LØRN case C0858 -

Pär Stigenberg


Blocket SE

Some lessons from leading an organization in a new world

In this episode of #LØRN, Silvija talks to CTO in Blocket, Pär Stigenberg. Blocket.se is one of Sweden's most successful internet businesses, where individuals and businesses can buy and sell services and products. Blocket is the Swedes' answer on Finn.no, and as of today, more than 7 out of 10 Swedes have bought or sold something on Blocket. In the conversation, Pär talks about his international perspectives on technology in Norway, as well as about how Blocket as a company has handled the Corona crisis in the form of, among other things, changes in the work situation.- I believe that the way we consume must change, and I believe that companies such as Blocket and Finn play an important role here, Pär explains.
LØRN case C0858 -

Pär Stigenberg


Blocket SE

Some lessons from leading an organization in a new world

In this episode of #LØRN, Silvija talks to CTO in Blocket, Pär Stigenberg. Blocket.se is one of Sweden's most successful internet businesses, where individuals and businesses can buy and sell services and products. Blocket is the Swedes' answer on Finn.no, and as of today, more than 7 out of 10 Swedes have bought or sold something on Blocket. In the conversation, Pär talks about his international perspectives on technology in Norway, as well as about how Blocket as a company has handled the Corona crisis in the form of, among other things, changes in the work situation.- I believe that the way we consume must change, and I believe that companies such as Blocket and Finn play an important role here, Pär explains.

32 min

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Velkommen til LØRN.TECH – en læringsdugnad om teknologi og samfunn, med Silvija Seres og venner

SS: Hello, and welcome to LØRN. My name is Silvija Seres, and my guest today is Pär Stigenberg, the CTO of a Swedish technology company owned by Schibsted called Blocket. Welcome, Pär.

PS: Thank you very much, I'm glad to be here.

SS: Very good talking to you. You are the first person in this series that we are doing together with OsloMet University for the course on leadership, technology, and innovation. You are not Norwegian, so we're doing this in English, that's a change, but it would also be very interesting to hear your international perspectives on technology as taught in Norway. I will very briefly say a couple of words by this series, and then a couple of words to the students. And then we'll get into our conversation, ok?

PS: Sounds great.

SS: So this conversation, as I mentioned, is part of a mini-lecture as part of a series that we in LØRN are doing together with OsloMet and Digital Norway. The idea is to create a series of lectures, sort of an anthology, that discuss the topic of the course that OsloMet is delivering to the students, that is focusing on technology, strategy, leadership, and innovation. The students will be exposed to real-world stories from Norway, or in this case, Sweden, from Telenor and Schibsted, and will try to understand what happened. Would they make the same choices? How do we measure success in these very strategic operations and manipulations that these two big cooperations are experiencing now? So with our conversation, I would very much like the students to have three questions in their minds as they are listening to our discussions. It will be a very informal talk, it will be more like you giving a lecture and me asking questions. One of the most important strategic decisions that Schibsted has made in its journey to the digital, is the purchase of Blocket. At this time, they already had Finn. It was a very good and growing platform for digital ads. Still, they went to Sweden, they tried buying Blocket, and they came home thinking it was too expensive, and went back and did it after all. It was a monumental decision in a way that they later organized their international growth that gave them the sort of success they have today. I would like to try to understand a little bit of that dynamic, and why it was a good decision in the end. The second question I'd like you to help us understand is if there is anything specific about Norwegian technology strategy workings that are worth noting, maybe from a more international perspective. I understand you have a long-standing relationship with Norwegian companies, so you might not be very objective, but let's try. And the third question is how do you experience the corona crisis, both as an opportunity and also as a game-changer in your space. Ok?

PS: Sounds terrific. And thanks for doing it in English. My Norwegian is not always the best. SS: We can do it with you in Swedish and Norwegian, but it ends up being sort of a muppet show conversation in my experience, so let's try English. My first question is always to ask the guest to say a few words about who they are and why they love what they do.

PS: Good question. Who am I? As you said, I'm the CTO of Blocket, which means I'm leading the technology department. I am 45 years old, and my background is in Engineering. I was a software engineer for a long time, but for the last 15 years, I've been leading organizations, or teams, in the IT sector. Outside work, I am passionate about football.

SS: I can see that on your door!

PS: Yes, exactly. I'm a coach for a football team for immigrants here in Sweden, and I also play tennis. I love to go out in my boat and do some fishing, and I like to do home improvements together with my wife, here in our house.

SS: Which brings you to your basement, which is where you're talking from now.

PS: Yes, exactly.

SS: By education, you're a techie?

PS: Yes, I was studying computer science. I have also been trying out chemistry, but computers were more my thing.

SS: So you are more digital than chemical?

PS: Exactly. I actually hated to be in the lab when we did chemistry. I liked the theoretical part, but not when it came to doing laboratory stuff.

SS: Smelly?

PS: Yes. And it takes forever.

SS: Lots of heating and shaking and...

PS: And then nothing happens, and you start all over again.

SS: That's perhaps more close to real-life than all these digital things that are so binary. But Pär, say a few words about Blocket. How did it start, and where is it now?

PS: Blocket started, I think, in 1996, as a small company in the southern part of Sweden. And then, as you said, Blocket was bought by Schibsted. I think that was after the IT crisis. And as you also said, Schibsted tried to buy Blocket, but I think they felt it was too expensive, so they tried to roll out Finn in Sweden under a brand called Finn Mer and tried to compete with Blocket. But that didn't really work out, so they went back and did another try to buy Blocket. So one or two years after the first try, they came back, and Blocket was twice as expensive as last time. This was a long, long time before I joined Schibsted and Blocket. But I think the general thought about this is that Schibsted paid too much for Blocket when they bought it. I think the price was close to 200 million SEK.

SS: Which sounds like a terribly large sum, but if you look at their current listing of Adevinta on the Oslo stock exchange, that fetched billions, then basically what they say is yes, we wasted millions, but we made billions. And I think that is a very interesting part of this strategy. Nobody could guarantee that Blocket would be this incredible vehicle for international growth, but it turned out to work. You have no guarantees, you can try to calculate your business models and revenue as much as you want, but it depends on why it works, why the customers accept it, how you basically heat the moment and manage to gain people's attention. And something about Blocket worked internationally. Why?

PS: That's a good question. I mean, Blocket was a super-strong brand in Sweden. I know that Schibsted when they were thinking about expanding globally, they made the decision between using the Finn platform or the Blocket platform, and they actually used both. In Austria, for example, Schibsted started out with the Finn platform, but in most countries, they used the Blocket platform. And this was before I started, so I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I think that the Blocket platform maybe was easier to get started with. It was smaller and quicker to set up, so you could, with quite a little effort, try out different markets. They sent out engineers with all the software on a CD, and then they started in a lot of different marketplaces all over the world: South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, and so on. So it was really a lot of different tries, and not all of them were successful. Some of them were, and some of them were extremely successful, like if you look at Leboncoin in France, for example.

SS: And we can try to talk a little bit more about why Leboncoin worked. Was it a rollout? Was it that you could collaborate with other kinds of media in a way that nobody else had tried? But before we go there, I'd like to ask you a quick question about where you worked before Blocket.

PS: I worked on a quite big web agency called Krona, which is a Norwegian company as well. So I worked there and led the Swedish office for four years. But I started out as an Engineer, so I worked there for 11 years before I joined Blocket. And it was not intentional to go to another Norwegian company, that was just an accident.

SS: Funny how these accidents keep running our lives. So if we take one case, for example... Not Blocket in Sweden, but maybe Leboncoin, which is the biggest classified in France?

PS: Yes, by far.

SS: And they decided to run on the Blocket platform. Why was it suitable?

PS: As I said... This is my guess, but I think that setting up the Blocket platform and test if we have something that works is very fast. So, with quite a little effort, you can get something running and test if the idea and the product are working. I think that part of the strategy when they selected countries is that they looked to see if there was a really strong competitor, and they selected countries without Blocket. That is at least how I perceived the strategy.

SS: I think that I don't know enough, but I imagine that the way that Finn was constructed, the whole platform, it's a long series of constructions based on the traditional way that some of our biggest newspapers already did their classifications. So, it was built on legacy business processes, the relations were there, and you built a digital platform around existing things that all of these newspapers hadn't been able to combine. Well, I think that Blocket was possibly built in a more independent fashion, which made it easier to roll out in new places.

PS: Yes, I totally agree. This is actually a quite funny story, well, funny is maybe not the right word, but in 2005 Blocket was hacked, and then they decided to rebuild everything. They started from scratch, and it was that platform that was rolled out. So it was a modern platform back then.

SS: Cool. So what do you think about Blocket going forward? What are the sort of strategic things that you guys are doing now?

PS: Right now, I think we need to provide our customers with more helpful services, with more things than just putting an ad on Blocket. I think we can deliver a lot more when it comes to shipping, the payment between users, and things like that. So, becoming more of a real e-commerce site is something I think is important for us at Blocket.

SS: So, the starting point was just showing ads, but now what you're trying to do is to connect the user end-to-end, or the seller, with the buyer, and the whole experience?

PS: Exactly. I think that is super important going forward, and we've seen this with the corona crisis as well. Features like shipping have become even more important because it could be scary to meet up. So then features like shipping become super important.

SS: People don't really want to have to go to a post office and deliver big items there, there needs to be some sort of an integrated partnership there that solves the issues.

PS: Yes, exactly.

SS: Okay. I also want to hear a little bit about your team. How many people do you have on the tech side of Blocket, and do you find them in Sweden, or do you go international? How do you build your organisation?

PS: Yes. In Blocket, we are almost 90 engineers working right now, and in total, I think Blocket is somewhere around 250. So that's our size. It's super hard to find engineers in Stockholm. Stockholm has a quite big start-up scene, and a lot of different IT companies are competing for engineers. So that is super hard, but I think Blocket is a very popular place to work. So it works, we can still find talented engineers. But a couple of years ago, we decided to not only bring in people from Sweden, so we have changed our company language to English. Right now we have quite a lot of engineers coming from other countries as well. So that's a big shift for us. Another thing that I would like to mention when it comes to our organisation, is that we have been working super hard to get a better gender balance on Blocket. When I started, there weren't that many women in the tech department, so we have tried to make a big change here, and we have almost doubled now. So this is something super important for us as well.

SS: Does it help that you have a big brand? I notice that for Finn, it is really a huge talent pool.

PS: Yes, being a big brand of course helps, and I think that being a brand with a strong purpose like we have, like when it comes to sustainability, for example, helps a lot when we do recruitments.

SS: Okay. And what's happening now with the corona?

PS: It's been seven very interesting months. 11th of March we decided to go home, and it was of course a huge shift, but I am so impressed with everyone working on Blocket because it worked from day one. Of course, we had to change how we worked a lot, and we had to bring in new tools and a new way of working, but everything worked from day one. And I think that is super impressive. And I mean, we have been changing how we work. Instead of meeting up at the coffee machine and sharing information there, we have tried to find a lot of different ways to do the same because I think it is super easy to only see and talk to the people that you work the closest with, and then you lose perspective and inputs from other parts of the organisation. So one thing that we have been working hard with is to find ways, digitally, of sharing information and knowledge across different teams.

SS: Do you see big strategic opportunities in this corona crisis? I think maybe people are buying more e-commerce than they did before.

PS: Yes, of course. I mean, the things I've mentioned before have become even more important: to have a good shipping solution, a good payment solution, a good communication platform, so that users can maybe look at the thing they want to buy before they meet up. I mean, there are a lot of things that we have changed in our products that come from the crisis we are in, for sure.

SS: Cool. And Pär, what do you think about the Swedish vs. Norwegian management style? I've worked on some Norwegian and Swedish boards, and I think it would be interesting for our students, in terms of leadership, to see if there are any big cultural differences that you can notice.

PS: Between Sweden and Norway, as I said, I've been working in Norwegian companies for 15 years. I don't think there is a big difference between Norway and Sweden. When I talk to my peers on Finn, for example, I don't see a big cultural difference. Maybe more when you talk to people in Europe, when you talk to the CTO of Leboncoin for example. But between Norway and Sweden, I'm not sure. Do you have any examples yourself?

SS: I find the Swedish a bit more formalistic, and a bit more hierarchical. Norwegians are basically completely obsessive about no hierarchy, equality, everybody gets to have a say, and everybody is actually challenged to bring their own opinion to the table.

PS: Interesting. I don't think that Swedes see it that way, because I think we see ourselves as non-hierarchical. That is a difficult word. But I have heard that before, but I'm not sure if I see it myself. I hope I'm not.

SS: Maybe the tech people are more alike across the two countries, and the finance people are maybe a little bit more different.

PS: It could be. And I think maybe the tech people are more alike globally as well. We hang out in the same forums, even globally.

SS: Wear the same hoodies...

PS: Exactly!

SS: Cool. And if you are to give Schibsted some strategic advice? I know it's a question out of the blue, but basically out students are trying to understand how do companies create these technical strategies, and I don't just mean for their technology, I mean strategy based on technology. What do you think are big opportunities for a corporation like Schibsted, and what do you think is Blocket's role in that?

PS: That is a good question, and not an easy question. I think we have opportunities to work closer together in the Nordics. We have a super-strong brand in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and hopefully soon in Denmark as well. So, I mean, we have fantastic opportunities to collaborate between our different countries. I think that is important for us going forward. We can try stuff out in our way, and then roll it out in Sweden. We can do it the other way around where we can find opportunities that go across from day one. So I think collaborations between the countries are very important.

SS: Cool. My last three questions are always trying to figure out a little bit more about you as a person. Actually, I'll do four. So, my first one is: do you have a person who inspires you?

PS: That is a good question. I get inspired by lots of people, and I think it's super hard to mention one. The people that inspire me are normally passionate people. I mean, they can be passionate about anything: engineering or architecture, cooking or fishing, or whatever. Passionate people always, well, not always, but often come with a lot of knowledge and energy, and their energy is contagious in a good way. I would rather not drop any name here. Passionate people in general.

SS: What do you think are the most interesting dilemmas that we are facing now in terms of this new development based on technology?

PS: I think one hard dilemma is that we've been working from home for seven months. Maybe you've been stuck inside your house or your apartment. I think it was easier when it was warm outside, and the sun was shining. I think now, in the Nordics, we're entering dark times. So I think that making sure that we all feel well, and focusing on our well-being, is super crucial going forward. I think that working from home can be something that comes with opportunities as well. Usually in winter in Stockholm, it's dark when you go to work, and dark when you go home, and I guess it's the same in Oslo. But now it's easier to go out for a walk, talk during lunch, and see the sun. I think that even if the pandemic is not something that we want, our new way of working comes with opportunities if you look for them. And I think that's super important. Another interesting thing to discuss now is what happens when we get back. What is the new normal after the pandemic? Will we go back to the office? Will there be some kind of flexibility? I think that is something that is also super important and interesting to work with.

SS: I think there are lots of changes to the way we work, and I really hope that we don't insist on going back to the way things were, but, instead, take the value, the social value of being in the office at full opportunity, and actually spend time together with your colleagues. Then you use alone time, or screen time, for all the routine work that you need to do, or all the hard thinking that you need to do alone.

PS: Yes, I agree.

SS: I was wondering if you have something that you have read or seen in the last few months that you will recommend? Something that has affected you?

PS: My favourite reading or my favourite book to recommend when it comes to engineering will always be Inspired. I think it is a fantastic book when it comes to how to do product development. Of course, clean code. If you are an engineer, that is mandatory, I would say. Another book that has inspired me is Domain-Driven Design by Eric Evans. My advice would be to read a lot of different things, and look at different things on YouTube, for example, and try to get many different perspectives, because if you are focusing too much on one small area, then you can maybe get a narrow mind. So try many different things, read different books, try different programming languages, and you will get new perspectives on the problems.

SS: And the last question, Pär. What is your strategy for coping in hard times? We all go through creeks sometimes. What do you tell yourself to keep going?

PS: I like hard times. I think that it gets my adrenalin flowing a bit. But my advice would be to try to not be the person that sees the glass as half empty, but rather half full. And really make an effort to find opportunities in the problem or in the situation you're in. But then it depends. I mean, in the pandemic, I can't change it. I can't do anything about it. But I can find opportunities within it for our product, our way of working, or for myself.

SS: I think that goes back to your original answer, which I loved, that you like hard times. And I think that hard times always bring big opportunities with them.

PS: Yes, it does. And we see new things that we need to change in our product and things like that. I also like when we have incidents on Blocket, for example, if something breaks, if we have a big bug, or if some infrastructure breaks. I actually like that, because then you get your blood flowing, you see all the responsibility that people are showing, and the collaboration to make everything work again. So if it's not too often, I think it is something that I actually like.

SS: Pär Stigenberg, the CTO of Blocket, thank you so much for having been here with us at LØRN, and inspired us to think about looking for opportunities both in hard times and in early times. Because the way that Blocket has been positioned for the international growth of a major corporation in Europe is really an adventure.

PS: Yes, very much. And thank you for letting me be part of this. Super fun.

Du har lyttet til en podcast fra LØRN.TECH – en læringsdugnad om teknologi og samfunn. Nå kan du også få et læringssertifikat for å ha lyttet til denne podcasten, på vårt onlineuniversitet lørn.university

Who are you, personally and professionally?

I am 45 years old and I'm leading the technology department on Blocket, the largest and by far best marketplace in Sweden. My background is engineering and software development but I have spent the last 15 years leading teams or organizations within the IT sector. I’m also a football coach, a passionate fisher, a decent tennis player and I love to do home “improvements” together with my wife.

What does your organization sell, and why do people buy from you?

Blocket is a marketplace and mostly known for being a place where people buy & sell second-hand things. I guess everyone in Norway knows Finn.no and Blocket is the Swedish version. We also have marketplaces for job openings, cars, and for real estate rental.

What exactly motivates you in this assignment?

I think the last 7 months have been challenging, scary, interesting, surrealistic and we have learned a lot about a lot of stuff we didn’t know before. From one day to the next we went from being a company working mainly from the office to a company where everyone works from home. Rapid change and hard dilemmas motivate me.

Are there any interesting dilemmas?

A lot. How does working from home change things?

What changes do we need in our way of working?

How do overcome the distance and all the good side effects being at an office have?

3 best growth tips for other similar companies?

Think big, start small, and ship often.

Who inspires you?

The people that inspire me are passionate people. And they can probably be passionate about anything.

Passionate about architecture, machine learning, software engineering, or cocking

What is relevant knowledge for the future?

Engineering skills will be super relevant for a long long time. It’s hard to point at certain areas but if forced I would say, cloud engineering, security, and machine learning.

3 best management tips?

- Stay true to your values

- Be transparent and open

- Train yourself in the art of giving and receiving feedback

Any important sustainability perspectives?

It’s super mega important. And I think how we consume stuff has to change. And here I think products like Finn and Blocket have an important role to play. Try it out if you haven’t. I think we all have lots of stuff we don’t need and don’t use. Give them a second chance. There’s almost always someone out there that needs the old table you have in storage.

Pär Stigenberg
Blocket SE
CASE ID: C0858
DATE : 201015
DURATION : 32 min
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