with Amar Varma
1. What does innovation mean to your company?
It means taking the way we do things on a day-to-day basis, turning them on their head, and seeing if they can be done a better way.
2. How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?We’re less about meetings and more about doing. A third of the staff is always working on internal innovation projects. We try to minimize bureaucracy, and balance that with flying by the seat of our pants.
3. How has the notion of innovation changed in the past decade?
The mechanics of what we’re doing has changed, but the concept of innovation is lifelong. Ultimately, we are looking to create major impacts that make the world a better place.
4. How can you cultivate innovation among your workforce?
We maintain an environment where people can be heard and noticed. It is almost self-policed. If you don’t encourage people to be themselves and challenge the way they’re doing things, they cannot be creative.
5. How can a company encourage innovation without breaking the bank?
Lots of people view innovation as an agenda. But if you’re in a business where you need to be on the cutting edge and you’re not spending on innovation, you’re going to be irrelevant in your market.
Amar Varma and Sundeep Madra are the kind of people who like to take calculated risks. They think outside the box, abhor bureaucracy, encourage employee feedback, and above all, believe in the value and future of mobile technology. Founders of Xtreme Labs, a mobile-strategy and product-development firm based in Toronto, the two are constantly striving to achieve innovation through mobile software and are never satisfied with “good enough.” If something doesn’t work, they change it. If it does work, they think how it can be done better.
In 2007, Varma and Madra left Silicon Valley to start Xtreme Labs. Today, the company has more than 150 employees, of which the lion’s share have engineering or computer-science backgrounds and spend their day creating code. In just five years, Xtreme Labs has built more than 200 custom apps, which have generated more than 250 million downloads through platform partners such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, RIM, Groupon, and Facebook.
Not surprisingly, in 2010, at just three years old, Profit magazine listed Xtreme Labs as 22nd on its Hot 50 list of Canada’s top new-growth companies. And if it isn’t obvious by now, innovation is the company’s number-one priority.
“We understand where the inefficiencies are, partly because we have been users of mobile platforms for so many years, but also because we’ve worked on so many apps across multiple industries and multiple countries,” Varma says.
Xtreme Labs keeps a critical eye on the mobile trends and then takes what it learns one step further. Currently, the company is working on a series of connected hardware products that aim to make the consumer mobile experience more integrated. Picture being able to sync small machines with your phone, including home appliances, athletic and medical equipment, and more.
One trend Xtreme seems to have tackled is the issue of disparate solutions, which its XLmagic Mobile Web Platform addresses. “With the pervasiveness of smartphones and the mobile web, content needs to be delivered consistently across all platforms, without punishing users for their choice of handset,” Varma says. “This opportunity sparked the creation of XLmagic, a solution that provides a consistent experience across the hundreds of mobile devices out there and is optimized for every mobile web browser.”
The firm’s Alpha Slides product suite addresses the need for collaboration and file sharing. It allows meeting or seminar attendees to view a PowerPoint slide deck on their mobile devices instead of straining to view the screen at the front of the room. The slides automatically change, and if the speaker is using a laser pointer, the dot shows up on the smartphone. The program also offers annotation and document sharing.
A collaborative, open company environment helps drive such products. “Anybody can contribute their thoughts and comments on what we should do and how we should do it,” Varma says. The company has no hierarchy and provides an open-door policy, which Varma feels helps Xtreme Labs maintain the competitive advantage of speed.
One-third of the staff is working on innovation projects at any given time, striving to push the boundaries when they develop apps and creating user-interface features with unique attributes. “We have things we work on early in their life cycle that don’t work out, and we try and learn from those experiences and figure out how to apply that to the next project,” Varma says. “Today’s successes encompass our lessons learned from previous failures.”
Over the next 10 years, Varma says innovation will be about combining the computing power of everybody’s resources together to solve big problems. Curing diseases, helping to eradicate hunger, creating educational parity—all of these things are possible with the next wave of innovation. And mobile, Varma says, will play a pivotal role.