Case Studies

Deal’s on

Greg Hucker, chief technology and operations officer at Cobone.com

Pallavi Sharma speaks to the technology chief at Cobone.com to figure out what makes the group buying site tick.

If you live in the Middle East and are constantly on the lookout for a good
bargain, chances are, you’ve heard of Cobone.com, a group buying venture from Jabbar Internet Group, the set of regional internet companies that emerged after Yahoo! acquired Maktoob in 2009.

Based in Dubai, Cobone combines the power of the Internet and group purchasing to give online shoppers in the Middle East access to some of the best hospitality,
beauty, fitness and other service deals with savings that start at 50%.

Cobone is marked by its funky fresh spirit and its innovative use of the Internet
medium to interact and build relationships with an audience of retailers, suppliers and customers, much larger than most organisations can imagine.

It is no surprise then that IT is considered of strategic importance and task of making the right investments to sustain growth and enable expansion largely falls to the company’s chief technology and operations officer, Greg Hucker and his
technology team.

Hucker says that the IT team at Cobone.com includes six members and is simply called the ‘technology team’ and comprises both the development family (affectionately called the code monkeys) and the operations team.

“The internal IT infrastructure at Cobone is fairly basic. We have a high grade Cat6 backbone that drives an Avaya VoIP telephony and contact centre. Our core systems are hosted externally in a highly secure and redundant data centre environment,” he says.

“At Cobone we always try to develop any application layer with as much scalability and flexibility as possible, so we never have to forklift out code segments or whole projects. We own our own back end deal application, which we developed from scratch, and can quickly deploy changes or create integration API’s. The technology we implement is much like our organisationagile and dynamic,” says Hucker.

Hucker believes that through its IT investments Cobone is not only capable of carving a niche in the market through the dedicated use of social media channels to
interact with prospective clients but is also able to use these investments to enhance
operational efficiency.

“Our IT investments look to leverage trends like mobility, social networking and the cloud to provision maximum visibility across all our operations for all the stakeholders involved in the business and to ultimately add value to each of their
investments,” says Hucker.

Working together
Hucker says that the technology team pays careful attention to the ability of any platform to enable flexibility and scale in keeping with the broader culture at Cobone, but this isn’t always the easiest of tasks.

“Being able to deliver scalability and sustain a competitive edge while maintaining room for creativity is sometimes a little bit of hit and miss. This is why at Cobone we encourage a culture of collaboration and decentralisation, encouraging individual success when stressing on the success of any project. We also ensure that all major projects are headed by an executive sponsor to make sure that buy-in is achieved across all levels. This adds confidence and a level of seriousness to the project,” he says.

The tech team assigns a project manager who is responsible for deliverables, assigning roles and responsibilities and load balancing across specific members or the entire team.

The equal distribution of roles and responsibilities across team members often results in working over-time and therefore, Cobone extends its tech team the option
to work flexible hours and entitles them to incentives and rewards to ensure they stay committed, engaged and motivated.

At the software layer, the company subscribes to an open source ticketing solution for IT requests -Mantis Bug Tracker (MantisBT). Jobs are logged through this hosted portal and the team is assigned tasks based on a weekly review of the business priorities, according to him.

Hucker believes that choosing the right strategic partner is perhaps the most critical element for project success.

“We select partners that understand our business model and can adapt their own teams to match our requirements. We prefer to utilise local vendors and developers where possible because at times having access to the local support is the most imperative need. International vendors in some cases might have a skillset that cannot be found locally and we’ve managed to include them in our procurement process where necessary,” he says.

In the bag
Being an online business, today, necessitates the need to invest in IT beyond the efficient use of the Internet.

“With the number of online shopping and group purchase options available today strategy and beating the competition are the senior management’s first priority; a goal that they know will not be possible without developing the right platforms to bring the customer closer and providing them with customised deals to suit their needs and wants,” he says.

So how does he convince his senior management to make these investments? Easy. Hucker, a co-founder of the company and executive representative of both the technology and operations teams, is a member of the board and is therefore favourably positioned to pitch the right technology to the business.

With that kind of support, Cobone continues to leverage key trends in the region and implement innovative IT solutions in house that allow them to reach farther and faster to their audience.

For starters Cobone recently launched a mobile technology project that, they believe,
is the first home grown Arabic and English group buying application in the region

“Developed by the internal team in collaboration with Turkish mobile application developer – Mobilike, the mobile technology is the only one of it’s kind in the world that supports Arabic in the daily deal vertical,” says Hucker.

According to him, while the internal team provided the mobile API’s, methods and design specifications, Mobilike provided the technology platform, skills and resources to develop the turnkey project.

“The application has been developed to allow customers to stay connected to Cobone.
com and capitalise on every deal, regardless of location or device. It’s about developing alternative methods of communication with our audience and understanding how they want to interact with us,” he points out.

The application is a fully featured and integrated platform that uses API calls to provide real time data and the ability to purchase directly in the customer’s currency
of choice. The mobile application is available on the iTunes store for iPhone and iPod, and will soon be followed by an app for the iPad, as well as Android and Blackberry devices.

“We have also recently launched the mobile site m.cobone.com for basic devices. Additionally, an HTML5 version with all the bells and whistles is under development. The mobile application project took all of four months and I expect that the first phase encompassing apps for the entire range of iOS devices will be completed before the end 2011,” adds Hucker.

He adds that, “As with any mobile application the technology will evolve as we innovate within our verticals. I see more phases being rolled out this year, one that will cover apps for popular BlackBerry and Android devices in the market in order to
cover the entire span of customers in the region across the multiple platforms that
they use,” he adds.

Bagging the deal
Apart from taking steps to reach out to the customer, one of the core objectives of the
Cobone team is to understand its customers better. It is for this reason that the team has invested in a social CRM or what they call the ‘social consumer trending’ project.

A project developed by the technology team in tandem with a UK social enhancement company called Techlightenment, the project builds on the power of Facebook to help the company gain a better understanding of its customers interests and likes.

The project uses the core of Facebook Connect to grant Cobone.com access to user information as defined within their own security settings and then creates a new enhanced social connect platform, according to Hucker.

“The cool technology really comes in when we integrate these analytical dashboards and widgets with the purchasing and preference data from our own deal application layer. We can then target messages based on feeds, comments and likes (pre and post sale) and even rank users on these metrics including their purchasing activity. We can see who has engaged, converted and interacted with our brand and the value of the transactions across generations of social activity. The platform is a full two way push and pull interface that also centralises the sales contact process, sales pipeline and the reporting dashboard” Hucker explains.

Hucker proudly adds, “The team constructed the APIs to facilitate the necessary calls to the application layers to extract the required data across the social media platforms and we expect that it will be rolled out in early 2012.”

Keeping in tune with the innovative nature of its functioning, Cobone has also
been indulging in the cloud.

“At this point in time, Cobone is about to make an investment in a best of breed
international cloud based CRM product. The project is to be managed and delivered by a local service provider from Dubai. The solution will be utilised to address four main operational functions within the business, namely partnership management, deal management, customer service and sales,” Hucker says.

He adds, “Our discovery and selection phase has taken about two months and the prospective partners have completed customised demonstrations with real Cobone.com data across the four core areas in an attempt to show their differentiation and strengths. It is also envisioned that a full two-way API will be created to facilitate the requirements, with a joint effort between the technology team and the third party vendor to deliver the goals. The total length of the project is forecasted to take another two months dependant on budgetary approval and project mobilisation from both the resource groups.”

According to Hucker, the multi-country layout of the cloud suits the organisation’s
borderless way of operations. “Being a cloud application, our business is not hindered or restricted in anyway based on physical investments in hardware or local
infrastructure and this frees up internal resources for other projects.”

Destined deals
As Cobone continues to grow, Huckers says that the technology team will continue to
look for innovative ways to convert the investment in customer acquisition into tangible business value.

He points out that the organisation will continue to better the investments it has
already made across the mobile, social CRM as well as the cloud arena while looking for platforms that further enhance Cobone’s ability to cater to the demands of a rapidly expanding organisation.

“The mobile space will get smarter and more innovative as we look at ways to engage
our customers across locations via their preferred devices and serve them content that’s relevant and applicable. Enabling the team to better access and understand data to close sales leads and opportunities will also be on the forefront of the project list. We will continue to look at ways of reducing our overheads in hardware and infrastructure by focusing on cloud technologies and softwareas- a-service,” he says.

With everybody expecting 2012 to be a tougher economic year than those past, Cobone can look forward to a whole new segment of shoppers on the hunt for a good bargain. And with an IT team like the one it has, its customers can be assured they are more likely to find them the first time around.

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