuen] at Vancouver airport. We spent a few hours at the food court of the airport. We wrote the business plan on a piece of napkin and then, we were so excited, we decided to start the company. That’s how we started,” Lau says.

Lau and Yuen, being both engineers, built the Wattpad app. “We built the whole thing by ourselves,” Lau says. “It was not quite ready to launch in October 2006, so we spent some moment. Officially, we launched the product in January 2007, right after the Christmas holiday,” he says.

Lau became the Wattpad chief executive and Yuen the chief technology officer, in charge of developing and improving the platform.

“We knew in the beginning the scale would be large, because there was nothing in the Internet where people can share the story in long text format. We want to build a global Internet company. We kinda knew it can become very big, but now seeing how it can become, of course the feeling is very different,” he says.

Wattpad started sharing classic literature, but it was not until new writers came in when growth became extraordinary. “As a community that connects readers and writers, one problem we had in the early days is that even with many readers, no one would share the content. Without any content, we cannot attract the readers. So it is a chicken and egg problem. How we started jumpstarting this, is we imported classic books like Pride and Prejudice, all the books from Charles Dickens, Shakespeare. We imported thousands of titles early on. That helped us attract the first thousands of users,” Lau says.

“At the end of the first year, all we have are classic books and a few thousand users. It wasn’t that big. We went to different phases in the evolution. The first year was slow. It was only classic books that attracted a group of readers. When we got some readers, the writers felt comfortable to share with what they write. Only in end of the second year [2008] did we start to see sharing of content,” he says.

“We saw the first writer sharing content on Wattpad and that writer was very social. She asked all her friends to come check her stories. Some of her friends were telling other writers to join us. One became two, two became four, four became eight. It just grew exponentially overtime,” Lau says.

Lau says now, he can read various types of literature on Wattpad. “Sometimes, I would read science fiction. Sometimes, adventure stories. I don’t have one particular favorite writer,” he says. “My reading taste is very mixed. I don’t have a particular genre.”

Lau says stories shared on Wattpad are free, but writers are given an opportunity to tap a global audience that was not possible before. “It is all free. For a lot of people, their driver or motivation may not be making money. Everyone has a story to tell, so allowing them very freely and easily and bringing them the audience, that’s very fulfilling already,” he says.

Writers sharing free stories and becoming popular on Wattpad have the chance to get the attention of book publishers and even film studios.

“Because they retain the copyright, they are free to work with any publisher they want or choose. We are supportive of that as well,” says Lau.

Wattpad started a global phenomenon. “It is a global phenomenon. We are seeing a lot of strong growth everywhere on this planet now. Latin America is growing really fast. Europe is growing really fast. Italy, Turkey, Germany, they are all growing really fast. In Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia are growing very fast as well. How can we do this? Because we have multilingual staff,” he says.

Lau says Wattpad focuses on growing its membership. He says “our goal is to become a billion user company and build a billion user community that focuses on reading and writing.”

Wattpad also provides income opportunities to writers. “As I mentioned, not everyone’s motivation is to make money, but for those who want to make money, we can help them to generate revenue, using Denny [author of Diary ng Panget] as an example. The best selling book last year [in the Philippines] originated in Wattpad. She obviously generated a lot of income. It was the best selling book in the Philippines and it was also adapted to movie and that movie was at the top of box office,” he says.

Lau says more importantly, Wattpad has helped spread the culture of reading globally. “I believe the Internet has done a great job. We are helping people to read and write more,” he says.

“We are seeing people reading and writing more. We get a lot of feedback from younger people, their parents and even teachers… We are completely changing a lot of people’s lives,” he says.

30 April 2018


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