The Korean digital comics giant in Webtoon Entertainment has apparently started the process to pursue an eventual debut on the United States stock market, according to S-1 documents filed with the Securities & Exchange Commission last Friday, May 31. The S-1 prospectus is the first step in announcing to United States financial regulators that a company plans to undertake the steps to transition from a privately-held company or subsidiary of a larger conglomerate, to a publicly-listed company on the US stock exchange with available shares for purchase by investors and the general public.

The filing details that Webtoon Entertainment plans to secure a listing on the technology-focused Nasdaq stock exchange under the preliminary ticker symbol (WBTN), while number of shares and initial pricing were not revealed in the filing as yet.  In 2023, total revenue was $1.28 billion, up 18.8% over 2022, while net losses rose to $144.7 million, up slightly from $132.5 million in 2022.

Webtoon Entertainment as a company generates the bulk of its sales through its paid content channels comprising web, mobile apps, and third-party content distribution partnerships. Sales across the three channels increased nearly 21% last year, to $1.03 billion in revenue. The company’s latest operations in advertising and IP adaptation respectively had net sales of $145.4 million and $108.3 million in 2023. 

IP adaptations saw the fastest revenue growth rate among Webtoon’s three core businesses, with sales up 31.4% just last year. Monthly active users on the Webtoon platform continues to grow, and stood at 170 million as of the first quarter of this year, according to the latest numbers found on the corporate site for the period ending in March.

Webtoon-Desk

Webtoon Entertainment founder Junkoo Kim also filed a letter to prospective investors, which is reproduced below:

A LETTER FROM JUNKOO KIM, FOUNDER AND CEO

Nearly twenty years ago, I was a search engineer at NAVER, who launched a side project: WEBTOON. The initial vision was very simple, to bring comics to more people around the world. I imagined a world where American, Korean, Japanese, or French comic creators weren’t limited by print or borders, and could instead reach new readers all over the world online. The project was born out of my own love of comics, which I’ve been passionate about since I was young. Comics are like a window into another world, capable of transporting readers to distant, fantastic places, and creating new perspectives. I’ve long admired the talented artists who create comics and have the incredible gift of building entire universes on a page. I truly love visual stories and storytelling, which is why I am so passionate about helping a diverse new generation of creators succeed. Since our founding, I’ve been asked “WHY” I founded this business and “WHY” it has grown into a global leader. Here is the WHY.

WEBTOON tells stories. For me, comics have always created a sense of joy, exploration and belonging. I wanted to create a platform that would give any individual the ability to experience and share their stories with the world. A platform where fans like me could discover the limitless imagination of storytellers around the world. I realized that I could harness the power of technology to pioneer an entirely new form of entertainment: the web-comics. This format displays art and text in a single continuous, vertical scroll, allowing stories to develop and evolve in real time as the user scrolls. The use of white space highlights a character’s isolation and loneliness. A crowded panel creates chaos. Long blank panels build suspense. Action words and onomatopoeia, sometimes bursting out of the four corners of the panel, bring a vivid sense of motion and sound to still images. The magic of the webcomic format is its ability to unleash creativity for storytellers.

WEBTOON empowers creators. Anyone with a story to tell can publish on WEBTOON and reach millions. Many creators come to WEBTOON for that reason alone: to share their stories. Some creators, however, are building small businesses on our platform. There’s another aspect to the magic of the webcomic format: users are motivated to pay for content. Most stories on our platform are free. Some episodes, however, are paid – such as the most recent episodes of a live story. An average episode costs only a few cents each, so the barrier is very low for users. Users can thus support their favorite creators. WEBTOON has paid out over $2.8 billion to creators from 2017 to 2023. The average professional creator is earning $48,000 a year and the top 100 are earning $1 million. Many stories have also become global fandoms, adapted into film, streaming series, animation, video games and more. And many of these adaptations have ranked #1 globally on platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple TV. I believe the next generational entertainment franchises will be created by whoever can harness the creativity of the vast global user base, not by investing millions of dollars into script development by professional writers, directors, and producers. Imagine for yourself the next decade’s biggest hit IP franchise – our goal is for that franchise to be discovered and developed by WEBTOON.

WEBTOON builds community. The final magic of the webcomic format is quite simple: users love it. The ultimate power of WEBTOON lies in the interactions between these users and their favorite creators as fandoms are built around beloved stories. That starts with a highly engaging format – on average users spend thirty minutes on WEBTOON – reading between five and ten of their favorite episodes each day. Users leave feedback and praise for creators, approximately one million posts each month. The resulting community brings together approximately 170 million users each month from over 150 countries in the world, connecting them with 24 million creators. Our roots are in Korea, where half the population visits our platform each month, but our community is truly global. In 2013, we launched in Japan given familiarity with similar content types, and today we have over 20 million monthly users there; our format is quickly gaining popularity with North American users where we have more than 20 million monthly users and 75% of users are Gen Z as of December 2023; and our platform has become truly global with over half of all monthly users outside of these three markets.

Those are the reasons I started WEBTOON: to share stories, to empower creators, and to build community. That is what has driven me and the entire organization for the last two decades. And that will continue to be our strategy going forward as a public company.

On a final note, I want to say thank you. To our fans, creators, and employees. We would not be where we are today without you. To fans, thank you for your endless dedication to this art form and community. To creators, thank you for bringing richness and imagination to the lives of millions globally. And to the entire WEBTOON team, thank you for your passion – towards this company and towards this community. I am inspired every day by you all. While this IPO is the culmination of efforts over the last two decades, it is also in many ways a new beginning. I cannot wait to discover what stories we will write next.

Best,

Junkoo Kim

Founder and CEO

 

The letter to prospectus readers and potential investors breaks down some key figures that are the focal point in why Webtoon Entertainment want to go public after decades of success and growth as a privately-held subsidary of parent conglomerate Naver

  1. Scaling growth outside of the US, Europe and Japan – Webtoon Entertainment derives the majority of its revenue from the aforementioned countries, all major players in their own right in terms of content production. What Webtoon wants to do is in some ways what Netflix did once they took the streaming platform truly global in 2018, reaching countries that weren’t taken seriously as potential markets and developing a comics culture with Webtoon at the forefront of development and delivery.
  2. Increase IP development and production – As mentioned in the letter, Webtoon Entertainment wants to be the alternative to the Hollywood system of development, by allowing creators to build a community around their ideas and develop their stories with a captive audience. The company has experienced growth in the IP adaptation side of their business, but the relatively paltry revenue figures compared to their main revenue sources suggests that they are seeking additional investment for larger scale plans in the future.
  3. As large as Webtoon Entertainment has become under the Naver corporate umbrella, there’s a ceiling to how large the company can grow and expand with a parent company that is completely invested in its home market, and otherwise uninterested in competing globally against entrenched competitors.

It must be said that even in the best conditions, filing paperwork for a public stock offering can be fraught with unfoorseen pitfalls and wider shifts in financial markets that can completely upend the best laid plans to offer public shares, and the filing doesn’t guarantee they will go public anytime soon.

However, Webtoon Entertainment is in the best position possible to transition into a public company. What remains to be seen is how soon the process will be completed, and how the company will take on the transition to a company that has all of their financial performance visible for the world to see.

Sources: Press Release, SEC (filing)