Just over a year after Wattpad was officially acquired by Naver, the company has announced that co-founder and CEO Allen Lau is transitioning to a new role, in a move Lau described as “the final curtain call.”
Lau will become executive advisor for both Wattpad and Webtoon, while Wattpad President Jeanne Lam — who was promoted to the position in summer 2021 — will take over “day-to-day leadership and responsibility for the company’s operations.” Both will both report to Webtoon Americas CEO Ken Kim.
“It’s the final curtain call of my career as a CEO. But I’m not done yet!”
The news comes a few months after Lau shared his new five-year plan for Wattpad, which outlined plans to leverage machine learning to discover more stories and expand the company’s distribution of its content.
“Calling this a new chapter or the next season would be a misnomer – it’s the final curtain call of my career as a CEO,” wrote Lau in a blog post announcing the move. “But I’m not done yet! I’m still at the top of my game. I’m still hungry for more wins. I still want to make an even bigger impact. My new story begins today.”
Founded in 2006 by Lau and CSO Ivan Yuen, Toronto-based Wattpad provides an online self-publishing platform that acts as a community for readers and writers. In recent years, Wattpad has turned into a media studio, penning production deals that have seen stories on its platform become books, movies, podcasts and television series.
Kim touted Lau’s contribution to the publishing, entertainment, and tech industries. “[Lau’s] work pioneered the webnovel format and social reading experience, and under his leadership, the Wattpad community grew to over 94 million people and one billion uploads,” he said.
Lau led Wattpad for 15 years, through its acquisition by South Korean internet company Naver Corp for more than $754 million CAD last year, in a transaction Lau said would only accelerate Wattpad’s growth trajectory.
Following the deal, Naver merged Wattpad Studios — Wattpad’s film and television production arm—with its own Webtoon Studios division, a production studio specialized in digital comics, investing $100 million in the combined company.
According to Wattpad, under Lam’s leadership, the company experienced record user and revenue growth in 2021.
Lau said it was “the perfect time to pass the baton” to Lam and Wattpad Webtoon Studios’ President Aron Levitz. “With such strong leaders, Wattpad is in great hands,” added Lau.
According to Lau, he is “stepping aside, not stepping back, stepping down, or stepping out.” In an interview with BetaKit, Lau said that Naver realized that as an executive advisor to both Wattpad and Webtoon, he could help the company “perhaps even more than as CEO” given this skillset.
Lau said the new role will also give him “the space to think about the next big thing.”
“As the CEO, I don’t have the space—the day to day is so intense that I don’t even have much time left to think, and this is something that I really miss,” he added.
In addition to serving as an executive advisor to Wattpad and Webtoon, Lau plans to continue to work as a venture partner at Two Small Fish Ventures — an early-stage investment fund he founded with his wife, Eva Lau — and board member at the Toronto International Film Festival and MaRS.
Despite Canada’s growing number of scaleups, Lau pointed out that “it is still very hard to find a single person who has done it all and has the bandwidth, has the time to recycle that knowledge,” adding, “I have the full cycle, and now is the time for me to potentially pass on the knowledge.”
Maverix Private Equity founder and CEO John Ruffolo told BetaKit, “It has been a thrill to witness how Allen’s vision for Wattpad when he sought investment 10 years ago become a reality to the global juggernaut that it now has become.” Prior to launching Maverix, Ruffolo founded and led OMERS Ventures, which was an early Wattpad investor alongside Golden Ventures.
Golden Ventures founder and Managing Partner Matt Golden told BetaKit that the move “makes perfect sense,” describing it as “a typical post-acquisition transition.”
“Allen is one of the best and most accomplished founders in the Canadian ecosystem and is also a globally recognized expert in direct to consumer and content-focused markets,” added Golden. “We are thrilled to see him continue to evolve his role within the Webtoon family and as an investor and mentor to the broader Canadian technology ecosystem.”
It’s an open question as to whether or not Lau’s new story is with Naver or somewhere else. Multiple people familiar with the company’s history and operations shared conflicting perspectives with BetaKit. While some thought the move was a planned transition as part of the acquisition to move Lau out of the day-to-day grind following 15 years of leadership, others wagered that Lau would depart the company within a year.
“He is an independent entrepreneur,” one VC told BetaKit.
For his part, Lau told BetaKit that while Lam’s promotion and the Wattpad-Webtoon merger were “intentional” steps towards an eventual leadership transition, he has no immediate plans to leave Naver or start a different company.
With files from Douglas Soltys.
Feature image of Allen Lau, courtesy Wattpad.