BERLIN, Germany — With over 300 million visits per month from more than 28 million customers across 17 markets, e-commerce player Zalando is one of Europe’s most established online retail platforms. Having experienced the benefits of being an early mover into its market and business model 11 years ago, Zalando understands the need to embed innovation into its business model and practices.
Along with the implementation of the “Starting Point for Fashion” strategy earlier this year, the company launched a set of 14 “founding mindset” values as guiding principles for employee culture, focusing on customers, speed, entrepreneurship and empowerment, to help unite disparate teams and their targets around shared goals. They also moved into a brand new “campus” building in Berlin, designed to enable radically flexible working styles, and varying teams’ diverse approaches.
Zalando continues to focus on nurturing and sustaining as entrepreneurial an internal culture as possible at its size — and actively recruits and promotes individuals who are capable of thinking flexibly and finding opportunity in continuous changes to both market and consumer behaviour. To ensure transformative ideas can be adopted rapidly and effectively, individuals across the business are encouraged to own their strategies and lead their teams in the directions they see fit, in the context of the company’s vision.
To hear more about the opportunities that stem from recognising and rewarding bold thinkers, BoF sits down with three individuals that typify the pioneering mindset driving Zalando’s company culture.
Sara Diez, Vice President of Womenswear
Diez joined Zalando last year, following six years at Nike in its European headquarters, holding several roles in the Nike Direct business (nike.com and stores). Prior to that, she spent 12 years working at Inditex HQ on its key brand, Zara.
BoF: How would you describe the employee culture at Zalando?
SD: Our company culture is built on the four pillars that made Zalando successful to begin with: customer focus, speed, entrepreneurship and empowerment. Zalando is a very young company with just 11 years of history, which makes it very entrepreneurial; employees are really empowered to think outside the box in order to create maximum impact.
Everyone at Zalando is expected to feel ownership of their projects, which is why we also emphasise celebrating successes together. This helps establish an ego-less culture, where teamwork is at the top of everyone’s mind. It also helps that we are based in Berlin and have access to a really international, open-minded pool of talent.
BoF: What are the opportunities for team and individual growth that Zalando offers?
SD: We take development and personal growth really seriously at Zalando, and invest a lot to support our employees here. A lot of them focus on building a strong feedback culture and honing leadership skills, which is really important to us. One of the ways in which we do that is through our mentoring programme, which in the pilot stage focused on women and now has been opened to all employees due to its success. I am a mentor myself and find it really rewarding.
We take development and personal growth really seriously at Zalando
We also have more hard skill-based opportunities. For example, we recently implemented a master’s degree with the university of WHU, [Otto Beisheim School of Management, with campuses in Vallendar and Düsseldorf] where we fund employees with potential to take an MA. And that’s what Zalando is all about — empowering people to develop in areas they believe they can create the maximum impact.
BoF: What excites you personally about your role in Zalando’s future?
SD: Sustainability isn’t new at Zalando — in fact it’s something the company started working on back in 2012 — but we felt that we had a responsibility as leaders in the fashion industry to truly take a more active role. So as part of that, we created a steering group across different teams in the company where we proactively participated in encouraging our brands to take this journey with us. We work together with the brands on growing the assortment and making more information available to our customers so that they can make informed choices.
We’ve also established very specific targets around sustainability — our goal is to increase our sustainable product assortment tenfold by 2023. We’ve also actively onboarded sustainable brands and committed to giving those products a higher visibility. That's why I am personally very excited about Zalando's upcoming sustainable fashion campaign in October to show our commitment and make it into a leading story.
Additionally, Zalando has unique capabilities when it comes to consumer insights, which we utilise on a daily basis to make better decisions and to educate brands on improving their sustainability efforts. For this, we work alongside key industry players. For example, together with ASOS we are defining the criteria that all platforms use when flagging products as sustainable. This is a project I’m heavily involved with, as I believe it will have a long-lasting and deep impact, not only for Zalando, but for fashion retail as a whole.
Pamela Wade-Lehman, Head of Beauty
After a year leading the gift card business at Zalando, Wade-Lehman made the lateral move to Beauty and has been building up the company’s offering in this area for the past ten months. Prior to that she was based in South Africa, working as a consultant for McKinsey & Company, and subsequently in Strategy and M&A for a local fashion retailer.
BoF: How would you describe the employee culture at Zalando?
PWL: We’re quite an international group of people here at Zalando, and this really encourages diversity in the way that we think, which is such a great asset for the company. We are encouraged to speak up, but we still respect each other’s opinions.
Employees are given a lot of ownership and responsibility, and I think we’re really empowered in that sense. This creates a real self-starter mentality in the company; and if something doesn’t go to plan, you’ve always got your boss and a team of people to support you.
Zalando has a very good reputation in Germany — they’re one of Berlin’s great success stories — and I had friends that had told me it was a really great place to work. When I think back, one of the reasons I joined was because I liked the people who interviewed me, and I remember thinking ‘I can really imagine these people as my future colleagues’. They gave a great first impression, so I was very excited to get the offer and join Zalando.
BoF: What are the opportunities for development at Zalando?
PWL: For me, development comes from the variety of experiences you are given at the company, and also the level of responsibility. In the beauty team, for example, the buyers work on projects in addition to their “day job,” so on top of onboarding new brands, they might also work on expansion planning for new countries. The merchandise planners are not only doing forecasting and stock management, they’re thinking about how we can become more sustainable as a category. I think that’s really quite unique about Zalando. It still feels a little bit like a start-up because of these opportunities, even though we’re now quite a big company.
It’s a part of our culture at Zalando to be constantly changing and evolving.
BoF: What excites you about your future at Zalando?
PWL: It’s a part of our culture at Zalando to be constantly changing and evolving. As a company, we set ourselves very ambitious growth targets each year. For the future, that means really staying close to the market trends and changes in customer behaviour, so that we’re not just observing trends and reacting to them, but really trying to predict, pre-empt and adapt the way that we work with them.
Personally, I’ve also had to adapt to this very fast-paced environment and become much more entrepreneurial in the way that I run the business, and it’s been a good experience so far. I know that my role could look completely different one year from now, and that’s what I find really energising.
Jonny Ng, Director of Marketing Strategy and Campaigns
After a three-year stint at Burberry and numerous years of experience working at creative agencies in London, such as Grey, Sunshine and Mother, Ng moved to Berlin 18 months ago to join Zalando.
BoF: How would you describe the employee culture of Zalando?
JN: Zalando has a culture that always likes to challenge and make things better, but it’s also supportive; it recognises that people are human. We’re also quite laid-back, it’s definitely got a Berlin vibe to it. It’s very diverse, with over 130 different nationalities working here, but luckily we work in English. My team of 64 people is about 60 to 70 percent German, but there are at least 15 other nationalities from across the world.
BoF: What motivated you to move to Zalando?
JN: I knew a bit about Zalando before; I come from the UK and, while we are present there, we’re maybe not as well-known, but in Europe we’re a huge phenomenon, there’s been parodies and memes and rap songs created about the company!
What motivated me was Zalando’s strong vision. It’s an ambitious goal to be a platform that will serve millions of customers all across Europe, and we’ve already invested in technology, logistics and fashion buying to do that. Now the question is ‘how do we create an amazing brand that takes this to millions of consumers, and what does the next chapter look like?’
BoF: What are the opportunities for team and individual development that Zalando’s culture creates?
JN: There’s a big emphasis on personal development. It’s quite rigorous — you get a lot of 360 feedback from your line manager and colleagues, and then you build an individual development plan. For me, even at a senior level, my development plan provides me with a business coach as well as an internal mentor. We also have lots of opportunities to do external training courses on leadership and entrepreneurial thinking.
Zalando has a culture that always likes to challenge and make things better
For my team specifically, we’ve identified and prioritised what the wider team needs and organised training for that. Over the next few months we’re doing storytelling and presentation writing sessions as a workshop, in three different sessions so we can keep it small and intimate. Also, different team leads have developed “learning lunches,” on topics such as brief-writing, target-setting and project management — core marketing skills that everyone needs to know and might want a refresher on.
BoF: What initiatives exemplify the employee culture in action?
JN: The company’s vision and strategy has recently been updated, so it’s my job to think about how the brand and marketing evolves alongside that. In a lot of ways, we’re creating something that doesn’t exist yet. The question is: "How do we tell this story in a compelling way for the consumer?"
We’ve just launched a new brand positioning campaign to communicate this, with the tagline “free to be,” which is the beginning of engaging our customers on a more emotional level. The big belief behind “free to be” is when we’re free to wear what we want, and to be who we want, nothing should hold us back. I think this really captures the spirit of who we are as a company, but also of what consumers want from us.
Fashion should be something that empowers us, and helps us express our personality. It’s been a huge 18-month project to identify the new brand positioning, and then to test it and turn it into a campaign, not just a strategy. It’s been about partnering with every other stakeholder in Zalando that touches brand across the company, and acknowledging that really our brand is owned by everyone. It’s been really fun to collaborate with everybody, working out how to bring the company together, sharing information and motivating other people so that the consumer experiences this powerful, engaging refresh of the brand.
This is a sponsored feature paid for by Zalando as part of a BoF Careers partnership. To explore careers at Zalando, please click here.