How to survive in times of radical innovation with Peter Hinssen
Do you feel that the world around you is changing faster than ever before?
“Our ambition is to create a culture where innovation can thrive. We want our co-workers to use exciting technology to produce original solutions.”
Peter Rosenfors, Chief Technology Officer at Swedish digital marketplace CDON, is talking about how his company uses technology to inspire change among its employees.
CDON started out as a small online retailer of CDs, DVDs and games, and has grown to become the Nordics’ largest online marketplace.
“We currently have 1,500 merchants selling their products on our website, and our goal is to attract many more,” he continues. “At the same time, we strive to enrich the selection of products available on our website and meet our end-customers’ needs.”
But growth and ambition bring challenges. And CDON realized that the technology behind its platform was holding it back. “At the time, we were using a platform that we couldn’t scale on demand, while also working with multiple third-party companies that owned our data,” he adds. “These were slowing down our innovation plans, so we realized we had to change.”
The result was a brand-new, self-developed and scalable platform, powered by Microsoft Azure.
With the ecommerce sector expected to grow significantly in the Nordics, CDON is hoping the new platform will assist its expansion and support its mission to attract innovative, technology-driven talent.
Based in the Swedish city of Malmö, CDON was founded in 1999 at a time where the concept of online retail and ecommerce was just starting to take shape.
“We started out by selling CDs, DVDs, video games and books, but over time expanded our range of products to all kinds of electronics,” explains Martin Hultman, Head of Development and a CDON tribe Leader.
As time went by, the company decided to expand beyond just product selection. In 2013 it started looking into turning its ecommerce platform into a marketplace where different vendors could have their own space to sell.
“Back then, we were relying on different third-party solutions to help us in key areas, such as search,” he continues. “They were useful, but at the same time they owned all the data from the website, so we had no insights into our customers at all.”
This soon became a burden that CDON engineers could no longer stand. “When you want to innovate, you don’t want to be dependent on those third parties,” he continues. “So we decided to take ownership of our technologies and tasked our engineers to build a brand-new platform.”
That decision marked a key moment in CDON’s road to success, as well as the start of its collaboration with Microsoft.
Microsoft played a crucial role in supporting the creation of CDON’s new platform.
“In 2019, we started planning changes to the architecture of our software systems that would allow us to exchange large amounts of data much more efficiently,” says Björn Bentmar, Developer and Chapter Leader at CDON.
“We especially wanted the ability to scale the platform on demand, with a focus on crucial periods like Black Friday or Christmas.”
With COVID-19 intensifying the shift to online retail, moving to Azure has allowed them to have the fast and scalable platform they needed. It also enabled the creation of a simplified environment where CDON developers had the necessary tools to innovate.
Together with Azure also came a set of supporting solutions such as Azure Cognitive Search, Azure DevOps and other managed services. These were introduced with a view to launching a remodeled version of CDON’s platform in time for November’s Black Friday week.
“One key priority for us has been to build a platform that wasn’t monolithic, but that would rather allow us to share ownership and responsibilities of anything we did,” he continues. “Azure DevOps allowed us to do just that.”
But it is Azure Cognitive Search that has proved to be the most significant innovation. The solution – which Martin Hultman describes as “the heart of our product” – is allowing CDON longed-for data access and management.
“Thanks to Azure Cognitive Search, we now know more about our users and can study their path through the website, the areas that are searched the most, and provide targeted services to our users,” he adds. “That’s something that we really want to work on in the future.”
CDON launched an early version of its new Azure-based platform to 10% of its users in September last year, to test it out ahead of Black Friday. “This is the most important period of the year for any online seller,” says Peter Rosenfors. “We knew that our new platform was going to be much more flexible and agile than its previous one, and that if we could get it live by Black Friday we would really benefit.”
But that didn’t go according to plan. “The platform crashed immediately,” recalls Hultman, the stress of that moment still vivid in his memory. “That’s when Microsoft and the FastTrack for Azure team really stepped up and helped us get a better understanding of how to use Azure Cognitive Search.”
Dedicated Microsoft and FastTrack for Azure engineers were brought in to help remodel the platform, look after system improvements, manage services and train engineers when needed. In the space of a few weeks, the combined forces of the Microsoft teams and CDON managed to launch the new scalable platform in time for Black Friday.
“That was a huge success,” Hultman continues. “We now have a platform that can help us increase our product offering, that we can scale, and use to import more information on our website.”
And their help continues to this day. “They were as essential back then as they are now,” he says. “Having them educate us on how to use different parts of our ecosystem allows us to make the best decisions possible for each product.”
CDON’s platform cruised into the new year with an enhanced and improved version that is constantly updated and modernized. “We still have features to implement and we’ve started catching up on personalization,” says Peter Rosenfors.
As competition continues to increase in the Nordics – Sweden alone has seen ecommerce grow between about 40% and 50% in the past year – the ability to make data-informed decisions and personalize services is paramount for a market leader like CDON.
Supported by Azure Cognitive Search, the company is determined to keep on making data-driven decisions to improve the platform and its users.
Looking ahead, this will continue to be a key target alongside CDON’s goal to increase its vendor base. “We are now the largest online marketplace in the Nordics,” says Rosenfors. “Marketplaces are still not very common in our region, so we have a great opportunity to help Nordic retailers to grow small businesses through ecommerce.”
He knows that this will make the difference to many small vendors who’ve been negatively affected by COVID-19. “In March 2020, we realized that we have a big role to play in helping our local businesses achieve their goals,” he concludes.
“That’s why we want to promote a platform that can increase their exposure to the world, especially if they don’t have the means to do it themselves.”