As a part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mitchell Davis.
Mitchell Davis is a publishing and media entrepreneur. In 2000, he founded the world’s first integrated global print-on-demand and publishing services company, which was sold to Amazon.com in 2005 and re-branded as CreateSpace/Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Since 2008, he has been founder & chief executive officer of Charleston, SC-based BiblioLabs — the creators of BiblioBoard. BiblioBoard provides community engagement services and content distribution, and is used by public, academic, and K-12 libraries around the world in pursuit of a new vision for libraries in the digital age.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better.
I have worked in media and internet entrepreneurial ventures since 1994. Out of college, I founded a small desktop publishing company that became a web development and internet marketing company right as the Internet was being born in the mid-90s.
In late 1999, I created BookSurge, the world’s first integrated publishing services and manufacturing system for print-on-demand books. BookSurge was later sold to Amazon.com in 2005. I worked at Amazon for two years in senior management, integrating and growing the company into CreateSpace which eventually became Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).
In 2007, my wife and I also started Organic Process Productions, a philanthropic media production company. Projects included an award-winning documentary film after the Hurricane Katrina/New Orleans floods, a documentary surf film with the Quiksilver Foundation, documentary work with the Jazz Artists of Charleston, and dozens of other books, films, and events. In fact, our Web of Water documentary (filmed in our home state of South Carolina) won a PBS National Education Innovation Award in 2011.
In 2008, I founded my current company BiblioLabs. In 2011, we released our first digital product in partnership with the British Library which won a Publishing Innovation Award and was downloaded by over a half million users. In 2013, we launched BiblioBoard, a scalable and sustainable environment for the creation and distribution of digital content to libraries (public, school, academic and private). BiblioBoard allows libraries to deliver a competitive, world class media experience and provides tools to help them better engage with local creators in their communities.
I also serve on the board of the Charleston Digital Corridor, where I am an advocate for entrepreneurs and, with director Ernest Andrade, have created a program called How a Software Company Works that is focused toward education of middle and high schoolers on the myriad of opportunities available in the software world beyond just coding and engineering jobs. We focus on teaching about the other roles (customer support, marketing, design, business development) and match success in these careers to an emphasis on English, humanities, and social science curriculum and on the personal development of emotional intelligence. These aspects of technology careers have been largely missing from STEM and coding-focused curriculum leading some kids (and parents) to feel left out. In reality, the tech jobs in software are far outnumbered by other jobs requiring much different skills.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I have made so many mistakes and continue to do so. In fact, I believe a truly agile organization is one where we can make plenty of mistakes, but knowing how to quickly correct them and stay the course is where the magic lies. Early on, I think that a huge part in becoming an entrepreneur is to make yourself vulnerable and make mistake after mistake. Though not particularly funny, one of my biggest mistakes was trying to fill a room with vision and personality at the expense of listening or being practically realistic about what was possible with clients. I remember in my first internet venture a specific moment: I was talking *at* a client about a website that was late, not really what they wanted, and something in the look on their face made me suddenly hear my own voice. In my voice I heard fear and confusion being packaged as vision and competence. I left, got in my car, and realized how very far I had to go in order to be a truly effective leader. Not to say it has never happened again, but at least those moments of clarity create a self-awareness that eventually has a chance to work itself out.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
One of the things that helped me greatly in my career (and life) is a band from Athens, GA called Widespread Panic. I saw them for the first time as a college sophomore in 1990 when they were just starting to develop a following. It was an experience that shook me out of my past and opened my eyes to a future where I could believe in myself. I continued to follow them through college and into adulthood. As I struggled through figuring out life in my twenties, I watched them continue doing the same thing they were doing in that small bar in 1990, but flourish. I was keen enough to recognize the “management” process in the background that let them elevate themselves to huge venues, sold out tours, and making really good money — all by building an authentic community and playing music with the same intention as when they started. I said if they can do it, so can I. I still remain a big fan and actually played in a Widespread Panic tribute band (54 Bicycles) for years, which seems the best way to, well, pay tribute.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our vision was to make public libraries (and by extension all libraries) competitive on the modern media landscape. The industry’s vendors were (and still are) plagued by last generation mindset and technology. The library is a core part of our civilization and has been for centuries. In the age of Amazon, Netflix, and YouTube, libraries face an existential threat of not being competitive for the digital attention required for new user adoption and a product ecosystem that can’t keep pace with the modern world. We have worked with hundreds of the most innovative libraries in the world to create a new user experience and role for the library as a robust member of the local digital communities in which they exist.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Hire and keep people who care, who take personal pride from working hard and smart and who are constantly learning. We realized early on that we could not motivate people. We could only try to hire motivated people and then try not to de-motivate them. You never get it 100% right, but we’ve learned to let people go quickly when it’s not the right fit. Great people do not want to work with people who are going through the motions and “doing a job.” If you keep those people, the great people will leave.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We were fortunate as a company to have already been working remotely when the COVID-19 pandemic happened. We had moved out of our office at the end of 2019 and were scheduled to move into a new “home base” office on March 15. No one has been there yet but we’re looking forward to the day we can convene in-person again.
On the personal side, I think we all have had to deal with possibly the greatest collective psychic shock of our lives. It is hard to find a balance as a leader between consideration and compassion for that and the need to continue to excel as a business. Years ago, we took a path of letting everyone in our company work in their own way while being considerate of others. Since there are no expectations in terms of where you are, when you are there, or how you get the work done, I believe this made the management of this period of time easier. People could be flexible with working around quarantine living situations, childcare, and other matters that were all of a sudden much more acute. I don’t know that we did anything new when COVID-19 happened, but I do think we were all much more aware of leveraging the processes and culture in place to make it easier for everyone to get through it together.
We also started a bi-weekly game called “Three Questions” where we all get on a video call and answer questions from a new person each time. Things get real, heavy, introspective, and fun. We all got to know each other better and it gave us a way to check-in with each other throughout this time.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you have done to address those challenges?
Demand for our services increased immediately when the COVID-19 pandemic started. While all of us realized this was incredibly fortunate, it does not make the workload any less stressful (particularly when going through personal stresses). As public library buildings have closed, they are looking for new ways to deliver virtual library services and simple content delivery models, both of which we excel at. We have really relied on our current workflow to be able to manage the influx of new work and get it done as quickly as possible. Our software is mature and has adapted elegantly to the stresses, but that only happens if the people behind that software have built it with a vision and are keeping their cool under pressure, which they have. Our business team has been working harder than they ever have, but are happy to be engaging with customers who are ready to think differently about the delivery of digital library services.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I believe nature, music, and art are always answers to calming those anxieties, and that has been elevated during the pandemic. My wife and I have been able to spend the last 10 weeks on a farm in rural North Carolina. As travel and restrictions have loosened, we have been able to host friends and family here to help decompress from the stress of the pandemic in a wide-open space that lends itself to healthy social distancing, without forgetting we are a social species and a creature in need of communion with nature.
I have also been impressed with the musicians and artists who have adapted to the different performance landscape so quickly. It really is exciting to think how this will marry back to the analog performance world soon. Sharing some of this art and music with friends and family (and in turn having things shared with me) has been inspiring.
Obviously, we can’t know or certain what the post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post COVID-19 economy?
In terms of the work we do, I think libraries will gain a new foothold as the “craft taproom” of local media in their own communities. As one of our authors, Scott Semegran, said in his acceptance speech as the 2019 Texas Author Project adult fiction winner, “To think only good books come from big corporations is like thinking only Budweiser makes good beer, which of course we all know is not true.” Everyone knows a great local brewery around the corner. Big corporations will never be able to connect and elevate local talent like a library can. They have the buildings, programming, and now the digital competency to be great at local content — and they will be.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
That is hard to say, but I did get a text from my mom early on in the COVID pandemic that said, “Apparently you can order food from a place called GrubHub,” so that must mean something. I also assume people were watching Facebook and YouTube live concerts three months ago, but I did not know any of them. Now every person I know has watched a live show on one of those platforms. That is really astounding.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID economy?
We want to do more of the same. Without realizing it, we really have been preparing for this for several years. The good news is that thousands of communities all over the country already have access to BiblioBoard and are using it as part of their social distancing strategies. For example, in response to the pandemic, we worked with the Charleston Digital Corridor to create a free digital library for all Charleston County residents in South Carolina. It was the first time we were able to make this happen in our own community and we pulled it together in less than 24 hours. In the post-COVID-19 economy, I’m hoping our services will continue to serve as a valuable community resource when needed most.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I think personal responsibility, curiosity, work ethic, and the ability to collaborate are going to be the most valuable skills in the marketplace (and in life) from here on out.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“My faith is whatever makes me feel good about being alive.” — Tom Robbins
How can our readers follow your work?
Follow my blog on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchell-davis-6159a93/
Social Media: @BiblioBoard (Twitter; Facebook; Instagram) and @indieauthorproject (Facebook + Instagram, @indieauthorproj on Twitter)