In October of 2008, Kunal Gupta, chief executive officer of mobile application developer Polar Mobile, gathered his tiny staff at the company's Toronto headquarters and set an ambitious goal: to reach 100,000 downloaded apps by year's end.
In the early days of smartphones, this was an imposing challenge for a small Canadian startup. Mr. Gupta had started pitching products while still a student at the University of Waterloo, but so far his firm had notched a mere 30,000 downloads for its half-dozen apps.
Venture capitalists wanted to know why anybody would want to download software to a cellphone. Most of Polar's revenue was going to pay the cost of the computer servers that delivered content – while the six young Waterloo grads who had founded the company mostly lived at home with their parents.
A few months changed everything. "Something we had not planned for was our first holiday season," Mr. Gupta, 26, says. "The holiday season in 2008 was the first time a lot of people got their first iPhone." As staff anxiously watched the clock, a surge in holiday downloads brought Polar to its 100,000 target "literally on Dec. 31st, during the day," he recalls.
Since then, Polar has cashed in on the explosive growth in the smartphone sector with an ingenious template that can be easily customized to provide slick-looking, easy-to-use mobile apps for some of the largest media companies in the world. The company's apps allow smartphone and tablet users to quickly access articles and programming.
Now, Polar has secured $6-million in institutional funding to help take the company, which already has offices in San Francisco and Dubai, even more global. It plans to double its head count to 80, open offices in New York and London and develop a new, cross-platform app framework for media companies that will allow users to read and watch content across smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops and new smart TVs.
It's all about feeding the rocketing demand for mobile information and entertainment. Mr. Gupta was at dinner in Tokyo on Sept. 7, 2009, when he got an automated e-mail saying Polar had reached a million downloads. It was only six weeks later when he was alerted to the two-millionth download. The figure now stands at more than 10 million.
His company, a few floors above Joe Badali's Italian restaurant on Front Street West in downtown Toronto, now works with 380 media companies – including The Globe and Mail – in 12 countries. Polar's rise has come as newspapers, magazines and broadcasters struggle to help their audiences consume the enormous volume of content produced each day.
Advertising revenues hinge on the numbers of readers or viewers that content can attract, so it's crucial for media organizations to go where their audiences are. Over the past couple of years that audience has moved online, and is going increasingly mobile.
The next few years, Mr. Gupta believes, will be about the challenge of seamlessly sharing content among a myriad of intelligent devices, ranging from smartphones to smart TVs.
He thinks media companies' thirst for revenue across various platforms will create possibilities for new forms of advertising – for example, ads and coupons targeted to the needs of specific viewers – and that Polar's upcoming MediaEverywhere platform will help to make that happen.
"The media world is great at driving traffic, and the retail word is great at making money," he says, with a laugh. "We think there's a way of using audience intelligence to bring these two worlds together in a very powerful way."
Number of media applications, or apps
2008 - 9
2009 - 42
2010 - 300
2011 - 1200
Number of downloads of Polar Mobile apps
2008 -- 100,000
2009 - 2.3-million
2010 - 5.1-million
2011 - 10.7-million