Sprouting Emergent Behaviour


This post is brought to you by Wattpad Co-Founder and CEO Allen Lau.

When I first met Ben Ling of Khosla Ventures I asked him one question: How did YouTube expand into so many different categories? I knew Ben had worked for YouTube and Facebook in their early days, so I took this opportunity to relate his knowledge back into my product.

His answer was quite simple:

We didn't start these new categories.  It is extremely difficult to "cold start". These categories emerged organically and we spotted them early. Then we poured fuel on the fire.

For any startup looking to create a supportive environment for user generated content, it is important to consider this statement. YouTube did not create how-to videos. Users started creating them and YouTube oriented their product around it, adding support and focus to manage it properly.

Pouring fuel on the fire is an exciting way to think of growth. In the early days of Wattpad, however, growth was much more gradual and required the kind of care and attention you would apply to a new plant.

At launch, your first users are your first seeds. As any good gardener knows, seeds are naturally dormant until the right conditions facilitate germination. The environment you create for onboarding users should be like rich soil, cable of supporting and nurturing organic behaviours.


From rich soil, a seed will begin to sprout roots usually not visible from the surface. On Wattpad, we didn’t create real person fiction. Our users did. In this way, they began to sprout their unique behaviours and categories. A sprout is a good sign of growth.

When a sprout begins to show through the soil, more attention must be paid to it. As we spotted trends, we amplified them. We took the time to assess what was happening naturally on the platform and encouraged it, making it easier for users to do what they were already doing.

It was not our job to create new Wattpad categories that didn’t exist before. Our job was to create the environment where emergent behaviour could be created organically.  In other words, we avoided building our services too tightly around particular use cases, thereby choking good seeds.

When your startup reaches enough users, you should leverage their collective intelligence.  Cold starts are extremely difficult for user-generated content companies. By limiting how creative users can spread their roots, you prevent growth. Always pour water on sprouting behaviours, always pour fuel on the fire.