Thursday, May 23, 2024

“Sophisticated Consumers” Shape Kobo Technology: CEO Michael Tamblyn

It’s widely assumed that young people and Millennials are the early adopters of new technology. But the conventional wisdom that they make or break new consumer tech doesn’t always hold. Sure, older adults may be sceptical about shiny new tech toys, but they’re keen to embrace innovation that fits into their lives and brings benefit to something they already love doing. 

Just ask Michael Tamblyn, president and CEO of Rakuten Kobo. He has led the company since 2009, when Indigo Books & Music spun out its eReader Kobo business. Now called Rakuten Kobo (after Japanese retailer Rakuten acquired Indigo’s stake in Kobo in 2011), the Toronto-based company’s eBooks, audiobooks, apps and eReaders are in 150 countries. This past summer, Kobo made its first foray into the US with a deal to sell in Walmart stores. 

Up against behemoth companies like Amazon and Sony, Kobo is a truly inspiring made-in Canada success story. Tamblyn shares what has been its competitive advantage: building a global business around older adults. 

Michael, how much do you credit older readers for driving eBook sales globally? 

What became the most interesting thing for us was the realization in about 2013 or 2014 that the eBook was the first big digital transformation not to be driven by 18- to 25-year-olds. Unlike downloadable music and video, the people who have been adopting eBooks look a lot like the people in a bookstore today – 45, 55 and 65 years of age, and more likely to be female. 

How did that realization change Rakuten Kobo’s strategic direction? 

So much of technology development is driven by young people with the expectation that it will also be consumed by young people. We had to say, “OK, how do we build, design and innovate with this customer in mind? How do we make sure they have a good experience?” 

How did you go about figuring out answers to those questions? 

We started bringing some of our best customers – whom we call “Kobo Insiders,” many of them Canadian but also from around the world – into the design process. We’re in constant dialogue with them about what we could do to the device that would help them read. We want to find out what’s keeping them from reading more often in digital. 

What have you discovered from Kobo Insiders? 

Some fascinating things. For example, 47 percent of our top customers like to read near the water – in the bathtub, by the pool or at the beach on vacation – but they were worried about bringing electronics close to water, and so Kobo Aura H2O was the first eReader with a waterproof design. Customers had also been hearing reports in the media about the invisible blue light in smartphones that disturbs sleep patterns. Kobo Aura ONE was the first device with variable colour temperature, so that the closer to bedtime it gets, the more blue light is extracted from the device. This creates a reading-at-sunset-or-candlelight-like experience. 

What mistakes do companies and entrepreneurs make in trying to connect with older audiences? 

Companies say, “Well, let’s just put a person with silver hair in the ad.” But the older adult is a sophisticated consumer; they do their research and are, in fact, online all the time. They have specific criteria in the consumer products they choose and accept. And so we look at design features like the ability to make font size bigger, which is starting to become a benefit for me! But you don’t want to be condescending about it. The one thing that we can all be sure of: Approaching age is something everyone’s going to go through, and everyone wants to be treated well when they get there.

How much of a competitive advantage has been building Kobo with these consumers in mind? 

It is a big advantage generally to be a company that can deal with age-related issues well. It has helped us competitively upon entering new markets and to retain customers who see that we’re working hard to make their reading lives better. We want to optimize the customer experience at every stage of a reader’s life.  

Watch Michael Tamblyn discuss reading throughout life from our video series, Perspectives on the New Aging Consumer:

Tamblyn’s Reading Habits

Favourite place to read: “On the porch at our place in Nova Scotia, looking out over St. Mary’s Bay.” 

Favourite read of 2018: American War by Omar El Akkad. “A future that is grounded in the universal experience of refugees, the dispossessed who become terrorists, the violent grind of civil war – except it’s America,” says Tamblyn. “A gripping story.” 

Favourite authors: Anne Carson for poetry, William Gibson for speculative fiction and Michael Lewis for non-fiction. 

Recent download: Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward. “American politics is the world’s most unpredictable stage play right now, King Lear with a finger mashed on the fast-forward button,” says Tamblyn. “And Woodward is the best chronicler in the business.”


Tamblyn’s Embraces Volunteer Role with AGE-WELL

The Kobo CEO is also the inaugural chief entrepreneur at AGE-WELL, Canada’s technology and aging network. There, in a volunteer capacity, he will help nurture the organization’s spirit of innovation through mentorship and guidance of emerging innovators dedicated to healthy aging and technology.

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Chris Daniels
Chris Daniels
Chris Daniels is a contributing editor at Hello! Canada, where he has overseen its entertaining pages and writes for its books sections. Previously a Toronto correspondent for Time magazine, his work has also been featured in The Globe and Mail and Canadian Living.