How Allen Lau went from printing T-shirts to founding the “YouTube of e-books”

“A lot of people in the startup community are dropping out of university. I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

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Career Path, a continuing CB series in which top innovators and entrepreneurs explain how they got there
Wattpad founder Allen Lau

Wattpad founder Allen Lau.

Often described as “YouTube for e-books,” Allen Lau’s company Wattpad scored a whopping $46 million in funding in April. Here, Lau walks us through his career highlights and missteps—and what he learned from both.

University Of Toronto, 1987-1992

Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering

“Not much of the technical knowledge is relevant now, but what I learned was a way to tackle problems. I realize a lot of people in the startup community are dropping out. I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

Factory worker, 1988

“I needed tuition money, so I got a factory job printing T-shirts for the summer. It helped me realize that running a business was more than just what I was doing. I saw the owner of the factory doing many different things—there was more to it than just printing T-shirts.”

IBM, 1992–1993

Software Engineer

“I spent nine months at IBM. It was horrifying. Almost on the first day, I realized I wasn’t a big corporation guy. It’s a fantastic company. The problem was fit. That environment has too much hierarchy. It’s too slow. It’s the opposite of a startup. I realized I’d better find a smaller company.”

Delrina/Symantec, 1993–2000

Senior Developer

“When I joined, it was about 100 people, the same size Wattpad is today. Three years later, it reached 700. They sold the company to Symantec for $415 million. I witnessed how a company transforms from a tiny startup to a grown-up. I built important connections too. One of the co-founders of Delrina was the first investor in Wattpad.”

Brightspark, 2000–2001

Architect

Tira Wireless, 2001–2007

CTO and Co-founder

Wattpad, 2006–present

CEO and Co-founder

“The advertising revenue we generated after a year was $2 per month. Just pathetic. We couldn’t sustain ourselves, so we did consulting and started a mobile advertising company on the side. By 2009, we had enough traction to return to the core business full time, and we raised an angel round. Building a company takes time. Instagram and YouTube are outliers. It takes years to build a foundation. Great companies rarely happen overnight.”

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