Woman holding a mobile phone with the Bolt app open

Innovate With A Frugal Mindset: Q&A With Bolt's Head of Sustainability

6/17/2021
Woman holding a mobile phone with the Bolt app open
Sandra Särav reveals how the pioneering, Estonia-headquartered transport company drives growth through retaining a startup mentality and investing in green initiatives

Crowe's The Art of Smart content informs and inspires business leaders to make smarter decisions by showcasing the world's smartest companies. Few organizations can compete with Bolt, one of the world's fastest-growing startups, whose outstanding success serves as an exemplar of how boldness, innovation, diversity and growth – the four pillars of smart decision-making – can earn the most considerable rewards.

"We’re building the future of mobility – one platform that connects you with cars, motorcycles, scooters and e-bikes, or food delivery from your favorite restaurant," states Bolt's LinkedIn profile page. With unparalleled growth in just eight years, who would bet against the company achieving its lofty goal?

In 2013, Estonian high school student Markus Villig founded the company that would become pioneering transport business Bolt. The then 19-year old's original plan was to provide a digital platform for taxis in his home city of Tallinn. The early success convinced him to be bold and set his sights higher. Clearly, Mr Villig, who reportedly wanted to start a technology company aged 12, finds it impossible to stand still. His organization has enjoyed tremendous growth on several levels.

Now Bolt, formerly called mTakso and Taxify, operates in approximately 40 countries – spanning Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America – and is the transport operator of choice for millions of riders, partly because of its forward-thinking, eco-conscious ethos.

For example, rides in Europe are 100 percent carbon-neutral. Carbon offsetting is the first step of the trail-blazing organization's Green Plan: "A long-term commitment to reducing the ecological footprint of Bolt as a company." The program aims to offset five million tons of CO₂ emissions in Europe by 2025. By offering more electric vehicles and scooters on its platform, Bolt promises to provide greener ways to move around in cities worldwide.

Additionally, the business launched a dedicated environmental impact fund to deliver global social and ecological benefits in various nations. Bolt's 1.5 million drivers get a good deal, too. They earn more than they would on other platforms because Bolt takes less of a cut.

Bolt's expansion into new regions and markets has been incredible, and the company's momentum shows no sign of slowing. Just five years after establishing the business, with a €5,000 loan from his parents, Mr Villig became the youngest CEO of a US$1 billion 'unicorn' company in Europe. Evidently, maximizing both sustainability and profit is possible for those willing to show boldness and invest in innovation.

To better understand Bolt's grand, green plans and the decision-making process that drives innovation, The Art of Smart caught up with Sandra Särav, the company's Head of Sustainability. Here are the highlights of the conversation. 

Sandra Särav

I've seen so many companies start to fear going green, because they think they have to do everything at once – but there is plenty of low-hanging fruit. An excellent place to start is by offsetting your carbon footprint.

Sandra Särav
Sandra Särav
Head of Sustainability
Bolt


Art of Smart (AoS): How is sustainability, and the Green Plan, driving Bolt's success?

Sandra Särav (SS): Bolt officially launched the Green Plan in 2019, but the idea can be traced back to 2013. When Markus founded the company, he didn't have his driving licence – and he still doesn't – but knew he wanted to reduce people's dependency on personal cars. Tallinn is a super-motorized city; more than 40 percent of households have two or more cars. As a teenager, he found it would be a nightmare to get a taxi from a regular taxi stand or by phone, so he decided to figure out a solution himself.

Fast forward to 2021, and Bolt, which doesn't own any cars, operates in around 40 countries, and we have 1.5 million drivers globally. We realized that many of those drivers used vehicles with internal combustion engines. Because they can't be expected to switch to electric vehicles (EVs) overnight, we looked at how we could offset the carbon emissions.

Bolt has partnered with UK-based Natural Capital Partners to establish an environmental impact fund. Since September 2019, all Bolt rides in Europe have been carbon-neutral. We calculated the total ecological footprint of all those cars – taking into account the vehicle's age, the type of motor, what fuel it runs on, and the distance of the trip – and this number is offset with carefully selected projects.

This solution is a quick fix to a huge problem, and in an ideal world, we will have more drivers using EVs. We already have a few Teslas on the platform, but having more EVs and hybrid vehicles is the next step.


AoS: Given that climate change and sustainability is increasingly significant for consumers following the coronavirus crisis, is there a sense that Bolt's time is now?

SS: Unfortunately, I'm still not sure consumer demand is there – customers looking for a ride remain price-oriented. In 2019, we asked our customers in six European countries whether they would use greener transportation alternatives if they were available. Over 90 percent responded that they would. However, when we followed up with a question about whether they would be willing to pay more for a greener ride, around the same number of people said they wouldn't. For this reason, when we started the Green Plan, we chose not to burden the customer with the price to offset emissions.


Aos: How has Bolt coped with the mass switch to remote working due to the coronavirus, with less demand for transport solutions?

SS: When the first COVID-19 wave hit in early 2020, business was down 85 percent. We used the crisis to consider alternative options and ramped up certain areas of the business. For instance, we had launched Bolt Food, which enables customers to order their favorite dishes to their door, in four countries in 2019. And by the end of 2020, we were in 16 countries. We saw the need for this service and expanded quickly. Even now, demand is so high in some markets we don't have enough couriers.

Additionally, in 2018 Bolt had started its micro-mobility offering with e-scooters in Paris. Last year we expanded this service to 45 cities, reacting to the demand. Some cities even reached out to us proactively and requested we bring them alternatives to public transport, such as e-bikes and e-scooters.

Now Bolt has committed to investing €100 million in 2021 to expand our micro-mobility service. We are currently on our fourth-generation, fully-recyclable Bolt e-scooter, which we have developed and manufacture in-house. We only used the e-scooters for rental at the moment. We are expanding so fast, as we have identified that this is an area where we can affect urban mobility the most.


AoS: Bolt is innovating in other ways for the good of society – we noticed that you recently launched a women-only service in South Africa. How come?

SS: I'm sad to say this was a needs-based initiative. World Bank research showed that 64 percent of women in South Africa said they are not joining with ride-hailing apps as drivers due to safety concerns. We saw an opportunity to safeguard women's safety by having only female drivers and passengers.

We are considering rolling this idea out in other countries, too. With the frugal mindset that Bolt has, we can quickly launch new services because we are a very lean company. I love working for Bolt because you can come up with this idea, pitch it, and it becomes realized in a couple of months, if not less.


AoS: What exactly do you mean when you say "Bolt's frugal mindset?" How does this help the company to make smarter decisions?

SS: Firstly, it doesn't mean we are cheap! Being frugal is also an Estonian mindset. Estonia has 1.3 million people and we've had to build all of the things we use. We have jumped over our shadows, as we say here. The same is true for Bolt. We have 1.5 million drivers and operate in more than 40 countries, and we have three business services [with micro-mobility and Bolt Food], yet we have only 2,000 permanent employees. That's massive.

The frugal mindset is: don't throw money at problems. Try to be smarter, be more economical, to fix the issues. Even if you go back to the core service, our ride-hailing, we take less commission from the drivers. In this way, we can make the price cheaper for the customer, the driver retains more of the fare, and we win by expanding to more cities.


AoS: What is it like to work with a young, pioneering CEO, and how would you describe his leadership style?

SS: I hate to disappoint you, but companies with young, pioneering CEOs are very common in Estonia. We have the most startups per capita in the world. I love Markus; he is a super-great guy. Most of the people who work for Bolt in the headquarters are also young, but Markus is very approachable. When we are in the office, I sit two meters away from him and can tap on his shoulder to talk about an idea anytime. We often discuss plans when eating together in the Bolt cafe – this is the Estonia mentality.

We joke here that no one is more than two phone calls away if you want to make something happen. I don't want to brag, but I have the numbers of a few ex-prime ministers. It works both ways: the prime minister often calls Markus, too, to pick his brains. It's refreshing and speeds up the delivery of solutions by not having to go through a drawn-out bureaucratic process. We have a digital society, and we are all very driven by innovation and collaborating. Many people are enthusiastic about building things because they realize that they are achievable with help.


AoS: Finally, what advice would you give to business leaders looking to maximize sustainability and profitability?

SS: Keep it simple. I've seen so many companies start to fear going green, because they think they have to do everything at once. There is plenty of low-hanging fruit. An excellent place to start is by offsetting your carbon footprint. You don't have to fix the system, but you can mitigate against the CO₂ your business uses. Work out what your carbon footprint is, and then set short and long-term goals.

Viewpoints from Crowe

Luis Piacenza, COO, Crowe Spain
Luiz Piacenza, COO, Crowe Spain

The platform business is perhaps the most disruptive model of organizations since the inception of the Dutch and English chartered companies in the 17th century. And as with the pioneers of the 17th century, the central pillar of this disruption is the use of technology.

The rules on how a corporation operates are being challenged by a new form of organizations, shaking all the fundamentals of labor, assets, and revenue models. Most of the stakeholder dialogue takes on a new dimension once these are rearranged around new relationships and a different focus on value creation.

Tackling the sustainability challenges in the platform economy also requires a different, progressive lens. For example, the decarbonizing of operations implies considering the external impact and the emissions generated across the supply chain. If a company does not own assets – as with Bolt – the effort becomes collaborative.

The financing activities to improve the environmental efficiency may act on smaller entities or individuals to facilitate their access to updated technology; that is the challenge that Bolt is facing. However, offsetting carbon is not enough. The critical fact is to decarbonize processes through designing the green transition in an economy that is not ‘owned’ but ‘shared’.

Crowe’s work with Glovo, a global company focused on last-mile logistics, also confirms the need to achieve environmental and operational efficiency Engineering alone is insufficient. Design thinking, agile solutions development, and new financing models are the paths to reimagine a sustainable, participative shared economy.

Camillo Giovannini, Partner, Crowe Romania
Camillo Giovannini, Partner, Crowe Romania

During the coronavirus crisis, people and companies started to rewire supposedly set-in-stone habits. Everyone will pick “work from home” as a major change, but the second largest one was the incredible growth in consensus that ESG and sustainability in particular had during the last year. About time, too. Sandra Särav’s Q&A underlines how companies during the pandemic tried to refocus business and ethical goals. COVID-19 forced them to play catch-up, but now they are trying proactively to anticipate the needs of what we will expect from the market. Bolt’s “frugal mindset” has been key to winning the market, and the company is a great example how Eastern Europe is now a powerhouse of growth and technology development. It also demonstrates how fast an idea can grow and win the market worldwide, thanks to fast upscaling and lesser regulation. With the new focus on sustainability, more companies are looking to drive ESG, especially offsetting their CO2. Even if the market is not ready – or at least only partially – as proven by the fact that people are not eager to pay more for a zero-emission ride, the trend is settled, and I am sure that early adopters, like Bolt, will have a upper hand to catch the new or changing existing market. At Crowe Romania, our mindset rewired with the pandemic and we probably couldn’t hope for a better side effect than to be more sustainability conscious and moving to a net zero-emission society. 

Simon Riley, Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer, Crowe LLP
Riley SimonBolt reflects Markus Villig’s incredible values – this is the foundation of a purpose-driven organization. There are six key considerations when we seek to be purpose driven, and these are captured in the acronym PESTEL. This stands for politics, economics, society, technology, ecology and legislation. Organizations that understand the impacts of all six factors of PESTEL, and adjust accordingly to make a better world for their people and their customers, drive an infinite and exciting mindset of purpose. As a teenager, Markus began with ecology – sustainability and technology – but continues with social needs. For example, Bolt sought to dial up its food-delivery service during the pandemic, and despite bringing culinary delight they did not pass on extra costs to end customers to ensure that ecology remained the focus. There are a number of other instances where Bolt has looked to make communities safer and fairer, with purpose at the heart – I am impressed by the women-only service in South Africa, with a focus on safety and comfort. Now, in a post-pandemic world, every organization has the opportunity to be purpose driven. I urge business leaders to look at your markers and find where you can make the most the human-centered impact on your customers. If you keep PESTEL front of mind when strategizing, growth will follow.