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Photo of Allen Lau.
Allen Lau. Photo by Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Digital Prophet

Wattpad co-founder Allen Lau predicts a book publishing revolution

If Allen Lau’s career as a software entrepreneur ever falters, he’ll have a brilliant future as an oracle. His CV reads like a digital prophecy. When Lau was just 12 years old, he designed his first computer program, a puzzle game, a few years before Tetris captured the public’s imagination. As an electrical engineering student at U of T (BEng 1991, MEng 1992), he wrote his thesis on maximizing the capacity of cellular networks – back then, cell phones were as large (and as heavy) as pound cakes, and much less common. In 2002, five years before Amazon unveiled its Kindle e-reader, he created an application that would allow people to read text on their mobile devices.

And, in 2006, Lau co-founded Wattpad, a company that promises to do for online publishing what Facebook did for social networking. Simply put, Wattpad allows anyone to publish online, for free, their own writing – anything from pop-band fan fiction to the next teen vampire blockbuster – for others to read, comment, and even contribute to that writing. While such technology’s been around for a while, Wattpad’s friendly, intuitive interface has proven extraordinarily popular: the site currently has nine million monthly visitors who each spend an average of three-and-a-half hours on it every month. More than six million stories have been uploaded, with 700,000 new ones added each month. The company’s been quick to capitalize on the consumer shift from desktops to handheld devices – 70 per cent of users access Wattpad’s content through their mobiles.

Lau, who’s 44, was born and raised in Hong Kong, and immigrated to Canada with his family just as he was about to attend university. At the time, U of T didn’t offer computer engineering so he studied the next best thing, electrical engineering. “I really wanted to build something,” he says, “and computers were the easiest way to build something. Give me a computer and I can go crazy all day.”

He built Wattpad’s software with programmer Ivan Yuen. They recognized that smartphone technology and social network sites, then still in their relative infancy, were about to explode. And they also saw that user-generated content was potentially extremely lucrative – 2006 was the year Google bought YouTube for US$1.65 billion. Marrying these three concepts while providing a service – allowing readers to directly connect with writers they love, and vice versa – has been the key to the company’s success. The bulk of its revenue currently comes from advertising on the site, though Lau says Wattpad’s only reached a fraction of its full potential. In June, the company raised more than US$17 million in venture capital financing, with some of that money coming from Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang.

Wattpad has been so successful that even Margaret Atwood is now a member. In June, she released a new collection of poems, Thriller Suite, on the site to instant buzz. “In the next 10 years,” Lau says, “the whole notion of the book is going to change. We’re moving towards a world without gatekeepers, where there are hundreds of millions of readers and writers. And the line between reader and writer will blur.”

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