Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Technology

Top-ranked Polar Mobile is going places Add to ...

Kunal Gupta is convinced the mobile lifestyle is the future, and his advice to budding entrepreneurs is to get on a plane.

The young CEO of Polar Mobile - a fast-rising developer of smartphone applications -hit the streets of Manhattan with his colleagues in 2008, and bagged big-name clients such as Time magazine, BusinessWeek and Sports Illustrated.

"We went straight to the top," Mr. Gupta says of Toronto-based Polar's first international success. "We went to the customers and we told them the value proposition."

Being aggressive didn't hurt, but Polar also got in early with a strong product. Founded less than three years ago, the business-to-business company helps large media firms swiftly launch mobile apps across BlackBerry, iPhone and other smartphones. Its software platform solves the complexities of delivering content to all the different devices.

"Our goal is to help our customers gain reach," Mr. Gupta said. "Today, we think the best way to get maximum reach is to have a native [resident]app that's on somebody's smartphone."

Customers are responding to that message. Polar already has clients in 10 countries - after starting 2010 with the United States as its lone foreign market - and its user base is spread out across 100. Polar hit 6.3 million users as of early October, a giant leap from 10,000 users in the first four months of business. It also launched some 300 apps in 30 months - a remarkable feat by any standard.

"The biggest challenge for us today is also the biggest opportunity," Mr. Gupta said. "How do we grow our customer base all over the world, from Toronto?"

In the media space, Polar has taken charge of the sports vertical. According to Mr. Gupta, his 40-person shop has more sports publishers than anyone else in mobile. Polar and CBS just launched 190 apps that bring the U.S. broadcaster's online GameTracker service to mobile for 95 NCAA schools. If you're, say, a Florida State fan, the team's logo appears on your GameTracker app, with features including scores, schedules and news.

An even bigger coup was the mid-October announcement that Polar will craft 500 apps for Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7. The device gets its own versions of nearly all existing Polar apps - many of them in time for the release of Microsoft's newest smartphone operating system later this year. Microsoft is happy because its phone will come loaded with apps, while Polar has yet another showcase for its development platform.

One fan of Polar is Tyler Lessard, senior vice-president of global alliances and developer relations at Research In Motion. (The two companies have a partnership that Mr. Gupta describes as part technical, part marketing and part business development.) Mr. Lessard praises Polar for its technology - and its gumption. "A big part of their success in the early days was they put a lot of faith in their own abilities and showed companies that with little investment, they could get them great returns."

From the start, timing and circumstances worked in Polar's favour. Mr. Gupta, 25, has a degree in software engineering from the University of Waterloo. He founded Polar in 2008 with five fellow U of W engineering grads. Three influences sparked the company's launch, Mr. Gupta explains. The first was being in Waterloo, Ont.-based RIM's backyard, where BlackBerrys were everywhere.

The second was a global outlook. While working, travelling and studying in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Mr. Gupta noticed that the planet had gone mobile. Five years ago, the Ottawa native said, mobile penetration in Hong Kong was 126 per cent - while Canadians were barely texting. "The massive gap is what got me thinking, 'Hey, there's something here.'"

The third influence was the lure of software as a business model. Mr. Gupta says software is an ideal entrepreneurial venture because it has low capital costs and it is easily scalable. "It scales beautifully across verticals, across geography, across markets."

Polar has always been a few steps ahead. In mobile-app years, it dates back almost to the dawn of time. The company went live with the first version of its platform in January, 2008 - six months before Apple opened the online App Store. "We were positioned really, really well by being early," Mr. Gupta said.

Technologically, the startup set itself apart from other mobile app developers such as Toronto's Five Mobile and Xtreme Labs, most of which specialize in custom products. Mr. Gupta said Polar's template-based platform lets customers launch a branded app within two weeks.

For a client like GQ India, it's a three-step process. One, Polar gathers the publisher's branding materials and content, along with some information about the app structure, which is built around templates. Two, a few days later it presents a beta app for customer feedback. Three, Polar sends the final product out into the mobile world.

According to Mr. Gupta, media giants see the value of mobile development platforms. "Six months from now, when there's 26 new smartphone devices out, your apps continue to work on them," he said. "If you build a custom app, there's a strong chance your apps won't work."

Still, Polar was careful not to get ahead of itself. In year one, it focused on winning domestic clients such as Toronto-based Rogers Media and Montreal's Transcontinental, taking Maclean's, The Hockey News and several other publications mobile.

Mr. Gupta says Polar's first cash was from its customers. Besides providing capital for the company to grow, these deals lent Polar credibility. "Having good success locally allowed us to go global a lot faster, because it gave us the confidence and the proof points to tell the story internationally," Mr. Gupta said.

When Polar cracked the U.S. market, it got the attention of media companies everywhere from Asia to Latin America. Today, Mr. Gupta's clients include the biggest newspapers in Hong Kong and Indonesia, and China's largest English-language daily. Polar, which closed its New York office early this year, has managed to expand internationally without having a physical presence in other countries. "We do a lot of business over the phone - a lot," Mr. Gupta said.

Back home in Toronto, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment released the first version of its Polar app 18 months ago. Besides scores, Maple Leafs Mobile delivers stats, video interviews and other goodies. John McCauley, MLSE's director of digital, said Polar made it easy to connect with Leaf Nation. After trying various mobile and other options in the past few years, Mr. McCauley is sold. "Our experience with Polar is wildly the most successful of any of them," he said.

Mr. Gupta attributed reviews like that to the relative simplicity of Polar's offerings. When Polar launched a World Cup app this past June, it went up against several other products on BlackBerry. The Polar app trounced them in users, page views and ratings, Mr. Gupta said. "Our product had far less features and functionality than any other product, but it outperformed all the others. And the reason is that it worked."

With business flowing in, two big concerns for Polar are funding and managing its expansion from scrappy startup to established player. Over the past two years, the company has secured capital from angel investors - beginning with Greg Wolfond, founder of Toronto wireless software provider 724 Solutions.

When Polar doubled its staff in 2010, Mr. Gupta said, finding the right talent was a challenge. Now that there's a robust app platform - thanks to the right hires on the development side - it's focused on building out sales, marketing and biz dev.

Looking ahead, Mr. Gupta said Polar's vision is all about the mobile lifestyle. As he explained, people are constantly on the go and constantly connected, whether they use a smartphone, a tablet or some other device. Polar is ready to adapt. Mobile will grow beyond smartphones, Mr. Gupta said - but the business problem of how to gain reach will remain. "Twelve months from now, there will be additional ways to accomplish that goal, which means that we need to be there to help our value proposition stay true."

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular