The first goal for Ali Asaria and his Kitchener-based company, Tulip Retail, is simple: empower every sales associate in North America with mobile technology that will seamlessly connect them with their company and their customers.

The next goal is to go beyond the retail market to empower every mobile worker in the world.

And the hiring for both goals is ongoing at the three-year-old Tulip. The company, working out of the Tannery building in Kitchener, at a space on King and Church streets in Toronto and in an office on Broadway in New York, had a core team of 20 staff in January of this year. Thanks to aggressive recruitment, the company has grown to 100 engineering and sales staff as of now. Asaria expects that number will reach 120 by year-end.

Asaria has had a long association with the Waterloo Region. The former board member at Communitech was in the Research In Motion engineering department as a University of Waterloo co-op student back in the late 1990s, and designed the Brickbreaker game for BlackBerry users. After five years, he left RIM to build on his family’s pharmacy retail experience in Guelph to launch Well.ca, now Canada’s online health and beauty destination.

But Well.ca was really two companies, says Asaria: a retail company and a technology company. He oversaw the split in 2013 that allowed Well.ca to focus on retail and led a group of software engineers who would found Tulip, using their tech expertise to design a mobile app for retail sales workers.

The intention was to create software that could exploit the immediacy of mobile tech. With Tulip, sales associates are able to track client preferences and product availability, effectively becoming a personal concierge, while being in communication with head office.

So, what’s been happening since Tulip was formed three years ago?

“One of our beliefs and values when we were building this company was that we don’t want to just build a company and scale it on no traction and then get customers later,” says Asaria. “What we really wanted to do was have it revenue-driven and customer-driven, so we’ve been out in the field, I’ve been out in the field, with the sales team, for the last three years working really hard to find customers that were aligned with our business vision and build those partnerships.”

Among those current clients are Toys R Us; Frank and Oak; Lululemon Athletica; Coach; and Saks Fifth Avenue.

“Now that that’s all come to fruition, that’s why we’re scaling the team. We’ve found the customers first and now we’re building the team to fill all that demand. So it feels good. The team really likes that because this is a company backed with real traction, not just hype or VC funding.”

Key to the growth of Tulip has been the network of experienced engineers, both from RIM and the Waterloo Region ecosystem, says Asaria.

“I think that there are lot of parallels between Research In Motion and Tulip in that we are solving big problems based on the intersection of enterprise and mobile. So we’re pulling from a lot of that talent . . . We’re in many ways a natural next generation of what Waterloo Region can build using the same talent pool and culture that grew RIM to success.”

Asaria says rapid growth means Tulip has to pace itself: “It feels like we’ve done three years of company growth in three months. . . Entire departments are collapsing and reforming, the organizational structure is moving really quickly — even building out an education platform so we can train more efficiently because we can’t just keep doing (individual) training sessions for all the new people.”

And rapid growth means picking the right people for the jobs: “We know how to hire great engineers and bring on great talent, but it’s going to take us a little more time to grow our executive team. The organizational structure is really strained in that there’s a lot of people, but not a lot of management. We’re very cautious, because we’re so protective of the kind of company culture and values that we’ve been able to develop at the beginning . . . and we don’t want to lose that.”

Once that team has secured its place in the retail sector, a wider vista beckons, says Asaria.

“We’re part of something, a big trend that is really exciting, which is specifically around this idea that the mobile devices (IOS devices, tablets and phones) are going to change the way work happens for all workers in the future. We’re just beginning that journey.”

Asaria thinks there is huge potential for mobility to disrupt work. He notes that many retail point-of-sale machines are 1980s technology, but the next generation of retail sales workers – which is the most common occupation for Canadians – is going to expect a user interface and an experience that is very different from what business currently uses.

“I think that businesses are realizing that they can’t keep giving their employees that old-school technology, but they are not capable of building great apps by themselves, so companies like Tulip can come in and say, ‘We’re going to help you translate a lot of your legacy systems into this next generation experience and user interface.’ And that’s a big part of what we are doing. This is part of a big movement.”

Asaria says he and his team are proud that Tulip is empowering workers, rather than replacing them: “We’re not a company saying ‘Hey, let’s build robots to replace employees because retail would be better if computers could do everything.’ We’re saying, ‘Let’s invest in the actual workers, and let’s have computers give them the tools to make them better at their jobs.’”

Asaria says the empowerment doesn’t stop at sales associates. “This is the theme of mobile in general, having access to Google and Wikipedia and knowledge bases of information anywhere we are. As a company, we’re saying, ‘We can take that tablet in your hands, which can access anything, and disrupt the space.’

“You can see in that conversation what our bigger picture is. We see this as not just for retail, but for every worker, every mobile worker in the world, this trend is going to be very big.”

About The Author

Bill Bean

Bill Bean is an award-winning journalist with 40 years experience who has been writing about innovation in Waterloo Region for three years, and who has a weakness for grandchildren, bicycles and chocolate.