Lightning Bolt … how Markus Villig’s mobility start-up from Estonia, beat Uber at its own game … and is now the fastest growing tech company in Europe

April 15, 2023

Markus Villig was a teen-tech entrepreneur, launching his startup as a 19 year old, in the same year he graduated from his Tallinn high school. He went on to become the youngest founder of a European billion-dollar company.

Bolt, then known as Taxify, launched in the Estonian capital promising to take lower commissions – which meant higher net wages for drivers, and lower fares for passengers, compared with other ride-hailing apps, like Uber. In fact I remember landing on an Air Baltic flight in Tallinn, and all business travellers had a direct connection to the Taxify cars waiting outside.

In 2019, Taxify rebranded as Bolt and is now one of the world’s fastest-growing mobility platforms, offering ride-hailing, car-sharing, food-delivery, and electric-scooter services to more than 100 million customers in over 45 countries.

While Uber, the world’s leading ride-sharing business, was blowing billions of dollars trying to buy global domination, Markus Villig was busy doing the opposite with Bolt. The Estonian, working on a relatively small budget, has built a $8.4 billion business, and an $700 million personal fortune, by focusing on overlooked markets in Africa and Europe.

Between 2015 and 2019, Villig scaled up Bolt from $730,000 sales to $142 million. He couldn’t afford big losses, so he operated the company close to break-even.  Uber, by contrast, burned through $19.8 billion, almost $6.3 million a day, before going public in 2019.

Villig’s careful approach has paid off. The business now has more than 3 million drivers, operates in 45 countries and generated $570 million in 2021 sales revenue. At its latest valuation, in January 2022, the company was said to be worth $8.4 billion. Of course, startup values have since tumbled, and with a 20% stake, the 29-year-old Villig is now Europe’s youngest billionaire.


Villig knew he wanted to start a tech company when he was as young as 12, according to a recent CNBC profile

At age 19, Villig dropped out of college after just one semester studying computer science at the University of Tartu, in Estonia, as his ride-hailing app, Taxify, began to take off. and the 25-year-old is the youngest founder of a billion-dollar company in Europe, according to research by Estonian start-up network Lift99.

Villig started the business with a 5,000 euro loan from his family to build a prototype of the app, the summer after graduating from high school. He was inspired by Skype, which was founded in his home country of Estonia in 2004, showing a technology business “could be launched from anywhere.”

“I realized that tech is one of those industries where you can have huge leverage in the fact that you can accomplish big things with a very small team,” he told CNBC. And even as interest in the app started to pick up, Villig said he remained disciplined with business costs by avoiding “hiring loads of people or doing expensive marketing campaigns.”

In fact, Villig took to the streets himself in Estonia’s capital Tallinn to recruit taxi drivers in the early days of the business “Ultimately it comes down to being extremely customer focused and frugal,” he said. “This is an industry where customers really care if they get good value for their money,” he adds. “So if you can offer customers 20% better pricing or you can make sure the drivers take 20% more on every ride then that really pays.”

Bolt drivers can earn over 10% more on average compared to other ride-hailing platforms, as it takes 15% commission from them per ride, compared to the 25% Uber charges it “partners” on each fare.


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