Alumnus reimagines storytelling
Wattpad connects 80 million writers and readers each month
Frustrated with not being able to read on the go standing in a grocery store lineup or elsewhere, Ivan Yuen decided to create an app that lets him do just that – and millions of others as well.
The 2000 Waterloo computer engineering alumnus co-founded Wattpad 13 years ago to entertain and connect the world through interesting and personal stories shared online.
“Back then, if I wanted to read something there weren’t a lot of options unless I brought a book with me,” Yuen recalls. “But by having a software engineering background with some mobile app development I thought I can build something that I can use to read anywhere.”
Yuen teamed up with his friend and former co-worker Allen Lau, a University of Toronto electrical engineering graduate, to build and launch Wattpad.
For the first year, they struggled to gain traction, mainly because their technology was ahead of its time.
By the end of 2007, the iPhone and Kindle had been launched, significantly increasing user accessibility on Wattpad.
What began as a basic platform for people to read stories on their smartphones or other devices has organically grown into a site that now connects 80 million writers and readers from around the world every month. Stories are available in more than 50 languages, with many translated by the readers themselves.
Yuen believes Wattpad’s success is due to a universal interest in storytelling along with the advancements in technology that have put mobile devices in the hands of billions of people radically disrupting the way writers are able to get their stories directly to their audience.
Wattpad features something for everyone from fiction to autobiographies, humour, poetry and much more.
By sharing stories as they are drafted, writers are able to receive timely and constructive feedback from readers on their plots and character development.
“Most of our writers are aspiring hobbyist writers – a lot of them are professionals including doctors and lawyers – who want to get better at storytelling,” says Yuen. “They start writing and by the time they have the first part of their story completed they’ll have made a connection with their readers.”
According to Yuen, Wattpad is especially popular with writers and readers living in southwest Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Latin America, where there haven’t been a lot of stories written as books or movie screenplays that reflect their countries or culture.
Three years ago, the company launched Wattpad Studios to connect well-received writers with both the publishing and film industries.
One of Wattpad Studio's best-known clients is Texas-native Anna Todd, whose story titled After received over a billion reads on the Wattpad site.
Yuen calls Todd’s success “absolutely mind-blowing.”
“Anna started writing six years ago and over the course of a year and a half she finished her trilogy,” says Yuen. “She clocked in at one million words total and wrote all of those on her iPhone, which is almost unthinkable and something I certainly didn’t expect when we started Wattpad.”
Todd, now 30, was offered a deal with Simon & Schuster to turn her online work into a published series.
A movie version starring Josephine Langford, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Selma Blair, Jennifer Beals, Peter Gallagher, and Shane Paul McGhie was co-produced by Wattpad Studios and released by Aviron Pictures earlier this year.
Grossing over $69 million worldwide against an estimated production budget of $14 million, the film won first in the drama movie category at both this year’s Teen Choice Awards and E! People's Choice Awards.
A few years ago, most of the company’s income was generated through native advertising – marketing content paid for sponsors that appears near a story. Besides advertising and Wattpad Studios, revenue is now raised from TV, film and book publishing, and on-platform payment.
“Recently, we started giving readers options to pay for additional services and content,” says Yuen. “So if they want some exclusive features they can pay for a monthly subscription or if they read a story and want to read the next chapter they can pay the writer to access it.”
The company employs 170 people, almost all in its Toronto office with other teams in the US, India, Hong Kong and the Philippines. Many of the Wattpad’s available co-op positions are filled by University of Waterloo students with some hired on full-time after graduation.
“You can say I’m giving back, but in reality that’s where good engineering talent is,” says Yuen. “We’re not looking for just one or two people, we’re looking for a continual stream. And Waterloo is a reliable, continual source of talent.”
Yuen says he credits Waterloo Engineering’s co-op program for leading him to where he is today. After five work terms with computer hardware firms, he spent his last at a software company. It was there that he became intrigued with developing computer software programs.
Today, Yuen is chief strategy officer for Wattpad as well as an avid consumer.
“Right now I’m reading a lot of nonfiction,” he says. “It’s a smaller category on Wattpad, but I find the stories really interesting.”
One he particularly enjoyed was an autobiography written by a former computer programmer who became part of the FBI’s most-wanted list. Now serving a life sentence, the prisoner shared his story on Wattpad about his life before he was arrested.
“It can be turned into a movie series – it’s so compelling and exciting,” says Yuen.
While Yuen says he doesn’t consider himself a writer, he would like to write more so he can become better at it.
“That’s something I think everyone can benefit from,” he says.