As we recently closed out another extraordinary and crazy year of tech at THE ICONIC, Australia and New Zealand’s leading fashion and sportswear retailer, I wanted to share our reflections on what we believe is important and is not important to our success. To butcher the quote attributed to Peter Druker, “culture eats the latest innovations in tech for breakfast.” In other words, it is not our adoption of some of the acronym soup of latest tech trends (IOT, AI, ML, Block Chain etc.) that drives our success. Sure, our move into augmented reality, and continuing push deep into data science are indeed important, but the way we work together as a team and the way we operate is far more important.

But first of all, what did we achieve in the last 12 months? For context, THE ICONIC is an eight year old business. With about 1,000 people across our headquarters (located in Sydney’s CBD) and Fulfilment Centre (located 20 km from Sydney’s CBD), it feels like we are in a sort of online retail adolescence; we’re well on our way from start-up to scale-up, and we’re becoming a little more adult with each season. Our tech team has created major features and systems at a rate of more than one every two weeks – the pace means that this place is not for the faint of heart.

Our customer experience got a major boost this year. Each user browsing our mobile app now gets a personalised feed: not only do we show customers the basics like tracking their order delivery and returns, we also highlight the latest products from the brands they follow and complementary products to create a look based on previous purchases. We allow them to “swipe to like” (a bit like Tinder for fashion) and we use that swipe feedback to further personalise their end-to-end experience. We also tell them when items in their wishlist are on sale, or back in stock, and we suggest other brands that we think they might be interested in following.

We also introduced visual search ‘Snap to Shop’ feature – our customers use their phones to take a photo and we’ll show them matching items in our catalogue. We’ll suggest visually similar (or the same) items on demand, and suggest other products to wear with that item. We allowed customers to curate and share Wishlist Boards and our latest feature ‘Visualise’ uses augmented reality to allow customers to try on sneakers without getting off their couch. We did all of this on our own tech stack not confined by the capabilities of digital shop-front vendors.

Behind the scenes, and away from the gaze of our customers, we are using technology to turn the rest of the business upside down (in a good way). We wrote algorithms to drive the outbound flow of our Fulfilment Centre and we built new mobile apps to drive our fulfilment processes. We upgraded our ERP for the first time ever (and vowed never to leave it so long again!) We built a complete end-to-end retail buying system. We provided the infrastructure for our Sustainability team to have better visibility into our supply chain and the nature of the products we create and sell. We designed and built the core of a production management system to run the workflows in our photography and video studios and finally we introduced and integrated a number of grown-up people and culture systems such as staff onboarding, training, payroll, time, and attendance.

So how do we do this and what are the practices that guide our day to day?

Firstly, things we don’t do. We don’t have a Project Management Office, or an investment committee where grandees pass judgement on proposals. We don’t view IT as a necessary expense, but as a positive and critical driver for success in everything we do. No tech project has a budget in the conventional sense. Nobody has the job title of “Business Analyst” because it sort of implies that tech is not “The Business” or somehow separate from it. We again spent the entire year without a quality assurance team because we just made quality everyone’s responsibility.

Now for the things we do. We align on what we are doing using quarterly OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). We get 50+ people in a room to workshop them at a company level as opposed to handing them down from the Executive Team. In parallel, each cross-functional tech squad defines their own OKRs bottom-up. We also announced our Big Rocks at the start of the year—the 11 ambitious initiatives that we aspired to nail. We forced decisions down to the people with the most knowledge, and politely reminded the execs to get out of the way. We allowed most of our cross-functional tech squads to self-select giving individual members of the Tech team the chance to nominate which squads and projects they wanted to work on each quarter. We talked about what it means to work in a psychologically safe environment where it is OK to make mistakes and learn from them, where we give equal voice to our quiet colleagues, and where we encourage each other to fail fast and recover quickly. We allow our teams to work remotely under flexible conditions and we provide them with the tools to do that.

None of these things are retail or tech specific and you cannot buy them—but these are the practices we have we found and adopted because they feel right for our culture and these are the things, more than any tech acronym that really underpinned another great year. In 2020 we will push ourselves to discover some more.