In early January, Wattpad announced a $61.25 million round of funding as it looked to continue its focus on machine learning initiatives and interactive storytelling. The round was led by Tencent, BDC, Globe Telecom’s Kickstart Ventures, Peterson Group, and existing investor Raine.
CEO Allen Lau spoke to BetaKit about its plans over the next year on the heels of its massive funding round. Sitting at just under 130 people, the plan is to hire 40 people this year in product, engineering, and content.
“We are a reflection of the demographic in Toronto, and we feel pretty good in that area. So from a hiring perspective, we want to keep it that way.”
Over the past several years, Wattpad has been working to evolve from a storytelling platform to a multi-platform entertainment company. Wattpad Studios looks at popular stories within the platform that can be adapted for TV and film, and so far, has secured partnerships with major studios like Universal Cable Productions, a division of NBCUniversal, and had shows premiere on CW seed. The company has also worked with book publishers like Hatchette, and offers a Brands division to connect companies with writers on native advertising content.
While Wattpad has a broad focus on investing in its product, machine learning has been a repeated main focus for the company, as it looks to the technology to help it scan stories that will likely be co-produced by studios, and in Lau’s words, potentially help creators improve their writing.
Lau says they’re exploring opportunities to enhance its Premium tear, as well as Tap, its chat-based app where Lau says the company is finding a lot of success. In July 2017, Wattpad launched Tap Originals, which integrates multimedia like video and partners with top-tier writers to develop the content.
“Most of the stories on Tap are Original, commissioned, and multimedia, so they take a very different format. So hiring people in the area would be quite interesting,” said Lau.
With Tencent among leaders in the round, BetaKit asked if this was a push to become more active in Asia. Lau notes that it is dominant in North America, Europe, Latin America, and Asia as a whole. The company hopes to leverage the expertise of Tencent, the largest tech company in Asia, which has properties like WeChat, Tencent music, and its e-book property China Literature.
“Tencent, in terms of operation, pretty much all the operations are inside China, and for us we are pretty much everywhere except for China.”
“They have deep expertise in both the entertainment and publishing industry, especially in the area that we’re in, social storytelling,” said Lau. “By having them invest in the company, we are already seeing great learnings from the people in Tencent that can really help us accelerate our knowledge and experience and growing our markets. Tencent, in terms of operation, pretty much all the operations are inside China, and for us we are pretty much everywhere except for China.”
While it’s active in Asia already, southeast Asia is a key market for Wattpad. Lau calls out the participation of Philippines-based Globe Telecom’s Kickstart Ventures in the round, a major telecommunications operator in its country. Wattpad already has a major presence in the Philippines; in 2016 it launched a partnership with the TV5 network through Wattpad Presents, its specific vertical for partnering and adapting Wattpad stories for television. At the time, TV5 produced 200 episodes representing 40 Wattpad stories.
“They are the largest operator in the region, they have footprints in pretty much every single country in southeast Asia, including the Philippines and Indonesia. Having Globe invest in us directly will allow us to have access to pretty much the entire region,” said Lau of Globe Telecom.
Wattpad already has 50 languages on the platform, but is looking to expand its entertainment and publishing efforts in these key markets.
“For example, we already have a TV show in the Philippines, where we’re on season 6. It’s one of the most popular shows for young audiences in the Philippines,” he said. “We do want to replicate this, across all four regions, pushing our native content written by local people in their local cultures, we can adapt the content from native Wattpad stories to bring those TV shows and movies in that region.”
In its blog post, Wattpad also took the opportunity to celebrate building an inclusive culture. It says that 50 percent of its team are women, highlighting that its product team is made up of all women, 62 percent of its leadership team are people of color, and nearly half (41 percent) of its leadership team identifies as a woman.
Lau said that to get to this point, the company has made its focus on diversity and inclusion is a key part of its recruiting efforts, and removes names from resumes to combat potential racial and gender bias, while putting diverse candidates at the top of the funnel. These are small things, but Lau indicates that they add up.
“We are a reflection of the demographic in Toronto, and we feel pretty good in that area. So from a hiring perspective, we want to keep it that way,” said Lau.