Mike Lazaridis, whose company launched the BlackBerry in 1998, developed his philosophy of innovation as an intern at Ontario's Control Data in the early 1980s. He often saw the engineers butt heads with the marketing department. The former felt their cutting-edge ideas for products were squandered; the latter felt those new products needed to be simplified to attract customers. No doubt that tension exists to some degree at every tech company, but it was so pervasive at Control Data that most of the engineering staff eventually quit for the greener pastures of California's Silicon Valley.
The experience left a lasting impression on Lazaridis, now 44. "The kiss of death is when you allow marketing to dumb down innovations," he says. Simplifying a product hardly encourages customers to purchase newer models, he adds. Under his guidance, Research In Motion (RIM) has nurtured engineers. The result? The BlackBerry, whose subscriber base doubled from one million to two million in the past year.
To be sure, Lazaridis still faces thorny strategic issues. When Palm and others began sizing up the wireless messaging market, for example, RIM was forced to move quickly to license software to phone manufacturers, including Motorola and Nokia, to protect BlackBerry's turf. Then there is the controversial patent-infringement lawsuit brought by a small U.S. company that could cost RIM tens of millions of dollars in royalty fees. In a legal maneuver that is innovative in its own way (although not entirely lovable), RIM is arguing that the patents issued in the U.S. do not apply to RIM because most of its hardware resides in Canada, even though most BlackBerry users are in the U.S.
Undaunted, Lazaridis continues to champion technological advancement. Recently he ponied up $100 million (in Canadian dollars) in his own RIM stock to start a research institute in Ontario. Maybe that will coax some of those grumpy ex-Control Data engineers to return home.