Ash Davies Of Tablo: “You don’t need to conform to the cliche model of having a co-founder, giving away large portions of your company, and raising venture capital to succeed”

You don’t need to conform to the cliche model of having a co-founder, giving away large portions of your company, and raising venture capital to succeed. It can be more effective to build a business on your own, maintain a majority shareholding, and focus on profitability. Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, […]

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You don’t need to conform to the cliche model of having a co-founder, giving away large portions of your company, and raising venture capital to succeed. It can be more effective to build a business on your own, maintain a majority shareholding, and focus on profitability.


Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ash Davies.

Ash Davies is the founder and CEO of Tablo, a start-up that aims to democratize the book publishing world by making booking publishing incredibly simple for everyone. A budding author who had struggled to publish a book, Davies dropped out of university to create a cloud-based solution.Already operating as a profitable startup, Tablo provides authors with the tools to create, publish and build their writing careers. The online platform is also the only self-publishing platform to offer traditional representation to authors, including having the infrastructure to distribute at scale.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your professional backstory and how you got started?

Sure. I’m 28 years old, living in Melbourne, and building a portfolio of multiple businesses across publishing, hospitality and commerce. I’m the CEO at Tablo.com, a platform that makes it incredibly easy to create, print and publish a book. Tablo has formed the majority of my career, and it’s a product that is having an incredibly meaningful impact for authors.
 
 My journey to Tablo started in high school, where I was writing and running a blog. I built a strong audience by writing guides and tutorials for beginner photographers. Eventually, like many bloggers, I set out to offer my readers a book. 
 
 I expected the experience of self-publishing a book to be somewhat similar to publishing a blog. I had the content. Surely I could pick a book theme, write and format my text, and click a button to publish it to bookstores. The reality was different. To publish a book, I needed to become an expert in publishing.
 
 The experience of publishing a book was similar to how publishing a blog was before WordPress existed, or similar to how creating a design was before Canva existed. Authors needed to use multiple different tools — all very technical — and employ different people to turn their writing into a book. Tablo was born out of the idea that publishing a book should be as simple as writing, picking a theme, and clicking publish. Today, you can create, print and publish a real book with Tablo, to either hold in your hands or distribute to over 40,000 bookstores, with the click of a button. We’re creating the most author-friendly book publishing experience in the industry.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
 
This is a good question. Very early in my career, I was sharing my problems with an advisor — things that were hard, or things that may not work. He asked me, “is this a problem, or are you just looking for sympathy?”. It was a ruthless question that shaped much of my management style, and shaped the way I approach the highs and lows of business. I know that my response here might be unfashionable, but in business, I don’t see any value in focusing on lows. If things are hard, your job as a CEO is to remain graceful, calm, composed, and fix them.
 
There are definitely moments of immense, crippling pressure, but I look back on them with pride for how my team responded. In 2017, a licensing deal that I’d bet the company’s future on was abandoned at the last stage, and we only had the funds to cover payroll for one more month. It was an incredibly high-pressure scenario.
 
Within weeks we secured a lifeline of capital, and used this funding to relaunch Tablo as a print-focused business, with the product line and profitable business model that we have today. A low moment, by being pragmatic and focusing on action, became one of the highest points of innovation in Tablo’s history. I don’t care for or think back on failures, because my job is to solve challenging problems and succeed.
 
The more subtle, personal low moments usually come from stagnation, and from doing the same thing for too long without meaningful change. I’m healthier and more effective when I have variety in my work day, so I constantly look for opportunities to create uncomfortable change.
 
As for the highs? I just know that I need to appreciate and celebrate them more. Milestones like crossing 100,000 authors slipped past us, because we were working on what’s next.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
 
In all of my businesses, I focus on the experience outside of the technology. The touch, the smell, the physical engagement and experience off the screen is as meaningful as the experience on-screen, and often overlooked. I look for opportunities to create conversations between customers, and to create moments where they want to share an experience with their friends.
 
This is difficult to achieve at Tablo, but we’re in a unique space where a technology product results in a book that you can hold and feel in your hands. The experience from creating on-screen to unboxing in person is special.
 
In the hospitality space, there are more opportunities. At Hugo’s Sandwich Deli in Richmond, we have a secret menu. Our most iconic sandwiches are on this menu. I can’t tell you what they are, but it still manages to spread as people share it with their friends.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
 
At Tablo, the Aha moment was more of a “Why on earth is this so difficult” moment. In every sense, I was Tablo’s first customer, because I was desperately searching for a product like ours to make it easier to publish my own book. I knew nothing about the traditional book industry, but enough about the blogging and online publishing industry to approach Tablo with a very different perspective on user experience.
 
The trigger was a phone call I had with the IRS. As an Australian, to publish on Apple or Amazon, I needed to register foreign tax details. I stayed up for hours, on hold to the IRS, to register US tax information. Once I’d set up my own personal publisher account, the thought process began. “If it has been this difficult for me, surely I can use this setup to help other authors”.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
 
Alex, my CTO, has been exceptional and worthy of more praise than he tends to receive. He’s the closest thing I have to a business partner, and has been a level head, sounding board and collaborator for nearly all of Tablo’s history. I would be nowhere, and Tablo would be nothing like the company it is today, without his work, not least because he’s selfless, has no trace of ego, and has a relentless focus on what’s best for authors and the rest of our team.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
 
In a small way, I try to be a person who champions other peoples ideas, and encourages people to say yes to things that are slightly uncomfortable. I recognise these days that a few people look to me for direction, in business but also in life as a young 28 year old who has made some progress. Too many people talk about doing things, but don’t every take the first step because of opinions or personal barriers. If I can give people confidence to try uncomfortable things, and stamina when things are difficult, then I’ll be happy.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my Start-Up” and why.
 
You don’t need to conform to the cliche model of having a co-founder, giving away large portions of your company, and raising venture capital to succeed. It can be more effective to build a business on your own, maintain a majority shareholding, and focus on profitability.
 
Focusing doesn’t mean doing only one thing. Doing only one thing for a long time can be a disadvantage, because you limit your learnings by being so insular and involved. Focusing is more about having a ruthless understanding of your goals and values, and saying no to things that don’t help you make progress.
 
It’s ok to run multiple businesses at once. Investors like to be shocked if you aren’t living and breathing your company, and tout anything else as a distraction. But if you learn to operate effectively, you can build a portfolio of businesses, and use your time to employ people who are better at your job than you.
 
A lot of different people will share their opinions. Listen to none of this, unless they have very specific domain expertise, in which case you should still ignore them, and make the mistake yourself. Your value as a CEO is in your ability to make high IQ decisions, which can involve saying no to a lot of smart people.
 
Venture capitalists will act like the gatekeeper of your success, and prophets of the business world, but they are not. You’ll do just fine without them.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
 
This is a little uncomfortable to talk about. Maybe because the culture in Australia doesn’t really permit people saying good things about themselves without labelling them as arrogant. But there are some traits that I work on, and skills that I know I have, that have definitely brought me to this position.
 
I’m a very effective lateral thinker and problem solver. A colleague can be working on a problem for hours and share their frustration with me. It could be a technical problem with how we’re architecting a new product, or a strategic problem in how we’re handling investments. Very quickly, I’m able to share a solution that solves the problem, and factors in the impact on every other part of our business. It frustrates staff, and friends, that I spend 30 seconds solving a problem that has occupied them hours. But I know that I’m good at it, and lean into it.

I’m able to handle immense pressure and still think with clarity. The failed licensing deal I mentioned earlier is a good example of this, where we effectively had one month to turn around the company. It was a scenario where any missteps, poorly handled conversations or lost days would have sent us bankrupt. But I know that I thrive in these high pressure scenarios, and get to work.
 
And finally, a good bullshit radar. There’s a lot of bullshit in the business world. A lot of talk with no action, and a lot of people who act with different interests to the ones they present. Interviews like this aside, I normally keep quiet, keep working, and let that do the talking for me.

What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
 
Saying what your values are is very different to acting with and exercising these values. We talk a lot about being the most author-friendly book publishing company in the industry, but I’m sure that a lot of companies would say the same thing. So we try to present these values in how we act, and the metric to follow is if our customers are sharing these values on our behalf. I try to remain accountable to customer support. Just because I’m the CEO, it doesn’t mean I should be insulated from our customers. If anything, CEO’s should have the best understanding of their customer’s questions and needs, because it’s my decisions that shape the company. I try to maintain some customer accounts and answer to my team.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
 
It’s left of field, but I’d make it a requirement for news outlets to publish key metrics on the mental health of their readers or listeners. The past 18 months of the pandemic has weighed heavily on people’s minds, and I do see news media as accountable for creating stress, division, and a sense of disassociation with reality. If news media were to report on mental health, we could see which publications stress their viewers, find accountability and help to improve the wellbeing of society.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
 
Richard Branson. He’s a business hero of mine, as he was a young media mogul who built a life of business and adventure across a whole range of industries.

How can our readers follow you on social media?
 
You can find me on Instagram at https://instagram.com/ashdav or Twitter at https://twitter.com/photoguides

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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