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Working at Zalando, Europe's Fastest Growing Fashion E-Commerce Player

Diverse, entrepreneurial, technologically innovative while generous towards its human workforce — according to its employees, Zalando’s company culture has become its greatest asset — and a key competitive differentiator in the market.
Photo: Svenja Krueger for Zalando
By
  • BoF Team
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BERLIN, Germany — Since it was founded in 2008, Zalando has become Europe's leading online fashion platform, operating in 17 European markets and generating over €4.5 billion ($5.2 billion) in annual revenue.

With a broad assortment of over 300,000 products from almost 2000 international brands, the e-commerce giant stocks popular global brands as well as fast fashion and market-specific labels. This is complemented by the 16 in-house international fashion brands of the Zalando subsidiary zLabels, which develops apparel, shoe and accessory collections with a close focus on prevailing lifestyle and current trends.

In the last decade, the platform has grown to service more than 24 million active customers across its 17 geographies. Over this period of fast growth, Zalando has recruited talent from all over the globe — its workforce now encompasses over 100 nationalities, informing an employee culture defined by the diversity of its workforce.

With extremely strong cultural alignment, Zalando’s team excels in its flexibility, and the company develops career trajectories which enable its employees to progress “to fit the gaps” of its growing business, rather than follow linear paths. Indeed, the company’s flexible approach to promotions offers employees better opportunities for personal growth and development, creating a huge landscape for its workforce to prove their potential and exceed their ambitions.

To find out more about the company culture at Zalando, BoF sat down with three employees to hear their insights on Europe’s leading online fashion platform.

Franziska Bruder — Head of Merchandising — Joined in 2013
"It's super ambitious, it's super-fast paced and it's very diverse."

Franziska Bruder | Photo: Svenja Krueger for Zalando

What motivated you to join Zalando?

This hybrid nature of technology and fashion at Zalando is magic to me. There are some individuals with over twenty years’ experience in fashion on one side of the table, and on the other side are the guys from tech, also with twenty years of experience. This is a really cool combination. They are the two aspects of the business that we constantly have in mind as we work towards optimisation and personalisation, which is the magic behind our company’s success going forward.

I joined the company in 2013 and since then, it has been a crazy journey. When I started, I was in a merchandiser position, focusing on in season stock management and handling reorders from the supplier, with a team of just 14 people. Over time, my role has evolved into a head of merchandise planning role for the women’s category, with tonnes of changes in responsibilities.

How has your career developed at the company?

Zalando has constantly challenged me to grow. We are living a very open feedback culture, so I have always been made aware of what I am good at and what I have to improve. I have also always been asked to be open about what is challenging me, so I have had a constant open conversation with my boss. If you are ambitious and you want to develop, you want to move out of your comfort zone and the status quo, then there’s always room to develop.

Over my time at Zalando, I have been responsible for the marketing calendar for the women’s category, I also got a new team of so-called country merchandisers. Then, we implemented a completely new merchandise planning function within the company, so I took over that role and suddenly, I had a team of 110 people. As a last step, I decided to move sideways and took over the merchandise planning head role for the specialty categories, so now I work on the kids, premium and beauty sections, the latter being a new concept we only recently launched.

How would you describe the employee culture of Zalando?

It’s super ambitious, it’s super-fast paced and it’s also very diverse as we are such a huge group of people from all over the world. As a company, Zalando has a very entrepreneurial culture. If you are an entrepreneur, and you are a good one, you can excel here. It’s really taking ownership from end to end and if you want to make decisions and feel responsible for that, then it’s the perfect company to work for.

I have three kids at home and I take care of a team of 70 people. Zalando is a very good partner for me on that side.

We have the big advantage that Zalando’s operating is very centralised. We all sit in one city, in several huge buildings in Berlin, which makes our communication much quicker. It’s a lot about picking up the phone and sending emails. But the overarching way we work is very collaboratively and in the centre of every conversation decision is always the success of the company and not the ego, which I find very inspiring to work with as well.

We also have a very good community at Zalando — we have big parties and nice Christmas and summer events. Every team has the freedom to do some smaller team events too, like going for dinner for example. We also offer tonnes of trainings for our employees that you can participate in either internally or with external trainers and coaching sessions.

How does Zalando support you in your personal life?

I have three kids at home and I take care of a team of 70 people, so it is very important for me to be able to work flexible hours or work from home. We even have smaller rooms in our buildings where our kids can stay, in case they are sick, for example. Zalando is a very good partner for me on that side, to support me with my family. It is a great job.

What makes you enjoy your job?

What I personally love is this right-brain, left-brain divide. On the one hand, I will digest tonnes of data and numbers, but then also do the creative parts, drawing conclusions and making buying and marketing strategies to further grow the business. And of course, working for this huge company that is so successful. There are constant changes, constant developments, and it is super exciting.

Kwame Manu-Bio — Senior Buyer Men's Footwear Sneakers — Joined in 2012
"I'm supported, but we are autonomous when it comes to decision-making."

Kwame Manu-Bio | Photo: Svenja Krueger for Zalando

What motivated you to join Zalando?

I joined Zalando six years ago. I knew a lot about e-commerce as I started working in the area in 2008, so I had always followed Zalando and its development. I also happen to have lots of friends who used to work for the company, who would always try and convince me to join Zalando, so when I saw there was an open position in planning in London, I saw an opportunity and thought, “Ok, now it's a great time to join.”

How has your career developed at the company?

I was based in London for a year until we structured the buying department and centralised our buying teams, so I came back to Berlin and joined the buying team here. I was a planner for two more years and then switched to become a buyer. I was really into product, and my manager and I had a feeling that I could also do a great job as a buyer, so I basically said “yes” immediately. I had the opportunity to develop the creative strategy for a business unit, which was something I was really looking forward to.

How would you describe the employee culture of Zalando?

There are a lot of teams and you can see a true team spirit and very collaborative colleagues within all of them. We have a lot of responsibility for the budgets and I am supported in my everyday decisions, but we are quite autonomous when it comes to decision-making. We don’t have anyone looking at every buy we place or what we pick out of an assortment. We try to collaborate closely on a planning and buying level, and to make the right decisions because, in the end, the decision is with us.

There is always a challenge or a new opportunity that we have to take, so work is always interesting.

Mindfulness, quick-thinking and proactive attitudes are some of the key skills you see at Zalando, and something we always love to see at the workplace is an entrepreneurial mindset and innovative core skills. There’s quite a number!

How do teams collaborate?

It’s a diverse company, so it starts first with languages. If I think of my team, there are people who speak Italian, English and Deutsch. With so much diversity, you also learn something new every day and I think that’s the most fun part of collaborating — they come with different characteristics, strengths and development areas.

There are also certain processes for which you have regular touch points with other departments, but then there are situations where you have to reach out to other departments. For example, the Bread&&Butter festival recently took place and I had an idea to raise awareness for sneakers on Zalando, so I got in contact with someone on the Bread&&Butter team to see if we could bring this idea to life.

What makes you enjoy your job?

When I go to work, I know it is not going to be a boring day. There is always a challenge or a new opportunity for us to take, so work is always interesting. What also excites me is to see my team develop and grow every day. But then also to collaborate with different stakeholders, with different departments.

When we see a new collection that is coming up, we review with the whole team to get everyone’s opinion on it, to hear what each assistant thinks, where the big beliefs are, or what we dislike. Sometimes we view the collection at the showroom of the brand, sometimes the brands come to us with samples, sometimes we even just have kick-offs where we see images or light sheets of that collection. Those are really fun days.

Haiwei Luo — Product Manager zLabels — Joined in 2012
"Employees here are always questioning the status quo."

Haiwei Luo | Photo: Svenja Krueger for Zalando

What motivated you to join Zalando?

I started almost six years ago now, so it is more about what motivated me to stay at Zalando that is most important to me. I experienced great team leads who were very supportive of my position. They were role models that I looked up to and were everything I aspired to be. They were also very approachable and open to communication. I try to behave like my leaders showed me, to be a role model, to be rational and objective, and learn sometimes how to take a step back.

You can approach anybody and talk to them — it’s a very cooperative atmosphere here. You can even ask anyone if they would like to be your mentor and they usually gladly accept. They help you, give you a lot of great advice and take the time to sit down with you, go through your problems or help you see things from a different angle. Even though the company’s quite big, it still feels like a start-up and you believe that it is going to evolve and change. This is what really made me stick with this culture, this atmosphere — what made me really want to develop further in this company.

How has your career developed at the company?

I started in merchandising and now I’m in product management at zLabels, which has given me the chance to live out my creativity. When I was a merchandiser for women’s footwear, my counterpart was very open to any advice I had, and it wasn’t necessary for her to do that. But because she felt that I also had a great passion for fashion, she let me participate, which led me to this position now and enabled me to move into product management quite smoothly.

Zalando also supports their employees to develop professionally and personally. They offer a lot of trainings, like emotional intelligence and time management, and when you move higher in your career, you have training on how to be a great leader, which is called ‘How to be a Z leader’. This helps you understand yourself, your personality, and create a leadership style that suits you, but it also helps us understand how we define leadership at Zalando and what style of leadership we should expect from leads.

How would you describe the employee culture of Zalando?

Diverse. We have a lot of people from different backgrounds and different experiences from other companies, which is interesting for me because my first job was more or less at Zalando. We have people from Spain, from Italy, all these different backgrounds, languages, cultures and experiences.

What most people have in common here is a passion for what they are doing. They really put themselves behind their work.

Employees here are also always questioning the status quo. Things can change quite fast — processes are being improved, new tools are being introduced — so if you’re not comfortable with changing your ways of working, this can be difficult. We are a young company and it’s organic for team members to adapt. We have dipped into machine learning and AI, which people know about already. So when pitching an idea of having machine learning and algorithms to help us forecast or plan, for example, there’s already a basic understanding of what this can do.

How do teams collaborate at Zalando?

If you have any suggestions or ideas, everybody is open to listen to it. It’s just a very open culture where I can just play off different ideas and talk to anybody that I think would be interested in it. It helps that a lot of necessary stakeholders sit in the same building, and that’s only possible with a huge building like this. Stopping by and talking in person creates a deeper emotional connection, which helps a lot more than sending an email or picking up the phone.

We are also working towards a "no waste" policy, which is highly relevant for buying and product management because we have a lot of samples during the creation process. I knew somebody that was starting a 3D design and visualisation company, which is quite present in the apparel market already, but for shoes, it’s in the very early development stage. I approached the guy and connected him with two people from zLabels and now we are working on a 3D design for shoes and how to reduce the number of samples.

What makes you enjoy your job?

The people. I really like the team that’s around me. Since starting at Zalando, the team has always been very nice and very diverse. What most people that are successful here have in common is a passion for what they are doing. They really put themselves behind their work and they are intrinsically motivated, which shows and spreads around them. They are also very reflective and think about what they are saying and what they are doing.

I also really like the product — I love sneakers and creating men’s footwear. I finally get to live the creative side and that is what’s really exciting to me. Getting up in the morning and knowing some samples will arrive or some new designs will be there, and in the future maybe through some 3D visualisations — this is what’s so exciting to me.

These interviews have been edited and condensed. To create the Zalando x BoF Company Culture Partnership, BoF sat down with members of the Zalando team to hear their accounts independent from managerial input.

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