A Success Made in Cloud: Pepperfry & Indian Furniture e-Commerce in 2023
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A Success Made in Cloud: Pepperfry & Indian Furniture e-Commerce in 2023

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One of the pioneers of online furniture stores in India, Pepperfry came into existence in 2012. The company’s journey to becoming the country’s largest online furniture store over the past decade depicts a story of flexing innovative muscles to the tune of Indian consumers’ meticulous aspirations, democratizing world-class furniture quality, and creating a technology backbone for end-to-end operations. Pepperfry’s cloud-based infrastructure has been a crucial part of the company’s instant hit a decade ago. In an exclusive interview with CEO Insights, the man behind the company’s technology fulcrum, Sanjay Netrabile (Chief Technology Officer, Pepperfry), walks us through Pepperfry’s success in the highly competitive Indian furniture industry, as well as the latest opportunities and challenges in the segment. An industry veteran with close to three decades of technology experience, Sanjay has been instrumental in Pepperfry becoming one of the most technologically sound e-commerce companies in the country. An industry veteran with close to three decades of technology experience, Sanjay has been instrumental in Pepperfry becoming one of the most technologically sound e-commerce companies in the country.  

In conversation with Sanjay Netrabile, Chief Technology Officer, Pepperfry 

Tell us about the challenges you have encountered while developing a cloud-based ecosystem helping Pepperfry route its development bandwidth to areas that form the company’s core.
When we started around 2011, Pepperfry was one of the first e-commerce portals to be born in the cloud. It was a conscious and far-reaching decision to be hosted all on a public cloud environment. Most of the tech folks had never worked in a public cloud environment, and the challenges faced and lessons learned over the years have validated our decision to be cloud-native.

One of the biggest benefits of a cloud-based ecosystem is its elasticity to scale up and down in tandem with the load. Our development bandwidth is routed to areas that form our core because all public cloud systems have created a variety of services. Because we take full advantage of the various queueing systems available in the cloud, we do not need to set up or maintain our own queuing systems.

At Pepperfry, we had decided way earlier that the cost of hosting an on-prem ecosystem—which would mean better visibility on workload elasticity, at the same time, as we are trying to work on various features and ways that can offer better value and deliver more immersive experiences to our users—would be difficult to match vis-`-vis a cloud ecosystem.

It was also clear that to move fast, we needed to focus our development bandwidth on areas that can move the needle, such as developing our own emailing system rather than working on the core logic. Talent, who loves to work in such an environment, which gives exposure to like-minded application system creators, was attracted to the company and still is.

At Pepperfry, we take advantage of cloud providers’ strengths and maneuver them for maximum benefit. We are experienced with several cloud providers and can rapidly implement solutions. Our decisions, taken early on, take the long-term cost vs. benefit and the cost of data movement between clouds into consideration to deliver an equalized solution. The system architecture will always play the role of supporting whatever we need to build in the future. We can be as agile as we want or have our feet on a concrete foundation.

You have been leveraging technology trends, including AR and VR, to constantly reinvent the product propositions, boost the company’s sales, and spruce internal operations. How has this journey of evolution of customer experience been, and what’s the latest update?
In the pre-Pepperfry world, furniture—our core category—usually required customers to choose a product they liked from a catalog and ask a carpenter to make it. More often than not, the final product after several months didn’t always meet expectations due to the carpenter’s own interpretation of the design. With this in mind, we sought to innovate and extend the customer’s natural behavior by introducing an augmented reality (AR) experience, allowing customers to visualize how furniture would look inside their homes. This effectively shifted the catalog experience from 2D to 3D, ultimately removing buyer’s remorse risk. It has since become a huge success among our users in solving such potential cognitive dissonances.

In light of the success of AR, VR seemed like the next logical step. Through our virtual reality (VR) experience, customers can view all types of furniture in different lifestyle settings and walk through a customized experience. In addition to giving our customers a chance to see furniture in its natural environment, we also offer thousands of combinations and units, which leaves them spoilt.

For our discerning customers, we’re passionate about pushing the boundaries of technology, which is why we’ll continue to invest in it. Our current VR studio experiences are built in nearly 25 such settings, and we’re watching the Metaverse’s adoption to figure out how to go live.

How would you define your team? As an IT leader, what skills do you look for in fresh candidates?
We are a passionate and innovative team dedicated to making furniture and home goods shopping easier than ever before. As an IT leader, I look for strong problem-solving skills, the ability to work collaboratively in a team environment, creativity, and enthusiasm in fresh candidates. Coding skills come with experience, a hunger for learning, curiosity about the system ecosystem, and an innate ability to be not afraid of asking questions trumps experience in an environment where people work together towards a common goal. Additionally, knowledge of or interest in cutting-edge technologies that create better experiences is valued here too.

Tell us about your leadership approach. What are the guidelines or methodologies you follow as a leader??
At Pepperfry, we strive to create an environment where everyone can succeed through collaboration and innovation. Our leadership approach is founded on the core values of trust, transparency, integrity, and respect for our team members. We encourage open communication and feedback to ensure that all voices are heard.

The ability to listen to your team members & colleagues, collectively & one-on-one, is the single most impactful attitude for a leader. A particular point that I insist upon is to not come just with problems or questions; the person should think thru and have a solution, as her/his opinion helps others kick off on the path towards a conclusive discussion.

We also promote a continuous learning culture so that everyone can stay up-to-date with the latest trends in furniture and home decor. Finally, we emphasize sustainability and responsibility so that we can make a lasting positive impact on our customers’ lives.

The cloud infrastructure services market is expected to reach $ 447.53 billion by 2030. Tell us about the factors catalyzing the growth and how organizations can utilize them to their advantage in the future.
The cloud infrastructure services market is growing due to the increasing need for businesses to scale quickly, access reliable and secure services globally, and stay competitive in a digital-first world. As businesses become increasingly reliant on the cloud, organizations can utilize this growth by leveraging its scalability, cost savings, reliability, and security features. Organizations should also look into utilizing hybrid cloud solutions, such as using private clouds for sensitive data while using public clouds for less critical applications. The right combination of cloud infrastructure services will enable organizations to remain agile and competitive in this fast-paced digital age.

When Pepperfry was launched, there was only one public cloud provider, and we saw potential with them, looking at the various systems and support needed to run your servers. We will have to evaluate our cloud workload at a certain scale and determine whether it would make more sense to move to a hybrid system. We do keep working on the cost-benefit analysis of such a scenario regularly.

Pepperfry has always been dedicated to providing its users with the highest value possible and is prepared for any difficulties that may arise along the way. When we first built our cloud ecosystem, there were only two options for server instances: a long-term reservation or a more flexible one. Nowadays, with spot instances, it is much easier to have elasticity while keeping costs down. Over time, cloud systems have come up with managed containers and serverless platforms, which gave us a better understanding of modern ecosystems so that we can make our processing layer cloud-agnostic in line with our long-term strategy. The whole process is complex but could be advantageous if necessary.

Cloud storage is another prominent feature cloud providers have given their users. We don’t need to buy offline storage anymore. The cost of saving our data in the cloud with a high level of availability, backups, and multi-tier redundancy helps us a lot.

Our development and architecture are based on the cloud and its associated services, as Pepperfry was born in the cloud. We encounter complexity when we look at certain internal systems and try to make them cloud-agnostic. In order to save money in the long run, it is important to keep an eye out for ways to reduce costs by architecting data flow and storage to reduce service costs.

Having a single cloud ecosystem helps ensure security and reduces complexity in one’s environment. However, certain critical systems need to be managed in a multi-cloud environment. The hardest part is balancing security with system complexity and effectively using the services available in a multi-cloud environment. I think it is the responsibility of each organization to weigh the costs of complexity against the costs of developing and maintaining such a solution.

As the CTO, how do you constantly look out for new technologies that could grow into opportunities?
As the CTO, I am always on the lookout to discover and implement new technologies that can revolutionize our customer experience. My team and I stay abreast of the latest trends in technology and explore innovative ways to leverage them to enhance our services. We are currently exploring options such as immersive virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and deep learning to deliver a superior shopping experience to our customers.