Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn on What it Takes to Lead a Global Tech Company
CEO of Rakuten Kobo, Michael Tamblyn celebrates his decade-long tenure of building a company he believes in.
This year, Michael Tamblyn is marking 10 years at e-reading giant, Rakuten Kobo, an impressive feat in the world of Canadian tech.
However, upon deeper reflection, his journey started much earlier, his love for books and the digital space is woven throughout his career, laying the groundwork for his leadership role within the company.
In 1994, fresh out of Western University with a degree in Music Composition, a determined Tamblyn convinced the owners of an independent bookstore to sell their books online. The result was the first online bookstore in Canada. A year later, the company, Bookshelf.ca, was acquired by Indigo and Tamblyn became the VP of Online helping to spearhead the launch of Indigo.ca.
Tamblyn also played a role in shaping the way books and tech are regulated. In the early 2000’s he started a non-profit called BookNet Canada which developed technology, standards, and education to serve the Canadian book industry.
Continuing his career with the book retailer, in 2009, the conversation around Indigo’s current business model shifted. As a physical book retailer the question became How do we serve our customers, if they start to read digitally? says Tamblyn.
Digital reading was coming and the strategic solution to this problem seemed surprising at first.
As Tamblyn describes his process, the solution was starting this little “skunkworks” company inside of Indigo called Kobo. The company had the sole job of disrupting Indigo as a company and creating a service for e-books and e-readers that was so compelling that they would want their own customers to switch from print to digital.
Tamblyn joined the company to initially deal with authors, content, and content sales, but after Kobo was acquired in 2012 by Rakuten (a Japanese ecommerce company), he became President and then in 2014, CEO.
“We did a few things right and a lot wrong”
The initial idea to start an e-reading company within the walls of Indigo sparked a vociferous debate. Many people thought starting a global tech company in Toronto in 2009 was crazy. Toronto hadn’t solidified its reputation as a startup or tech hub like London, New York, or Silicon Valley had.
How could an e-reader company survive when — around the same time — the Apple iPad had entered the market. People believed tech was moving towards the convergence of one device which people would use for everything.
“And going up against these large competitors. I looked back at our Board presentations that we were first using when we started Kobo, we got a few things right and there were a lot of things we got wrong. We were wrong about who our customers was, we were wrong about how we were going to get them, and we were wrong about what they were going to read,” says Tamblyn.
As Tamblyn recalls, Kobo had made the mistake of assuming their main customers would be young people, since young people tended to be early adopters of new tech. However, it turned out that customers were actually in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, because those were the customers you would see in an actual bookstore. “E-books is the first evolution that isn’t being driven by ages 18-25 year olds. That was a new and sudden learning for us,” says Tamblyn.
They also thought it would be an entirely smartphone based business versus on an e-reader device. Yet again, they were proven wrong, while smartphones were still an important part of the business, e-readers offered people a much needed break from their smartphone device.
“A lot of the reason people buy e-readers is because they want this immersive experience that takes them away from their work email, text messages, social media alerts. And we were actually able to provide them with respite from the rest of their digital world,” says Tamblyn.
Another mistake, assuming people would only want to read short-form content because they were on the go. Initially, Kobo thought about selling books by the chapter, but soon realized people wanted to take the longer form books they were reading at home and bring those with them in a more portable way.
The big thing that Kobo did get right: e-books were coming and people were going to carry around their whole reading life with them.
Growing a company to scale
“It’s interesting because people in Canada think of us as the Canadian e-reader company, so I think it surprises a lot of people to find out in a very quiet Canadian way, we’ve expanded all over the world,” says Tamblyn.
Currently, Kobo has 35 million users, millions of kobo e-readers sold, and is in 25 countries.
“We only have three competitors, they happen to be Amazon, the largest e-commerce company in the world, Apple, the most profitable company in the world, and Google the most popular search engine in the world. So, only having three competitors is great, but when it’s those three competitors it’s essential to get to that level of scale,” says Tamblyn.
Tamblyn describes how the talent that was needed for the first 5-10 years versus the next 50 is an incredibly important piece to grow companies to scale. Sometimes it meant reaching outside of your network or market to find the skill set you need.
In the early days when the company was in startup mode they needed generalists who could do a little bit of everything. But as they grew their needs changed to people with specialized skill sets. At times they needed hardware engineers or experts in Italian publishing or machine learning specialists.
Yet, the big audacious goal kept Kobo going. Exciting to Tamblyn was the opportunity to remake an industry. “As you get bigger, can you keep that restlessness, curiosity, and willingness to challenge the status quo that made you want to start a company in the first place and retain that spirit as you’re getting past 20-50-100-500 people,” says Tamblyn.
Company culture is another important consideration. For Kobo that meant developing a culture that brings the best out of their employees and creating an environment that is internally collaborative.
Tamblyn wanted people to start a career at Kobo and grow a career there. He especially enjoyed seeing people who started as interns at Kobo, or their first job out of school, but now head up significant parts of the organization.
Another helpful tip for those looking to grow their career at Kobo. “It really helps if they like books, it’s not essential but it brings an extra passion to their work,” Tamblyn laughs.
Scale from an employee perspective means Kobo has better ideas and a greater diversity of ideas. According to Tamblyn more markets give the company a better idea of what books mean to people. “We’re not just trying to just take a North American view of what book selling looks like, we’re also able to an all around the world perspective.”
While, innovation is a huge part of what they do at Kobo Tamblyn distinguishes, “It isn’t innovation for its own sake, it has to be for a purpose. It has to be for a person who likes reading and to make their life better.”
On what he’s most proud of
When asked what he’s most proud of during his tenure at Kobo, Tamblyn says, “Probably the biggest one for me, is that we’ve been able to take all of the things that people count against Canadian businesses, and turn them into positives”
Coming in as a Canadian company and not being one of the tech giants made Kobo less threatening to partner with. It allowed Kobo to partner with global retailers who are trying to be competitive in their own markets. Another contributing factor, is Toronto’s diversity which has allowed Kobo to meld well into other markets,
Kobo has been one of the early players of the Toronto startup scene, as well as one of the most successful exits. The company was able to work collaboratively with retailers, publishers, and authors, instead of being a transformation that happens to them, Kobo was able to happen alongside these existing entities.
Tamblyn was also very proud to see Kobo alumni that have gone on to start their own companies. “Whether you look at startups like League, Interspace, people who are heading up parts of Wattpad, and Ecobee, a lot of them are people who developed their e-commerce fundamentals or international business acumen by working here with us,” says Tamblyn.
Advice for Other Startups
Tamblyn’s advice for companies who are just getting started;
“No matter how big your business is it should always feel like it’s just getting started. If it doesn’t, then it probably means that you’re getting comfortable. Comfortable is deadly,” says Tamblyn.
Another piece of advice Tamblyn has for founders is to be open and not get too attached to ideas. “That thing that worked perfectly in your first year may not be the thing that gets you to your fifth year and you may have to throw the next one away to get to your tenth year. Being open to new ideas and being able to throw old ideas away as you continue to evolve and innovate in the business.”
“And then like I says before think big, we think digital reading is at least a 25 year transformation and we’re not even halfway there yet,” says Tamblyn.