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Jessica Twentyman meets…a man bringing wine to the cloud

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman February 5, 2014

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Nothing focuses the mind quite as clearly as a tight deadline and a shoestring budget.

When online wine retailer Naked Wines got started back in 2008, chief technology officer Derek Hardy was given just six weeks and a team of three, including himself, to create from scratch an entire technology platform on which to run the business.

Fast forward five years, and Naked Wines is now a £60m (almost $100m) per-year business - but it still runs on much of the same software coded during those frantic pre-launch weeks of late nights and pizza deliveries.

There have been enhancements and modifications along the way, of course, “but what we had on Day One is pretty much what we have today,” says Hardy.

That includes the company’s customer-facing website, NakedWines.com, backed up by a catalogue of available wines, plus the functions needed for customers to create an account and place orders, and for the company to handle credit card payments and process orders.

This entirely bespoke CRM infrastructure underpins a business model that is simple, but unique: Naked Wines’ customers (or “angels”) invest £20 (or $40 for US customers) per month towards future wine orders.

The roughly £3 million in monthly proceeds are then used to ‘crowdfund’ independent winemakers, who otherwise might not have the capital they need to branch out on their own.

Angels are able to draw on their individual savings on Naked Wines to buy bottles from these winemakers at close to wholesale prices.

This model makes it possible for them to purchase a Shiraz from Carmen Stevens, the first black woman in South Africa to graduate in winemaking, or a Prosecco from Paolo Sacchetto, a former economist in Italy, who’s now running the family business that his grandfather founded.

In fact, the biggest technology change for Naked Wines over the past 5 years, according to Hardy, has been the migration of its CRM platform to the cloud and, more specifically, Amazon Web Services (AWS).

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As Naked Wines grew, he became less and less inclined to invest in hardware, or the third-party data centre space needed to house it.

In early 2010, the platform was shifted to AWS’s data centre in Ireland, and when Hardy and Naked Wines’ CEO Rowan Gormley relocated to Napa, California in 2011 to set up shop there, a duplicate platform was quickly set up on AWS’s West Coast servers. Since then, a third instance has been added, on AWS servers in Singapore, to serve Naked Wines’ newest business in Australia.

Here's to the cloud!

Naked Wines’ use of cloud technologies has only increased over time. In 2011, shortly after his relocation to California and following a chance conversation in a San Francisco bar, Hardy moved the company’s worldwide telecoms infrastructure to cloud-based provider RingCentral.

This connects Naked Wines’ multiple international locations, and is integrated with its Amazon-based CRM platform, with the result that overflow calls from the US are handled in the UK, “so that our customers always speak to person instead of a machine,” says Hardy.

They may be calling with a query about their order, in which case they’ll speak to a Naked Wines customer advisor, or they may need expert guidance on which Cabernet to drink with a particular meal, in which case they’ll speak to one of the company’s wine advisors, who will offer more specialist advice and then take the customer’s order.

At a time when many technology leaders complain about the burdensome day-to-day IT management tasks associated with ‘just keeping the lights on’, Naked Wines’ use of cloud technologies means that Hardy has a lot more freedom than most to explore new strategic initiatives.

Naked Wines iPhone App
The company has launched mobile apps for iOS and Android, but also embarked in 2013 on a thorough overhaul of its website along responsive web design lines, which means that the site looks the same - and offers the same functions - across a wide range of desktop and mobile devices.

“What we’ve found with responsive web design is that you actually learn a lot from mobile that you can take back to the desktop,” says Hardy. “Mobile forces a simplicity on you in terms of screen size and ease of navigation that can offer really valuable insights into the desktop experience.”

NakedWines.com is also an extremely social venue for wine aficionados, regardless of what device they view it on, with online forums and reviews that enable angels to communicate with each other, and with winegrowers, about the wines they enjoyed and those that fell flat.

Along the way, Hardy’s IT team watches everything they do and say. “I’m a big believer in the idea that IT should sit absolutely at the heart of the business and should know what’s happening in the business on an hour-by-hour, day-to-day business,” he says.

“If it wasn’t for the cloud, me and my team would be very thinly stretched,” he says - and after those feverish early weeks of development work at Naked Wines, the taste of freedom must now slip down extremely easily.

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