This year marks the tenth anniversary of Wattpad. It’s amazing to think that a decade has passed since I frenetically hashed out the details for the business with my co-founder Ivan Yuen in the Vancouver International Airport. We founded Wattpad because we wanted people to discover, share and connect through stories. We wanted to remove the traditional barriers between readers and writers, and build social communities around stories worldwide.
If 10 years in business has taught me anything, it’s that you really don’t know where a venture will take you. As our community has evolved, so has our business. Wattpad has transformed into a global entertainment company for original stories. It is striking deals with global entertainment players and working with some of the biggest brands to pair them with the best creative storytellers in the world. We’ve come a long way from providing a couple lines of text on a mobile screen — but growth hasn’t always been linear, and we had our fair share of setbacks along the way.
So for all the startup founders who are just embarking on their first venture (or facing year two or three in the trenches), here are some of the lessons I learned — and some of the things you can expect — in your first 10 years in business.
1. You won’t find customers overnight.
When we first launched our storytelling platform, we didn’t have any writers. Without writers, we didn’t have content, and without content, we couldn’t attract readers. It was your classic chicken and egg conundrum. So we spent our first year in business importing novels that were already in the public domain — Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield — whatever was available that could help us attract book lovers.
It wasn’t until year two that we saw the first piece of original content land on Wattpad. It attracted 50 to 100 people to the platform, and soon, one piece of content became two, then three, then four.
Like any business, it takes time to build up your customer base. People won’t flock to you just because you’re there. You’ll likely have to find ways to fan the flame until you reach critical mass.
2. Your timing might be off.
Establishing a solid customer base is additionally complicated by the fact that your timing might be off. How many startups exist today with ideas that are just too advanced to be successful? For many entrepreneurs, it’s a matter of waiting for the industry to catch up with you. At least, that was the case for me.
Ten years ago, mobile reading was a very different space. There were no iPhones or Kindles — just feature phones that could display a couple lines of text at a time. Sharing content on the internet was also a bit unusual, and there was a smaller percentage of people actively doing it. But today, 90 percent of all Wattpad activity is on mobile, and sharing content online is common — you don’t even need to think about it.
Bottom line: Don’t lose hope if the industry’s not there yet, and continue to preserve. Eventually, technology will catch up with what you’re trying to do and pave a way for your success.
3. There will be “lows.”
When you first launch your business, there’s a natural sense of exuberance and expectation. But, let’s be real, that feeling won’t last.
I remember sitting in a coffee shop with my cofounder, sharing a coffee I had bought using the total revenue we had earned from the past month. That was a low point for us and a time when we seriously questioned whether we had the emotional strength to keep going, but we did.
You will also face these “lows.” You’ll have to re-examine what you’re doing and decide what is the best path forward. These are the moments that force founders to grow and businesses to either shutter or flourish. In this moment, you’ll ask yourself whether your idea is worth the struggle.
Just remember: A great vision won’t fade with a setback. If you give up when you reach the first, second or third low, your mission may not be energized enough to endure. The personal weight of your vision is what will get you through these low points.
4. You’ll need to switch gears.
We made it out of our dark pit by taking on consulting jobs and using those funds to support our business. For many founders, such a move can feel like failure, but for us it was literally the only path forward.
When you find yourself challenged, don’t be afraid to switch gears, and don’t be so wed to a plan that you make impractical decisions. It’s ok to deviate a little from the grand scheme of things. Or to put things on hold until you figure it out.
5. You’ll get your big break.
Eventually — if you’re creating something truly different — you will make it through the hard times and catch your big break. For us, it was getting our initial round of funding.
We received our Series A in 2011 from Union Square Ventures, the same company that invested in Twitter, Etsy, foursquare, Kickstarter and others. Having such a huge industry player pay attention to us and see our worth validated the work we were doing. It gave us the jolt we needed to keep going and stay committed to building something great.
6. Working on yourself is as important as working on the product.
I’ve yet to meet a single entrepreneur that, when he or she started their company, could do everything all by themselves. You can’t write all the code, design the product, balance the budget, find funding and market the product on your own.
Part of growing as a startup founder is realizing that you need other people to help you and, more importantly, that you have to motivate this team as a leader. At the end of the day, the best product you build isn’t necessarily the product — but yourself.
7. Culture is critical to growth.
As you grow your business, you’ll realize that it is only as strong as the people in it. Your employees need to share your vision and values if you want to take your business to the next level.
When we look at hiring, we put a lot of focus not just on technical skill but also a cultural fit. Does this employee care about creating a lasting entertainment experience through stories? Is he or she motivated by our users’ success?
Our employees aren’t culturally identical either. We want to hire people with different perspectives and ideas, but who ultimately will work with their team to reach a common goal. This also allows us to create a more global community utilizing the perspectives of a diverse team.
8. You’ll learn from your users.
When I first met Ben Ling of Khosla Ventures I asked him how YouTube had expanded into so many different categories. His answer? “We didn’t start these new categories. These categories emerged organically and we spotted them early. Then we poured fuel on the fire.” In other words, YouTube didn’t create how-to videos; its users did. Then YouTube oriented their product to support it.
Likewise, your users or customers will influence the direction of your product or business, but only if you learn to listen. For Wattpad, user feedback has contributed to developments such as in-line commenting and multimedia. We’ve taken the time to assess what is happening naturally on the platform and have made changes to our product so that it’s easier for them to do what they’re already doing.
9. Your business will evolve.
As I mentioned before, you won’t stick to the grand plan you had when you first started your business. Wattpad started as a storytelling app — and it still is — but we realized that storytelling is the foundation for entertainment content. Stories themselves can not only entertain, but they can also inspire people. So as our community has grown, we have been able to grow with them, leveraging our strong community of readers and writers to shape their content into TV shows, web series, movies and books.
This is not a deviation from our original mission, but it is a change. Change is perfectly fine (and necessary) in order to help you survive from year to year.
10. You’ll change people’s lives.
When we first started Wattpad, I was solely focused on solving a problem that I faced myself. Over time, I realized the true impact that my company had on other people’s lives. There are people in Africa thanking me for helping spread the written word in their country. We have parents telling us that their children are improving their writing. Not to mention writers who have thanked us for helping them find an audience.
It’s hard to see it now, but your company will also impact lives beyond what you can imagine. Whether it’s your employees, your customers, or your partners — knowing you have made a change in someone else’s life is the sweetest thing you’ll experience in your first decade of business. This feeling will not only fulfill, but it will propel you further yourself as an entrepreneur and motivate you for decades to come.