For all the talk about Toronto’s access to top technical talent and proliferation of startup incubators, Wattpad co-founder Allen Lau credits the city uniqueness to a much more inherent trait – the city’s diversity.
“I think it’s very difficult for you to find another city that has this type of diversity – maybe London or New York but they also have a lot of second generation and third generation immigrants,” says the entrepreneur. “What’s so unique about Toronto is we have a lot of first or 1.5 generation immigrants.”
What that translates into from Allen’s perspective, is a workforce that still understands the culture and languages of their homeland.
“They’re bilingual, they understand the cultural nuances, they understand both Canadian English, Indian or Turkish or Filipino,” he says.
It’s an asset that feeds perfectly into the new global economy centered on the Internet.
“There are three billion users around the world and English is actually a very small percentage so to truly capture this market we need a very diversified workforce to help us fully capitalize on the opportunity,” he says. “Toronto is one of the best places to do it.”
He points to Wattpad as a prime example of the dividends paid by immersing a startup in a diverse community. The platform, which Allen co-founded in 2006 with Ivan Yuen, lets users post articles, stories, fan fiction and poems to an online community.
“We have 40 million monthly users right now and most of them are coming from outside of the country – only 25 per cent of our traffic is coming from North America,” he says adding that Latin America makes up another quarter with Europe and Asia sharing the other half.
“My point is, today Wattpad is serving over 50 different languages and the community is so diverse and yet at the same time, I’m able to build this Toronto company with a single office here because my staff are bilingual,” says Allen. “It’s like having a United Nations in my office in a single location – it’s so powerful.”
Although the diversity element is a major part of Toronto’s identity, the synergy between knowledge capital, the newcomer community and the tech scene is a relatively new feature of the city’s growing startup culture.
“A decade ago there weren’t many investors and virtually no venture capital,” he says. “Incubators and accelerators like Communitech in Waterloo or the Digital Media Zone at Ryerson didn’t exist or were just in their very beginning so if you wanted funds or to go through an accelerator program – good luck, not possible.”
But now, onto his third business, the pieces are all coming into place letting Wattpad leverage the diversified talent while at the same time tap into that growing startup scene.
“The ecosystem is more established,” he says adding that it will only get better as new businesses feel the pull and bring their companies to Toronto.
“That’s how Silicon Valley became Silicon Valley, people did not work in isolation, they networked and now we're seeing the same thing here in Toronto,” he says. “It almost feels like an unfair advantage for us compared to companies from L.A. or New York looking to move here.”