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Interview with Estonian mobility start-up Bolt founder Markus Villig

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In 2013, Markus Villig founded his company Taxify at the age of 19 in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The company got renamed Bolt. A dropped out of his computer science degree. The company is a mobility platform for renting electric scooters and bicycles and trips with taxi and rental car companies.

In May 2018, over 175 million euros were invested and Bolt became an unicorn, a company with a valuation of one billion euros. The investors included Daimler and the Chinese supplier Didi Chuxing. The company is operating in 45 countries.

The interview was conducted by WirtschaftsWoche, and it has been translated from German to English.

WirtschaftsWoche: Mr. Villig, due to the war in Ukraine and inflation, many tech start-ups are currently in a crisis. Some are running out of money, and many have to lay off employees. How is Bolt?
Markus Villig: We are doing well. When I started Taxify in 2013, I was almost a kid. With no experience, no network, no money – I had nothing. And we had to keep up with Uber, who at that time put everyone in the shade with their billion-euro investment rounds. So we had to run the small company from Tallinn in a particularly economical and efficient way right from the start. Bolt has always had this cost-conscious mindset. That helps us now.

So you didn’t have to fire anyone?

No. We didn’t lay anyone off even during the Covid lockdowns and at times our sales fell by up to 80 percent.

How does this work?

From the beginning, we placed great emphasis on operational efficiency, which gave us an advantage over other companies. This has allowed us to quickly adjust our product roadmap and dedicate staff to work on our delivery services, which were in high demand when lockdowns began. For example, in 2020 we expanded Bolt Food from four to 16 countries, opening up new revenue streams. We also saw strong growth in the use of micro-mobility services, which many people switched to avoid unnecessary contact. The solidarity within the team also helped us. Most employees voluntarily took small pay cuts so no one had to leave. That impressed me.

You have been active in Germany for about a year, mainly with the rental of e-scooters. What is your conclusion after twelve months?
We are very satisfied with the business in Germany. It exceeded our expectations.

What does that mean specifically?
Around 400 people now work for Bolt in Germany and we continue to grow. We are currently looking for around 50 software engineers to strengthen our team in the new growth hub that we have just opened in Berlin. Within about a year, we launched our e-scooters in 58 cities – no other provider before us was that quick. Due to the high demand, we have also been able to steadily expand our offer at the city level, while the use per e-scooter is also increasing. Our e-bikes have been available in Germany since this year and are already being offered in seven cities.

Are you profitable in Germany?
As in the other markets, our business in Germany is a long-term investment. We have to invest over several years. But we are in a very good starting position.

You currently offer your e-scooter rental in 58 German cities, your driving service so far only in Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt. What are your plans for Germany?
I would like to see significantly fewer private cars driving in the cities. I want to replace them with smarter mobility services. That’s Bolt’s long-term goal. It would be better for the environment and climate, better for people’s safety, and it would avoid noise. The way traffic is currently regulated in most cities, it doesn’t make much sense. On-demand mobility services are growing in cities, so it’s clear that consumers want that, they prefer that type of mobility. In Germany, too, we want to create alternatives to the car with as many of our services as possible in as many cities as possible.

Since last autumn, however, you have felt a headwind in Germany. In Cologne, for example, Mayor Henriette Reker has limited the number of e-scooters in the city from around 7,000 to just 4,500. The regulations are also increasing in other German cities.
First of all, we are fundamentally in favor of regulation. The key question, however, must be: Where should regulation lead? To a more sustainable way of getting around? I hope so. The fact of the matter is, cities have an unlimited number of cars, but for some reason, the number of e-scooters allowed is artificially limited. That does not make sense.

Usually, the reason is: The scooters are in the way, causing accidents.
Right. A crucial question is: Where should e-scooters go? Of course on the bike path. But if cities have poorly developed bike lanes, it’s honestly not Bolt’s fault. Perhaps we are one more reason for some cities to invest here. But we really shouldn’t be the reason to think about it now. In this regard, there are some major differences between individual cities. And as for parking the scooters: we could convert a parking space for one car into a parking space for ten e-scooters. That could be a way to free up space.

But parking spaces are very rare and valuable anyway, especially in inner cities. And the car lobby is powerful in Germany.
Regulators need to think ahead. How do we want to live in ten years? Most people agree with the concept of giving cars less space over time. It would just be good for the cities. Mercedes-Benz is one of our largest investors. They also know that this will be the future in the next ten to twenty years. Bolt is active in more than 40 countries. We know from our discussions and negotiations: most cities in Europe want to create more space for shared cars. In the next ten to twenty years there will be a major shift in demand in this regard.

You had already announced in spring 2021 that you also wanted to start your food delivery service Bolt Food in Germany. It has not come to that until now. How so?
We offer Bolt Food in around 20 countries in Europe and Africa, and almost everywhere the development of the business model has slowed down after the lifting of most corona restrictions. So the timing is really bad. It is not clear how the business will develop over the next few years. And the German market is already very competitive.

In other countries, you offer both a food ordering platform, in cooperation with restaurants, and fast delivery of supermarket items. In Germany, Lieferando and Uber Eats, as well as Gorillas, Flink, Wolt, Picnic, and Knuspr would then be their competitors. Delivery Hero withdrew from the German market last year after less than six months. An intimidating prospect?
We can create synergies with Bolt Food from our two business areas of chauffeur service and e-scooter rental. Once we have gained experience in Germany with the first two services and established the brand, I would not rule out the launch of Bolt Food in Germany. For the moment, however, an entry would not be very promising for us. At the beginning about a year ago in Berlin you had a dispute with Uber. Your competitor is said to have called rental car drivers and demanded that they only offer rides for Uber and not also for Bolt. 

At that time you wanted to consider legal action. How did the argument go?
Uber has stopped these actions. I think they understood that you can’t block competitors.       

Source: WIWO

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