A lot is unfolding at Wattpad these days as the company races to shift from a mobile-first storytelling platform to a full-stack entertainment company.
The company’s latest development is the launch of Wattpad Labs, an innovation lab for emerging products. Wattpad is inviting teams of two or three to work on “storytelling products,” for three months in a paid residency program. Seema Lakhani, Wattpad’s head of product, will lead the program.
“We are expanding from a single product company to a compilation of multiple products to create new forms of entertainment,” said CEO Allen Lau.
To apply for the program, teams must submit a proposal to demonstrate that they have skillsets that complement each other — such as strategy, product and engineering and marketing — and have previous experience building a product. The team must also propose a product proposal.
“Our most unique differentiator is our ability to build products and help it scale.”
– Wattpad CEO Allen Lau
“The people we’re looking for have a founder-like DNA, that’s a very special type. They can hustle, they can get things done, iterate really fast, they have the vision to take a very small idea and turn it into a thing,” said Lau. “We would provide specific help to shape the mission, change the strategy, define the strategy, design the product, and most importantly, help the team to iterate really fast. The goal is to achieve product-market fit in that three-month period.”
Lau adds that ideally, a product in the Labs would launch before the three months is over. Teams that successfully graduate from the three-month residency will see their products join the Wattpad portfolio, and there is an opportunity for teams to join the company and lead in scaling the new business.
“Our most unique differentiator is our ability to build products and help it scale. You can’t easily find anyone that can help, especially in Toronto — not a lot people can help a product grow from zero to massive scale,” said Lau.
Whether Wattpad will own the team’s idea, and what happens to the product should teams not join Wattpad after the residency program, still hasn’t been laid out. However, Lau suggested that the company is thinking of tailoring the outcome of the program to each product.
“The point of the program is that the team would be joining Wattpad as a full-time employee, and we would share the upside of the program. Just exactly how, we have some time to figure that out,” said Lau. “Once we’ve gone through one cycle of submissions, we will know how we can go align the interests between Wattpad and the team joining the program.”
Focusing on emerging products like VR is a cornerstone of the company’s growth strategy that CEO Allen Lau outlined in November 2016. In the Master Plan, Lau said that creating new forms of entertainment by leveraging new products like the Amazon Echo and Snap Spectacles is part of its mission to embrace the next generation of entertainment.
Lau published the strategy after a year of finding success with Wattpad Studios, which saw it secure partnerships with major networks like Turner and NBCUniversal to co-produce Wattpad content for movies and TV.
This growth strategy, which also included using machine learning to identify its top stories and become a source for Hollywood studios to find popular content, was part of the reason why it laid off 10% of its staff, according to Lau.
“Machine learning will help us become more efficient, as well as seize even more opportunities to spot hits-in-the-making and co-produce stories with our partners in the traditional entertainment industry for other formats,” Lau said at the time.
Applications will be evaluated on a rolling basis by a selection committee comprised of founders, product strategists, engineers, and designers at Wattpad.
“I rarely talk about the amazing things happening in the Toronto technology and innovation sector without mentioning Wattpad,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory. “Allen is building his team and his company on the strength of the incredibly diverse talent our city has to offer, and Wattpad Labs is the latest example of his incredible vision and his belief in what the people of Toronto can achieve.”
UPDATE: Since publishing this story, Wattpad has confirmed that anything built within Wattpad Labs remains with and is owned by Wattpad, and says that teams will enjoy “significant” upside opportunities.