Wattpad's Story

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Two minds: Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen.
One idea: to use social media and mobile phones to build a network of readers and writers.

It’s common to hear stories of co-founders who slave away together in basements to come up with world-changing ideas. It is rarer to hear about friends working independently, thousands of kilometers from one another, only to come to the same world-changing conclusion, as Allen and Ivan did.

Their realization: that user generated content, social networking and mobile phones were all that was needed to enable the future of storytelling.

They were well ahead of the game. Allen and Ivan came to the realization in 2006, before either the iPhone or the Android operating systems had even been announced, let alone released. They wanted to find a way to carry around a library on your phone, and to share that library as readily as you’d share text messages. Allen had played with the idea 4 years earlier, but simplistic display technology, diminutive storage space, and eye-watering data fees had made the concept impossible to realize, so he’d shelved it.

So, in 2006, when Ivan shared his prototype for a mobile Java reading app with a corresponding website for uploading and sharing writing, Allen knew it was time. He immediately hopped on a plane and flew the more than 4000km to meet with Ivan in the Vancouver airport because the idea was just that good.

“Ivan is one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with,” Allen admits, “and if we independently came up with the same idea, it had to be important.”

Ivan tells essentially the same story, stating “I’m glad that someone else thought of this as a problem that must be solved; it must be a good idea.”

Both describe the process of creating Wattpad the same way: as an engineered solution to a personal need. In their case, the personal need for avid readers to be able to access and share their favorite reading material while on the go.

Ivan eventually moved back to Toronto from Vancouver, and Allen quit his position as the CTO at a wireless start-up so that the two of them could work on Wattpad full time. They split their time between their houses, with half their time spent working in Ivan’s living room, and the other half spent working around meals on Allen’s kitchen table. Important business calls were taken with wailing infants in the background. Ivan describes the whole process as “organic.”

From the beginning, Allen and Ivan were interested in the idea of Social Discovery: the idea that the best way to find what you might like was by reading over the shoulders of friends. The userbase grew from one where Allen and Ivan knew everyone by name, to a world-spanning community of millions. 

Allen and Ivan were inspired by their interconnected community to refer to the writing shared on Wattpad as “stories” rather than books. A book is a one-way, finished thing. It is a work that is handed from an author to a reader, and it never changes. There is very little room to be social within the confines of a book. Stories, however, come to us from the tradition of oral storytelling. It is a tradition that sees stories as communal with them being shared aloud to groups. It also sees stories as ever-changing—as living things that can be handed down and improved upon. “Stories” was a far more accurate description for the type of experience Allen and Ivan wanted users to have on Wattpad.

As they began to share Wattpad with the web, they would laud every little victory. In the early days, a single user achieving 50 followers (or “fans” as they were then called) was a cause for celebration. Now Wattpad’s most-followed users measure their fanbase in hundreds of thousands. Long gone are the days when Allen and Ivan knew all the users by name since the monthly users now number in the tens of millions.

However, despite all the growth some things haven’t changed. “The behaviour is still the same,” comments Allen. “We’re all still asking for the same things ‘Oh my god. Your story is so amazing. Please update it soon!’”

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