WEBTOON Execs Talk About Webtoons, Creators, IPO And Company Strategy

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WEBTOON Entertainment, the global leader in webtoons and the company behind hit webcomics like Tower of God, Lore Olympus, Sweet Home and countless others, launched its highly anticipated IPO in late June. On the day of its Nasdaq stock listing, I spoke with WEBTOON’s founder and CEO Junkoo Kim and Chief Strategy Officer Yongsoo Kim over Zoom about the company’s history, the massive creator network it has built and its future business strategy in the U.S.

Below is a summary of our conversation, which covered a wide range of topics related to webtoons and the company that revolutionized and globalized them. Since some readers might be unfamiliar with webtoons, a basic explainer on webtoons has been included as well.

What Are Webtoons?

Webtoons—a combination of the terms “web” and “cartoon”—are a type of webcomic optimized to be read on smartphones and other mobile devices. They first appeared in South Korea in the late 1990’s and began growing in popularity there in the early 2000’s.

How Do Webtoons Differ From Other Webcomics, Manga Or Traditional Western Comics?

The key difference is that the vast majority of webtoons are meant to be read by scrolling from top to bottom. This vertical format provides a seamless user experience for readers viewing the webtoon on their phones.

Webtoons are also serialized, with new episodes being released on a weekly basis in many cases. This cadence encourages users to check back often for the latest episodes of their favorite webtoons.

Each episode also tends to be short, making webtoons ideal for people on the go, as they can read one or more episodes while riding public transit, waiting at the doctor’s office or taking a break in between classes.

Unlike the typical superhero fare commonly associated with comics in the U.S., webtoon genres run the gamut from fantasy to romance to horror and everything in between.

How Was WEBTOON Started?

Junkoo Kim, the current CEO of WEBTOON and a self-declared huge comics fan, started the service after joining the tech giant Naver (essentially the South Korean equivalent of Google), officially launching Naver Webtoon in South Korea in 2005.

“I actually started this business by myself because at the time, the comics market really took a downturn, and there was no new content that was being published,” he said. “So rather than trying to get content from publishers, I thought encouraging individual creators to participate would enable more users to have access to more diverse content.”

His brainchild turned out to be a huge success, and in 2014 the service was expanded to the U.S. and worldwide under the name LINE Webtoon. The company rebranded itself in 2019 as simply WEBTOON and moved its headquarters from Seoul to Los Angeles the following year.

WEBTOON is one of the pioneers in the webtoon space and remains by far the leading player in the market, with over 55 million titles currently in its library. In many respects, the company is to webtoons what Netflix is to streaming video.

WEBTOON, the world’s largest webcomic platform, boasts about 170 million monthly active users across more than 150 countries, according to the company’s latest stats. About 20 million of those users are based in North America, said Yongsoo Kim. In the U.S., about 75% of WEBTOON’s users are Gen Z.

In South Korea, Japan and North America, WEBTOON users spend an average of 30 minutes every day on the platform.

How Can I Become A Webtoon Creator? Can Anyone Make A Webtoon?

Yes—anyone can create and share their own webtoon by uploading it to CANVAS, WEBTOON’s open platform where creators can easily publish their work. If they post high-quality content that draws a sizeable fanbase and WEBTOON sees potential in their work, they are invited to sign a contract with WEBTOON to become a professional creator, Junkoo Kim explained.

Once they become a professional creator, their titles are released as WEBTOON Originals, and the company provides them with editorial support, tools to aid in content creation and other resources. Since professional creators are usually expected to publish one new episode every week, most of them become full-time webtoon creators, said Yongsoo Kim.

Currently there are about 24 million creators (both amateur and professional) in WEBTOON’s global network from various backgrounds. “There are some creators who were teachers, accountants or doctors,” said Junkoo Kim. For people like them, what started out as a side gig or a hobby has evolved into a new career path.

How Do Webtoon Creators Make Money? How Much Do They Generally Make?

Professional creators on the WEBTOON platform are paid via revenue share from three monetization channels: 1) paid content, 2) advertisements and 3) IP adaptations. Paid content includes features such as Fast Pass, which lets users pay to read the latest episode before its official release date. Some series will give users the option to watch an ad instead if they want to read ahead. If a webtoon is selected to be adapted into a TV show or film, then WEBTOON helps the creator work with the partnering streamer and splits the revenue with the creator.

Compensation works a bit differently for amateur creators; more info can be found on this WEBTOON page.

According to WEBTOON, the average income for a professional creator is $48,000 a year, and the top 100 earn about $1 million.

Do Webtoon Creators Usually Draw Or Write Or Do Both?

It depends. “In South Korea, sometimes [the roles are] divided—there are those who draw and those who write the text—and in other cases, one creator does all of it. In the U.S. I think the majority of creators both draw and write,” said Junkoo Kim. “I think the more mature the [webtoons] market is, the more specialized the work is, and the roles are broken up so that they work as a team. But in the more nascent markets, usually a single individual creator will be doing both.”

What Is WEBTOON’s Business Model?

As alluded to above, WEBTOON relies on three main sources of revenue: paid content, advertisements and IP adaptations. “For now, 80% of [the company’s] revenue comes from paid content, another 10% from advertisement, another 10% from IP adaptations,” said Yongsoo Kim.

WEBTOON’s annual revenue at the end of last year was $1.3 billion.

What Is WEBTOON’s Future Business Strategy?

WEBTOON aims to become a global hub for transmedia storytelling (a.k.a. multiplatform storytelling), a term that refers to sharing stories across various forms of media to connect more broadly and deeply with audiences. (The Star Wars and Marvel franchises are great examples of this, as fans have been able to engage with their stories and characters through films, TV shows, comics, games, novels and other channels.)

The key to successful transmedia storytelling lies in finding ways to leverage the IP one has. While a professional creator with WEBTOON retains ownership of their work’s IP, WEBTOON has the right to distribute and manage that IP. The company’s IP strategy can be bucketed into three categories: 1) licensing, 2) co-productions and 3) in-house productions.

According to Junkoo Kim, WEBTOON looks at IP adaptations from both a business perspective and a marketing perspective. From a marketing perspective, the number of IP adaptations is important, as “the more IP adaptations there are, the more users come back to the platform,” which is why WEBTOON has been able to acquire a large user base. “But in terms of business, we need to control the quality,” he said.

He added, “For licensing…we can really increase the number of IP adaptations. And for co-productions for important IPs, we can control the quality so that it doesn’t differ from the original IP… When we do in-house productions, that’s when we really think that this IP should be done by ourselves, that we really need to control the quality. We’re very selective when we do in-house productions. This is how we manage our IP adaptations, whether it’s live-action series, film projects or printed books—it’s the same approach in all areas.”

How Did Studio N And Wattpad WEBTOON Studios Start?

In August 2018, WEBTOON established its own in-house production company called Studio N. In 2021 WEBTOON and Wattpad (which WEBTOON’s parent company Naver acquired earlier that year) merged their studio divisions to create Wattpad WEBTOON Studios.

Junkoo Kim explained that in its early stages, WEBTOON focused mostly on licensing its IP, which resulted in numerous IP adaptations. But that had also led to variations that strayed far from the original IP. “So we wanted to directly handle the key IPs or co-produce them—that’s why we built a studio subsidiary,” he said.

Studio N produced the Disney+/Hulu action thriller Vigilante and co-produced Netflix’s The 8 Show, Sweet Home, Bloodhounds and many other hit K-dramas.

“For megahit IPs, we do them in-house. We also have WWS (Wattpad WEBTOON Studios) in the U.S., which is similar to Studio N in Korea. So WWS would be in charge of megahits in the U.S.,” Junkoo Kim said.

But he points out that there is a gap between when Studio N and WWS were respectively launched. “Studio N started with licensing, then did co-productions and then in-house productions, so it covers all three types. But with WWS, because it’s in its nascent period, it’s doing licensing and a bit of co-production. They’re in different stages, so because of that, we are trying to work more with Hollywood partners. But in the future…we do want to produce [blockbuster U.S. IPs] on our own,” he said.

How Have WEBTOON IPs Been Adapted Into Films, TV Shows And Other Formats?

The fact that popular webtoons already have a proven audience makes them prime source material for TV, film and other adaptations.

According to WEBTOON, so far 900 of its titles have been adapted into other formats, including 100+ shows and films on streaming services, 200+ books, 70+ games and over 11 million consumer product units.

Last year half of Netflix Korean originals were adapted from WEBTOON IP. The popular anime series Tower of God—whose second season premiered today on Crunchyroll—is based on the eponymous South Korean webcomic first published on WEBTOON. The global hit Sweet Home—the first K-drama to officially enter Netflix’s Top 10 in the U.S.—is also based on WEBTOON IP and will be releasing its third and final season later this month.

WEBTOON’s influence is extending over into Hollywood as well. Wattpad WEBTOON Studios is currently working on adapting U.S. webtoon titles into films, including Death of a Pop Star, which will be produced by Diablo Cody, and Love Advice From the Great Duke of Hell in partnership with Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment.

What Is The Significance of WEBTOON’s IPO Listing On Nasdaq?

In addition to Hollywood adaptations, WEBTOON has forged partnerships in the past with powerhouse brands like Marvel, DC Comics, and Discord (Yongsoo Kim said WEBTOON is planning to partner again with Discord later this year).

The company’s recent Nasdaq listing signals its ambitions to expand its foothold in the North American market. “We’re in the very early stages of our growth in North America, so we see there are massive opportunities,” said Yongsoo Kim. “We will focus more energy in investing in our growing market here—that’s why we centered on the U.S. market.”

For Junkoo Kim, WEBTOON’s Nasdaq debut is a glorious milestone in his company’s almost two-decade-long trajectory. “It’s a business that started in Korea, and now we’ve been recognized as a global player,” he said. “U.S. investors have placed their trust in our future growth. Because of that, rather than regarding it as a personal achievement, I think as a company, as a business, having been recognized makes me very happy.”

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