The process of launching Bolt was not smooth


Markus Villig founded the Tallinn-based ride-hailing company Bolt at the age of 19 in 2013. Seven years later, his company is worth 1.7 billion euros.

This is not all smooth sailing. Villig launched the app with a budget of 5,000 euros and continued to use it when investors told him to give up because Uber Raise billions US dollars. He said that getting the ride-hailing company started “may be the toughest six months I have ever experienced.”

Villiger said in a Zoom call from Tallinn that the company survived the first few months because its team “confirmed that we are doing something unique and better.” Bolt also provides electric scooters and electric bicycles, as well as food and package delivery services, and it has just passed another period of uncertainty-a pandemic. During the first lockdown last year, business dropped by 85% overnight.

Villig co-founded the company with his brother, who has already worked in the technology industry. However, Markus Villig was still in high school, and he had to work hard to persuade taxi drivers in Tallinn to sign up for his app.

He saw a gap in the transportation market in the capital of Estonia (where Uber is slow Go) because the taxi service in the city is “bad”. As known before the rebranding in 2019, the case of consumers starting Taxify is obvious. Villiger said the taxi driver’s car was dirty and “it took a long time to arrive.” In the spring of 2013, after a period of research after school, he would find the driver at the taxi stand to find out how the situation was.

According to Willig, drivers were trapped in the old taxi company and often had to pay high monthly fees without getting much in return. But Villiger’s job was cut to persuade the driver to entrust himself to a 19-year-old who does not yet have a fully functional app. “When… you are just selling an idea to them, 90% of them will only tell you to fuck off,” he said with a smile.

At the same time, he persuaded a freelance developer to build a prototype platform, but it would cost 5,000 euros. Villig spent several months persuading his parents to lend him the money.

Over time, he gathered about 100 drivers who were ready to take risks. However, when he launched it in August 2013, they did not all go online when he needed it, and he realized that many people had provided false contact information. “I actually only have a few dozen,” he said.

He started to the taxi stand and got in the car: “So I just went there and took [their] Phone, signature [them] Come on the spot. .. It’s like, look, every time you come to work, just open this app. ”

By that winter, he had hundreds of drivers and provided effective services. About nine months later, he raised 70,000 euros. Six months later, he raised another 1.4 million euros, mainly from local investors. By 2014, “we have good traction and our products are running well in Estonia”, he said.

Villig then had to consider how to expand into other markets, but in 2015 and 2016, “Uber became a giant that raised more funds than any other technology company,” he said. “This is unprecedented. No one has raised such an amount. Not Google, not Facebook, no one.”

For example, in May 2016, Uber raised US$5.6 billion, valued at US$66bn (Although after the IPO in 2019, its market capitalization is now $91 billion).

The result: “No venture capitalist will even touch us,” Willig added. “The next two years will be very difficult for us because you can imagine our capital and resources are so limited, contending with a multi-billion dollar company. It’s really not a fair fight,” he said.

His response was to streamline a start-up company as much as possible, and believe that “the two or three years really made us.” With such limited resources, Bolt spends his money very carefully. This culture is enduring, and Villig says it gives the company an advantage.

When I told him that the transportation business model appeared to be capital-intensive, he pointed out that although Bolt raised the most capital so far last year, “it is still far below most of our peers, but the business model is still viable and the company is Operate and grow at a speed that we are very satisfied with.”

He disapproved of citing the tendency of Silicon Valley’s start-ups to “blitzscaling” where they raise a lot of money and then spend everything to “win the market.” As the theory says, “When you win the market, you are a monopolist, and you can always make this money back.”

Although he admits that he summarized American trends, this is in stark contrast to what he believes is a cautious attitude in Europe. “It makes sense to take the time to build long-term things on the right basis. This is the way to win, not just spend more than everyone in the first few years,” he said.

The caution paid off. He added that once Bolt proves that its strategy is effective and “there is room for multiple winners in the transportation industry,” investors will return to Bolt.

Although investment may have returned, Villiger said “we are still very cautious.” For example, Bolt may reduce marketing expenses, but lower the commission rate of drivers so that they can make more money.

Bolt operates electric bicycles in 5 cities and 130,000 electric scooters in more than 100 cities in 15 countries © Jose Sena Goulao/EPA-EFE

The company’s lean approach-having more than 50 million customers and 1.5 million drivers Spanning 40 countries, mainly in Europe and Africa-also preparing for the coronavirus pandemic. Although the business has fallen sharply, Villiger believes that it is important to respond to the crisis with a long-term perspective. How can you cut costs without further production issues?

He decided not to lay off Bolt’s existing 2,000 employees. “We don’t see the meaning of leaving people we need to hire again within six months,” Villiger said.Instead, “We asked who would like to cut their salary by 30%, and-to me, shockingly-many people are willing to accept [it]. This really helped us through difficult times. “

In contrast, Uber almost cut 6,700 employees -About twenty three% Its labor force.

In a recent report Oxford universityHowever, Bolt was rated as one of the worst because of the working conditions he provided for gig economy workers. But it does not want to comment on the findings.

Three questions from Marcus Willig

Who is your leading hero?

I don’t think there is any one person. But what I have been trying to do for years is to study all the great CEOs that appeared before me-such as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and so on. But what I am trying to do is to learn the best from them and practice them in my daily life. There is no idol.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

Clarity is everything.What I often see is that people enter this mode of overthinking, they come up with very complicated methods [with] How to motivate people and goals and what they should do. After all, humans are very simple creatures-the more you can simplify things, the better they are. Therefore, whenever we have any goal, we actually boil it down to a few sentences.As a junior leader, sometimes it’s easier than doing it [it would be for] A senior leader.

If you were not the founder, what would you do?

Another career path I considered when I was young was to enter the science field, so I might do something in physics or mathematics. I have always been passionate about these.I participated in the Olympic Games in high school [competitions] and many more.But unfortunately I don’t have time to deal with [those] The passion of the past ten years.

Bolt’s revenue in 2019 was 148 million euros. In May 2020, it announced a 100 million euros in financing, In the form of a convertible note, the company said at the time that it would allow its Continue to expand Strengthen its online car-hailing, micro-transportation and food distribution businesses in Europe and Africa.

The funding comes from a single investor, Naya Capital Management, which is also an important investor in the company’s US$67 million Series C financing in July 2019. Bolt raised A further 150 million euros December, and from March International Finance Corporation, Part of the World Bank.

Last summer, when the city started to move again, Villig said “accelerated faster than we expected.” Due to the pandemic, the growth of micro-transportation and food delivery services has accelerated. “We quickly surpassed our goal of providing shared scooters in 45 cities and now plan to become Europe’s largest micro-mobile operator in 2021,” Villiger said.

Currently, Bolt operates 130,000 electric scooters in more than 100 cities in 15 countries.

He has not always been a fan of electric scooters. He admits that economic factors make it difficult for vertical industries to do it right. He believes that Bolt has a unique approach because it produces its own hardware, which enables faster repairs and lower repair costs for the scooter. By providing scooters, ride-hailing services, and meal delivery services, technical and marketing costs can be shared, and the cost savings are also passed on to customers.

For those who want to “enter the technology field” but don’t know how to start a company, his company has come a long way. “I actually started by searching for’how do you start a business’ on Google,” Villiger said.



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About the Author: Agnes Zang