For Amar Varma, the Relationship is Job One

On March 27th, Amar Varma, Co-founder & COO of Autonomic, was Guest of Honour at the Espresso’s Founders’ Dinner. Our community enjoyed hearing about his view on long-term relationships in business. Here’s what you should know about our successful honouree.

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Amar Varma has done it all. In a career spanning two decades he’s been a chip fabricator, software developer, marketer, entrepreneur, angel investor, venture capitalist – and now, auto executive. But in any journey, it’s not the mileage that counts: it’s the people you meet along the way.

In January, the mobility startup he co-founded in late 2016, Autonomic.ai, was acquired by his longtime client Ford – making Varma and his partners true players in shaping the future of transportation. Their cloud-based platform connects and empowers the fleets of tomorrow: autonomous, electrically powered, and on-demand. While Ford was Autonomic’s first client, Varma’s vision extends much further. “We want this to be the platform of the entire transportation industry.”

VC’s typically urge entrepreneurs to earn revenue as fast as possible. True to its founders’ roots, Autonomic began collecting customer revenues three months after its October 2016 start. “If you’ve been building a platform for more than a quarter, and there’s nobody on it, you don’t know what you have,” says Varma. “You have to be able to test it.”

But it’s not just cutting-edge sensors, lasers and robotics that power Varma’s world; personal relationships fueled his success. Varma has nurtured them since he studied electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo (and he’s still in touch with most of his classmates). He worked for all-star employers such as ATI, Newbridge Networks and Silicon Valley-based Cypress Semiconductor before joining VenGrowth, a prominent Toronto-based private-equity firm. 

In 2008 he founded Extreme Ventures Partners, which provided early-stage capital to Canadian startups – and scored with successful exits such as Bumptop, Rypple, and Well.ca. If it was not enough to run an investment firm, Varma and his Extreme co-founder, former Cisco engineer Sundeep Madra, also launched Xtreme Labs, a mobile-app development firm that attracted blue-chip clients such as Facebook, Twitter, J.P. Morgan Chase, and the NFL. Xtreme grew to employ 300+ people by 2013, when it was acquired by San Francisco cloud-software company Pivotal Software. The two founders stayed on for another three years, working closely with Ford on its FordPass “connected car” initiative, before leaving Pivotal along with a small group of Xtreme colleagues to build Autonomic.

Demonstrating the power of relationships, Varma says several clients have followed him and Madra from Xtreme to Pivotal to Autonomic. Only by connecting with clients and identifying with their problems can you build a relationship, he says. “If you just view your customers as customers, people see through that. If you see it as a genuine partnership, people will come back to you again because they trust you. You can end up with a life-long series of opportunities.”

In fact, Varma sees this as a golden age for collaboration between startups and corporations. Given the changes overtaking all industries, he says, “You’re going to see more and more entrepreneurs becoming influential at Fortune 500 companies. Their mindset is changing; it’s all about disruption. The only way to get on top of that is to have an agile platform for making fast decisions – and that’s what entrepreneurs do.”

But building better relationships doesn’t just apply to clients. Varma would like to see more Canadian founders building peer relationships the Valley way, meeting regularly one-on-one to tell stories, compare notes and share support and advice. “If we want to be a big player in tech, we have to get better at collaborating,” he says. “We have a solid tech community, but we fall short in terms of getting together as individuals to move our thought processes forward. We can’t build great technology by playing our cards close to our chests. It’s all about putting your cards on the table and talking to people.”

About the Author 

Rick Spence is a Canadian journalist, speaker, and consultant on business growth, entrepreneurship, and opportunity. He is currently a director at Startup Canada and President of CanEntrepreneur Communications.

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