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Interview: Lebara CTO sets out plans to go all-in on AWS cloud

Lebara was a Europe-centric, single-product telco until the cloud paved the way for it to grow its service portfolio and expand overseas

Running a single-product company can make achieving long-term growth a challenge, because such firms are more reliant than most on return custom to keep them going.

There also tend to be few, if any, cross-selling opportunities and the arrival of a nimbler, more innovative challenger could make the success they have chalked up to date relatively short-lived.

Until recently, telecommunications firm Lebara was operating under just such conditions, having cultivated a sizeable customer base for its international SIM cards since setting up shop 14 years ago.

The cards allow users to make low-cost calls overseas, but the emergence of over-the-top messaging and calling services from WhatsApp and Skype raised new competitive threats for the firm.

In response, Lebara launched a multi-pronged fightback a year ago that saw it go to market with an expanded product portfolio, as part of a wider push to establish itself as the telecoms provider of choice for the migrant community.

To prepare for this, the company ran a series of in-house workshops in 2014 to establish new product areas that its customers would benefit from having access to, Lebara CTO Richard Bastin tells Computer Weekly.

Having waded through an “incredible amount” of new product ideas, the firm decided to expand its portfolio in four areas: communication, entertainment, financial services and travel.

This has paved the way for the release of two new products in the first two categories, including a smartphone-only voice over IP (VoIP) service called Talk, as well as its TV and film streaming service, Play.

Lebara is also working on a remittance product (pencilled in for launch in the first quarter of 2016) that will allow users of its service to send money back to their loved ones overseas.

In the case of Talk, Bastin says the company had to beware of cannibalising its existing customer base, so it made a point of rolling the product out to countries where it previously lacked a market presence.

“This has given us global reach and access to a much larger audience, and since launch we have added half a million customers to this platform,” says Bastin.

“These are all completely new customers in countries where we’ve never operated before, but the brand is so recognised among the migrant community that we were able to attract them to our service.”

The take-up of Lebara’s streaming service, which gives users online access to a choice of 5,000 films and 250 channels, has been similarly enthusiastic among its target market, and the company estimates that more than a petabyte of content has been consumed through it since launch.

“A year ago, we were a single-product company with a European focus,” says Bastin. “Now we are a multi-product company with a global reach that we’ve not had before.”

Speed of movement

Bringing two new products to market in multiple countries in such a short space of time was a sizeable undertaking, says Bastin, which is one of the reasons why Lebara turned to Amazon Web Services (AWS) to provide the underlying cloud-based infrastructure for its products.

“Using cloud has reduced our time to market, and lowered the cost of entry for us into new markets,” he says. “In turn, this has taken out some of the risk associated with diversifying the Lebara product portfolio.

“In the past, there would have been quite a big investment to get the equipment up and running, and now there isn’t, so the business can take on more risk.

“We can innovate without having to be held up by standard procurement cycles or burdened by excessive expenditure – and that gives us a competitive advantage.”

Although cloud has been instrumental in getting these products to market, the role Lebara’s staff have played should not be underestimated, says Bastin.

The company created separate teams for its four product areas and tasked them with developing new services and, crucially, cross-selling opportunities within each one.

“Everyone is working towards this vision of One Lebara, where there is one entry into our systems, one profile and we can cross-sell and upsell to our customers and really understand them from a business intelligence perspective,” says Bastin.

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To ensure it has the right mix of skills in-house to achieve its goals, the company has embarked on a recruitment drive, while retraining some of its existing employees.

This has been an essential factor in moving its infrastructure away from the managed hosting setup it previously relied on and onto the AWS platform, says Bastin.

“It does require a different skillset,” he adds. “In a managed hosting environment, there is a bigger desire to pick up the phone or log a ticket with someone so they can go off and do the work for you, whereas in the cloud, there is a pressure to do more yourself.

“You can engage with partners, but we have been expanding the team and taken on more people with these skills, and cross-trained people, so we can do more ourselves and go to market faster.”

Encouraging staff to do more of the heavy lifting helps them feel engaged with the work they are doing, he adds.

“What has got everyone fired up at Lebara is what we can do in such a short amount of time now,” says Bastin. This, in turn, has made it easier to give staff the green light to pursue other innovative projects.

“If you keep saying ‘no’ to people, they will get disheartened and go elsewhere, whereas if there is a desire to do something, the business will pay for it and it can be done internally, we will do it,” he adds.  

Going all-in on AWS

Apart from new product launches, Bastin is currently looking to increase Lebara’s use of AWS further by shifting all its corporate IT systems into the cloud.

This process is already under way and will take up to a year to complete, he says.

“We’ve broken it down into stages, so we can move across the most important applications first and those that need a refresh in terms of infrastructure,” says Bastin.

“We are having to go through applications with various different versions, and lift, shift and re-architect where we need to. It’s a complex exercise, but one that is necessary to give us the underlying infrastructure we need.

“Also, by putting everything into AWS, things should be more manageable from an IT operations perspective, because we will know where all our IT is.” 

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