In the Masters of Growth series, we ask growth leaders of highly successful ventures how they help their customers solve big problems and scale. It’s a rare behind-the-scenes look into how leaders succeed — and into these individuals as humans.

What does a former DJ who helped launch an e-commerce startup in Malaysia and has a major case of wanderlust do next? He becomes the head of brand partnerships at global multiplatform entertainment company, Wattpad.

Leading the strategy and execution of Wattpad’s Brand Partnership business, Chris Stefanyk has his plate full, to say the least. He and his team work closely with brands and agencies to harness the power of storytelling and build deep engagement with Wattpad’s massive millennial and Generation Z consumers.

Before working at Wattpad, Chris held a variety of roles at organizations including Torstar Digital, Zalora (a Malaysian startup) and Accenture. In addition to his street cred, Chris also has the biz pedigree, graduating from the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario.

Wattpad Inc.

Established: 2006
Growth leader: Chris Stefanyk, head of brand partnerships
Industry: Media and entertainment
MaRS sector: Work & Learning
Company size: 140
Web: wattpad.com
Twitter: @wattpad

Elevator pitch

Wattpad’s vision is to entertain and connect the world through stories. The global multiplatform entertainment company uses the power of community and technology to enable the creation and distribution of content across a variety of formats. Its flagship app, Wattpad, is home to a community of more than 65 million people who spend over 22 billion minutes a month engaged in original stories. Tap by Wattpad, the company’s second storytelling product, offers short, chat-based stories in over a dozen languages. Wattpad Studios co-produces stories for film, television, digital and print, together with industry partners. Wattpad Brand Solutions offers a full suite of advertising products to help brands build deep engagement with millennial and Gen Z consumers. The company is proudly based in Toronto.

Q&A with Chris Stefanyk, head of brand partnerships at Wattpad

Tell me about your journey to Wattpad.

I started working in management consulting at Accenture with Fortune 500 clients across financial services and telecommunications. I did my time, then left to work at Rocket Internet and helped launch an e-commerce startup in Malaysia, Zalora, which was similar to Zappos, but sold everything from clothing to accessories. It was kind of like a very intense work exchange — I worked with a ton of expats and got to learn from my peers. I also learned a lot about startups, especially: “Whoa, startups are hard.”

“Whoa, startups are hard.”

The startup/Internet scene was just taking off in Malaysia then — it was wild. It was also my first exposure to startup culture, while also gaining international experience. It was just amazing to see the expat community so close-knit. I left Rocket for Torstar Digital, which brought me back to Toronto and started my deep immersion into the Toronto startup community.

Incidentally, Wattpad has been very successful in Southeast Asia, so my experience and learnings proved surprisingly transferable. In the Philippines, we have a community of over seven million Wattpadders, with over 500 books published based on Wattpad stories. In the Southeast Asia market, Wattpad is a household name: Wattpadders’ stories have been turned into TV shows and miniseries, and 13 have even been turned into feature films.

Wattpad has quickly become known as a thought leader for millennials and Gen Z. What problem is Wattpad solving for these demographics? Why do you think Wattpad has been successful with them?

Wattpad is, in my opinion, a massive global collection of niche topics and interests. What you find on Wattpad, you can’t really find anywhere else. Our platform has over 500 million story uploads to date. For example, one Wattpadder told us: “When I walk into a bookstore, what I see doesn’t represent my world. When I come to Wattpad, I see my world.”

“When I walk into a bookstore, what I see doesn’t represent my world. When I come to Wattpad, I see my world.”

And so, Gen Z and millennials have come to Wattpad because the stories represent them and they can contribute. They really want to engage with these stories — it’s irreplaceable. It’s the ultimate expression of identity, creativity and individuality, while ultimately giving a sense of belonging. Wattpad allows users to be their authentic selves.

Some people forget that we have been at this for almost 12 years; we preceded smartphones and, actually, the first version of the app was on the Motorola Razr. We were one of the first reading and writing apps in the App Store, which really helped us scale our end user groups. Wattpad has since grown with the audience, onto the devices we use today.

This is great for our brand partners because they can now access millions of highly engaged young users across the Wattpad platform. Big brands that are looking for unique digital marketing opportunities can now do a lot with our Brand Partnerships, such as:

  • host community-wide writing contests;
  • work with our top Wattpad writers to create custom content;
  • sponsor existing content via reading lists; and
  • include highly immersive video ads in between chapters.

Last year, we got to work with Lionsgate to help promote the film Wonder featuring Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts. We did this via a short story writing contest around the movie’s theme of “kindness,” a theme that aligns with Wattpad’s incredibly positive community. We had over 1,200 entries and then took a data-centric view by analyzing user engagement and read time on these entries. From there, we worked with a panel of judges to determine the top three stories and, working with our partners at Tongal (a community of writers, directors and production teams), turned them into video shorts. These videos garnered over one million views and helped Lionsgate further extend the reach and depth of its marketing campaign.

Wattpad is a top-performing brand advertising option because reading is very intimate and it allows brands to form intimate relationships. We really dispel the theory that millennials have zero attention span. Wattpadders average over 37 minutes of session time per user, per day. The key is, brands have to be authentic and have to be willing to let the audience play around with the concept.

There are over 6,000 marketing technologies live today and many ways for brand marketers to reach and engage their customers. What is different about the Wattpad solution for brands that makes it easy for them to see value? Do you have any case examples you can share?

Our biggest challenge resides in working with brands that are willing to let our audience shape their own brand experience. We’ve learned that authenticity is key. We cannot force brands into the community. The brand has to tie into the Wattpad experience — it has to add value and enable our audience to be their authentic selves. Brands collaborate with Wattpadders in a way that allows the brand to breathe authentically. We do a lot of testing internally to make sure this happens. Our key North Star metric is reading time. Once we test something, we know right away if a brand or new feature will not work — the audience will tell us immediately. We’ve always been surprised at what works or doesn’t in the community.

“We’ve always been surprised at what works or doesn’t in the community.”

It all starts with community. One of our corporate values is being user obsessed. We are not about profiting at all costs — we’re driven by the users. We only work with folks who make sense for us. We have a target set of brands. We work with Coca-Cola and other large brands that are learning new ways to reach and connect with Gen Z and millennial audiences. Ultimately, we curate, only working with brands that are willing and able to do cool things with storytelling.

We’re also in a unique situation for advising brands about pop culture trends. We have millions of millennials and Gen Zs writing about what’s most relevant to them. For example, we can look at fan fiction coming out of Wattpad to see where different TV show fandoms intersect. We can generate insights even Netflix was surprised to see, such as audience overlap between 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale . We’re even able to see what trends are up and coming, well before they hit mainstream media.

Our Wattpad Stars are not stars widely known in the media, but are known to Wattpad. Beth Reekles, for instance, is a Welsh author who started writing on Wattpad at just 15 years old. She’s now in her early twenties and her story The Kissing Booth , which was first published on Wattpad, garnered her a traditional publishing deal with Penguin Books and recently launched as a Netflix original movie, which the company has said is its most-watched movie in the world. And she’s not alone—other authors’ stories are becoming Hulu series and feature films.

What does the future look like for Wattpad?

Our vision is to entertain and connect the world through stories. With over 65 million active monthly users and 23 billion minutes in session time, we have extensive insights into how we will achieve our vision. In fact, leveraging our data and built-in community of fans, we are able to provide our publishing and entertainment partners a better chance of success when they partner with us. Data from our stories is extremely powerful. We will continue to build out our machine-learning capabilities and our thought leadership in the millennial and Gen Z spaces, and get even better at helping brands connect with the right audiences and the content those audiences create or consume.

What three words describe Wattpad?

Positive. Entertainment. Community.

Nathan Monk

Nathan is the Director, Growth Programming at MaRS. He helps our high-growth ventures grow by connecting them to the latest technology tools, resources and methodologies to scale in today’s competitive environment. Follow him @cowboytweets. See more…