Zalando: Helsinki, a hub of activity – Mark Lamik

Following on from the successful opening of its first technology hub outside of Germany earlier this year and the recent launch of the second in Helsinki, Zalando's head of tech expansion, Mark Lamik, talks to Finance Director Europe about the company's continued plans to expand its technology operations internationally.

Could you please tell us a little about Zalando, and your role within the organisation?
Marc Lamik:
Zalando is one of those companies with an actual and great start-up story. In 2008, the founders of the company, Robert Gentz and David Schneider, started selling flip-flops from an apartment in Mitte, Berlin. Not long after that, in 2010, I began working at Zalando. Today, there are more than 9,000 people working for Zalando, serving 15 markets in Europe. I spent five years in the product management team of Zalando Technology and today I am head of tech expansion.

We went all the way from a shop system provider to all tech systems being built internally; from buying to fulfilment and shop software. Our goal for the future is to build a platform that links fashion and people in the fashion industry in an innovative way, providing new services like our curated shopping offer that brings together freelance stylists and customers. I am responsible for making sure that we have the expertise we need in order to envision the platform strategy. Therefore, we are investing more in technology than we have ever done in the past. Executing our vision demands increased labour in tech.

We are planning to more than double our 800-employee-strong tech team, reaching approximately 2,000 employees by the end of 2016. Next to our big tech team in Berlin, we currently have expert teams in Dortmund, Erfurt and Mönchengladbach, and lately invested in engaging with the talent pools in Dublin and Helsinki by opening up new offices there. Finding theses spots and the right talent for the challenges ahead is a great part of my job, and also an essential part of the foundation for Zalando's future development.

Given the type of business you are, technology innovation clearly plays a key role in ensuring you're able to deliver on your services, would this be correct?
The industry of ecommerce is evolving quickly and at the moment we are investing heavily in our mobile capabilities. With this rapid growth of work force, we decided to introduce 'radical agility' as an all-embracing working method. Radical agility is a value-based approach, and is founded on the principles of purpose, autonomy, mastery and one additional Zalando specific value: trust.

Working in line with these pillars, the tech teams have a lot of freedom and responsibility. They adapt their focus according to the main clearly defined goals, giving purpose to the tasks. We realised that our goals are best achieved when people can work in autonomous teams, allowing them to reach independent solutions. This independence is of course supported by tools, advice and training - without dictating - that, in turn, leads to employees growing their competencies and thus reaching mastery. The first three principles can only function if a mutual trust is established.

We understand you have a few IT centres across Europe, and have recently inaugurated one in Helsinki. What are the key attributes you look for from a city when deciding where to open up a technology centre?
By leveraging only German technology sites, we can't tap directly into the potential of international 'techpertise'. International sites provide us with local qualities that strengthen and complement our existing teams and competencies. Explicitly themed hubs raise internal knowledge and are essential in accelerating our transformation from shop to platform.

The expansion started with opening a data science centre in Dublin this April - our Zalando Fashion Insights Center. After having settled in Dublin, we continued to scout for a site suitable for an additional tech hub. The conditions we were on the lookout for were major sources of capacity within tech, favourable living conditions and a strategic location. Helsinki quickly distinguished itself as a top option among the other cities that were shortlisted and finally came out as our number one alternative.

What made Helsinki such an attractive option over some of the other cities, and countries, nearby?
Helsinki has a great heritage of design, mobile and tech development. Having been pioneers in the mobile scene, there's an enormous amount of talent present in the city. With these characteristics at hand, the Helsinki office will play a key role in our commitment of becoming mobile first.

The tech hub will primarily focus on building customer-facing products. 'Customer-facing' does not only mean that we build apps and work on user interface, but also that we are specialising in building the back end belonging to the products. Having that in mind, we need not only mobile engineers, but also full stack software engineers experts in back end.

Furthermore, Helsinki has a high quality of life and top-class universities, making it an attractive place for relocation within the nation as well as from the neighbouring countries. It is also an excellent place for start-ups, with an entrepreneurial climate and go-getter spirit.

How important is it to have organisations like Helsinki Business Hub to guide you before, during, and after the opening of a development centre in any city? What would you say were the main obstacles you came across during the whole process, and how was Helsinki Business Hub able to help resolve these?
We received tremendous support from local authorities and organisations like Helsinki Business Hub and Finpro. They helped us recruit staff and find a spot-on location, as well as putting us in contact with the relevant people. In other words, assisting us in becoming a part of the community and opening the door to Helsinki's start-up and technology scene. Already, in the first few weeks, we have seen great development, and we are very grateful for the warm welcome and support we have received.

Introductions and on-the-ground relationships are vital for filling key positions when starting operations in a new city. We received insights to an extensive network of contacts and were thus soon able to hire experienced seniors important for the progression of the tech hub. We now have approximately 20 people working full time and at the end of our first year of operations we aim at being 50. In the upcoming years, our goal is to hire approximately 200 employees.

What are Zalando's key objectives moving forward, and how will the investment made in Helsinki, as well as your other centres, help you achieve these?
Fashion ecommerce in Europe still has huge potential and room to grow across all markets and categories. In order to do so, we broadened our vision. Moving forward, Zalando is stepping down from being a pure online retailer and is transforming into becoming a fashion platform. We want to connect consumers, brands and retailers - all parties involved in the fashion industry. Us being experts in online retailing, we can help find solutions to deals with the changes ecommerce brings to all those stakeholders. We believe that one key role in this development will be with mobile apps. The ecommerce fashion industry is clearly and quickly moving towards mobile and apps, thus we are putting mobile first.

All new technologies and features will be created from a mobile perspective first. Therefore, we invest heavily in producing and testing new mobile products, and the tech hub in Helsinki is spearheading our work on customer-facing apps. The first product created in Helsinki will be a new fashion app helping customers to discover a huge fashion and lifestyle assortment, enabling a direct connection between brand, retailers and consumers.

Zalando’s head of tech expansion, Mark Lamik.
Zalando is expanding its operations.