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Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn on How to Innovate with Purpose

Written by Amanda Desouza | Illustration by Thales Molina

HOW TO INNOVATE WITH PURPOSE

Recognized as one of Toronto’s most successful startups, Kobo, the service for e-books and e-readers recently celebrated its 10 year anniversary. The company, which started as a “skunkworks” operation in Indigo’s basement is turning the page and looking into the future. At the helm is President and CEO, Michael Tamblyn, who has been part of the executive team since the company’s inception in 2009.

Under Tamblyn’s leadership, Kobo has transformed the reading industry, bringing the joy of leisure reading back to communities in the digital age and serving over 38 million users.

When revisiting early board presentations, Tamblyn admits they were wrong about a lot in the beginning. They were wrong about who their customers were, how they were going to get them, and what they were going to read. The big thing that they got right: e-books were coming and people were going to carry around their whole reading life with them.

According to Tamblyn, the key to Kobo’s strategy isn’t innovation for its own sake, but for a purpose: to make a reader's life easier.

Kobo was first to market for features such as front lit e-readers and waterproof devices (later adopted by the wider market). For Tamblyn, innovation in this industry means removing the barriers and friction that keeps a person from being able to include more reading into their daily lives.

A hard won battle in the age of social media and death by email, Tamblyn is focused on building devices and immersive content experiences that preserve the deep moments of focus people are so desperately craving. Tamblyn is earning people’s time and rewarding them for escaping what he calls a “surface oriented media landscape.” To do this, customers can choose from an expansive range of over six million titles on Kobo’s platform, from graphic novels to memoirs and everything in between. 

Furthering the disruption in the space, Tamblyn is opening up the world of publishing to anyone who desires to put pen to paper. Kobo has removed the publishing intermediary between authors and their readers through Kobo Writing Life (their self-publishing arm) and Kobo Originals (commissioned work exclusively for Kobo). The success is evident—one in four books that Kobo sells in Canada is now written by a self published author that Kobo has a direct relationship with.

Beyond the Canadian market and through a strong partnership business model, Kobo has expanded into 25 countries and boasts over 10,000 physical and online stores worldwide. Tamblyn shares that being a Canadian company is a competitive advantage when seeking partnerships with international retailers. Kobo appears less threatening than other tech giants to retailers who want to remain competitive in their own markets. 

Tamblyn appeals to international markets by exploring the nuances in how reading manifests itself differently in other cultures. Cross-cultural differences, such as book price protection in Germany or Japan’s affinity for reading on smartphones, require Tamblyn to apply unique strategies, not generic “culture templates.”

INTERESTINGLY, KOBO'S LARGEST MARKET IS THE NETHERLANDS, WHERE THEY HAVE SURPASSED AMAZON IN MARKET SHARE.

For companies that want to emulate Tamblyn’s success, choosing to innovate with a purpose is fundamental to his strategy. Tamblyn continues to retain the spirit of challenging the status quo of the industry, embracing new ideas, and finding creative solutions to the problems that Kobo’s customers are facing across markets. Unlike their competitors, Kobo is singularly focused on their mission of bettering the reading experience through developing products and device features that allow reading to fit more seamlessly into people’s lifestyles. This strategy is also helping to build customer trust and brand loyalty. When issues surrounding data collection come into play, it is clear that Kobo is concentrating on responsible use of consumer data to design products that their customers are going to love. 

For entrepreneurs entering a space with established industry giants, at just under 500 Kobo employees worldwide, Tamblyn shows that small companies shouldn’t be intimidated or afraid to compete against larger companies. While most of Kobo’s competitors use a direct-to-consumer business model, Tamblyn utilizes a partnership business model to successfully compete with powerful, well-funded, tech giants such as Amazon, Google, and Apple. In that spirit, his strategic decision to quietly focus on international markets instead of solely on large markets like the U.S. has paid off big time.