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Balancing the Grind with Michael Tamblyn, CEO at Rakuten Kobo

Michael Tamblyn is the CEO at Rakuten Kobo, one of the world’s most popular global eReading services, offering more than 6 million eBooks and audiobooks to over 36 million users across the world.

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1. To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I am the Chief Executive Officer at Rakuten Kobo. We are a global digital bookseller, selling eBooks and eReaders around the world, and after 10 years the largest dedicated eBook retailer competing against Amazon, Apple and Google.

As a core member of Kobo since its inception in 2009, I have been lucky to see Kobo grow from a handful of people in starting up in Toronto, Canada to a company that has employees, customers and partnerships all over the world, including our latest launch in Australia with Booktopia.

I came into business through the side door. I did a degree in classical music, which turned out to be such a hard way to make a living that starting up a new company seemed like an easier alternative.

In 1994, I co-founded the first online bookstore in Canada, bookshelf.ca, which was later acquired by Indigo Books and Music, Canada’s largest book chain. I became the Vice President of Online, launching Indigo’s ecommerce platform, Indigo.ca.

As a result, Canada, like Australia, is one of the two English-language markets where Amazon doesn’t run the table on ecommerce for books. After that, I did another startup, ran a not-for-profit for a while, then got pulled back into the business world and in 2009 joined the founding executive team to launch Kobo.

Following three rocket-ship years, Kobo was acquired by Rakuten in 2012, I took over as President in 2014 and CEO in 2016. In that time, we expanded to 24 countries as one of the world’s largest eBook retailers and device manufacturers.

We did it by building these amazing partnerships with each country’s best booksellers, like WH Smith in the UK, FNAC in France, Feltrinelli in Italy, Booktopia here in Australia, with the retailer adopting Kobo as their ebook experience and introducing us to their community of customers and readers. In a fiercely competitive market, it’s a model that has proven to be surprisingly effective against some of the biggest tech companies in the world.

2. What does a typical day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

At the moment, I don’t know if any of us are having typical days. As I write this, Canada, where I’m based, is still more or less in lock-down, with all of our offices closed and everyone working from home.

My pre-COVID workday had two styles: half of the days were office days that started with a trip to the boxing gym in the morning and then a mix of meetings and video calls, stretching into the night for our Asian partners and parent company in Japan.

The other half were travel days. I spent about 120 days on the road in Europe, Americas and Asia with our partners, publishers and offices in Ireland, Germany, Japan and Taiwan. Now I am working at home and this is the longest stretch of time in almost 20 years that I haven’t been on a plane.

Days start earlier with more video calls to Europe, and end later with more calls to Asia. My dog is a terrible sparring partner, so boxing is off the table too.

3. Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Way back in early March, making the call to go remote for two weeks seemed momentous. Now, extending until January 2021 seems bizarrely normal.

Rakuten Kobo is giving staff the option of staying remote and working from home for the rest of 2020. But we are fortunate. Most of our work can be done remotely without too much difficulty, with the exception of the factories that work with us to manufacture ereaders.

We have had remote employees since we started the company, because we have historically tried to avoid creating new offices each time we expanded to a new country, allowing people to work from home instead.

So we have employees who have been working remote for 5+ years who are leaders, managers and critical members of the team.

We are also spread out across offices in Toronto, Taipei, Dublin and Darmstadt so remote collaboration is essential. And we have a Japanese parent company who has prioritized video conferences as necessary for good communication ever since we were acquired in 2012.

So just about every team has members who are remote, or in a different location and we have the systems and tools we need to manage and communicate well.

But we are also trying to create some office space in the near future for members of the Kobo crew who want/need some non-home space to work in. Some have small apartments, musician roommates or bad connectivity.

Having a second space where work happens is critical for them. For all kinds of reasons, it would be a mistake to assume everybody wants to work from home all the time.

For me, it’s a little heartbreaking that the things we like most about coming to work are the hardest to do in a post-COVID, pre-vaccine world.

That said, it feels good to know we can keep doing our job — for the readers who have chosen us, and for the authors, publishers and retailers we work with — no matter what challenges come our way.

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4. Do you have any tips, tricks or shortcuts to help you manage your workload and schedule?

I try to isolate the two or three critical goals for the quarter, the week, and the day and use those as filters — is this meeting really important right now? Could this be a five minute chat instead of 30 minutes writing an email?

It’s easy for the calendar to get filled up with routine things that are just status updates and placeholders. Those need to be pruned rigorously so there is time for conversations that matter, emergencies that inevitably emerge, and thinking alone or out loud with others.

5. What does work life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

To me, it’s less about hard boundaries and more about making sure I have time for the important stuff.

Am I making good memories with my kids? Are my wife and I having real conversations? Do I get outside and see a horizon that’s farther than a computer screen? Am I taking care of myself physically? Do I have time to make a good meal or see friends?

If all of those boxes are being checked, work can fill in the rest of the space available.

6. What do you think are some of the best habits you’ve developed over the years to help you strive for success and balance?

Over time, I have become more skeptical about the benefits of always-on communication. Checking email, social media, responding to texts is habit-forming, a series of little dopamine-driven hits of information that mostly don’t help me, my family or the business.

I’m not a transplant surgeon or a fire fighter. Responding to an email in less than 60 seconds probably isn’t necessary. But if our chairman wants to talk, he probably wants to talk now. So setting up systems that allow important messages to get through while being able to put down the phone the rest of the time has been very helpful.

7. Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things is one of the few business books that gave me the answers that I needed right at the time I needed them. It’s all about managing in crisis and the different kinds of leadership needed when hard decisions need to be made.

8. What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

Get at least some time when I’m not in my head. Boxing has been great for that. Not much time for thinking when you are trying to avoid getting your bell rung. Or just getting outdoors for a bit. The best ideas come after a little time out.

9. Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

We will all spend most of our lives working, so waiting for retirement or even the weekend to enjoy ourselves is a sucker’s game. We have this unique opportunity as managers to create environments that we can enjoy, that make people’s lives better, where we are learning, doing good work, having a laugh. I always want people to think of Kobo as the best place they ever worked.

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About Author

Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.