The story of Bolt

Mar 21, 2023

The story of Bolt

Bolt is the fastest-growing mobility company in Europe and Africa. 

Whether you’re riding a scooter through the streets of Berlin, ordering a burger and fries in Prague, or requesting a ride-hailing trip in Lagos, Nigeria, Bolt wears many hats.

You might think that such a company started as a financial giant, competing with the industry’s biggest players. But our story has humble beginnings.

Read on as we uncover the incredible story of how a dedicated teenager worked tirelessly to build something useful, which now serves over 100 million people worldwide. 

The early 2000s in Estonia 

Estonia hasn’t always been a tech hub. In the early 2000s, it wasn’t necessarily where investors flocked in search of engineering and tech talent. 

But that all changed when a succession of tech start-ups, namely Skype, began to sprout in 2004. 

Estonia’s tech shift came at the perfect time for Markus Villig, a school student with a keen eye for science whose brother worked at Skype. 

Seeing his brother work on products impacting millions of people inspired Markus to learn more about tech. He dedicated his spare time to studying high-growth tech companies and software engineering developments — not typical hobbies for a youngster! 

Through his insatiable appetite for tech, which included starting a website-building business and attending hackathon events, Markus brushed shoulders with influential tech entrepreneurs, learning valuable skills along the way.

How Bolt was created

There wasn’t a single light-bulb moment that started Bolt. Instead, four factors led to Markus’ idea: 

  • Size of the transportation industry: after researching industries to begin a tech start-up in, Markus was drawn to the opportunities and size of one of the largest consumer categories in the world — transportation;
  • Smartphone adoption: Markus wrote a research paper at high school about smartphone adoption. He knew that mobile apps would be an accepted tool in the future;
  • Similar ride-hailing systems: after returning from a trip to Ukraine, Markus’ brother told him of a web-based taxi ordering system he’d used;
  • Poor local taxi services: Markus, along with other Estonians, would bemoan long wait times, unreliability, and the general poor taxi service level across the country. 

With these four factors in Markus’ mind, he set out to improve Estonia’s lacklustre transportation situation with a simple app where users could see nearby taxis. The first iterations of Bolt were in motion.

Finding drivers to join Bolt

Given Estonia had taxi service problems, finding riders was easy. Workers, students, and tourists alike needed a convenient and reliable way to move.

And the news was spreading. Soon, hundreds of riders had joined a waiting list, eagerly anticipating Bolt’s launch. As the number of interested riders rose, it was evident that attracting drivers would prove more challenging.

Markus Villing and Taxify app

Technology wasn’t warmly welcomed in the taxi-driving community — an industry unaccustomed to change. After school, Markus would spend nights convincing drivers at local taxi ranks to join his app, but many didn’t even own a smartphone!

Persistent rejections didn’t dampen Markus’ spirits, though. And after months of convincing drivers that ride-hailing was the future, he was rewarded with 50 drivers signing up for the waiting list. 

Launching Bolt in Tallinn

With hundreds now on the list, Markus began creating the mobile app — a difficult task when you’re working with the limited resources of a student. So, using money borrowed from his parents (which had been saved as a university fund), Markus enlisted a developer to help build the first version of our ride-hailing software.

The app turned out defective and had many bugs. But instead of scrapping the project, Markus worked night and day to fix the app himself. After months of debugging, a fresh-faced Markus launched Bolt (mTakso as it was known then), in its first city, Tallinn, in August 2013.

Bolt's timeline

Bolt’s impressive growth

After launching, Bolt had a bumpy and stuttering start — initially running just 20 rides daily. But having his creation out in the world was the most important thing to Markus. He believed in the app and knew higher numbers would come.

With two new cofounders joining Markus: Martin, his brother, and Oliver Leisalu, a developer who transformed the Bolt app, the trio worked tirelessly without taking a salary for the first six months.

Markus Villig, Oliver Leisalu, Martin Villig

Their devotion was rewarded eight months after launch when Bolt became the local market leader, offering 50,000 rides a month! 

In 2014, just one year after launch, Bolt became the leading travel option across most of Estonia, and Markus started plotting expansion abroad. The same year, Bolt launched in Latvia and continued its growth across Europe before launching in Africa in 2016.

Making urban travel sustainable

At the heart of Markus’ vision was a desire to transform mobility services and build a future without personal cars. Cities worldwide are clogged with cars, which leads to traffic jams, high emissions, and a lack of public space, and Markus wanted to lead a shift away from this.

In September 2018, we expanded into electric scooter provision, launching in Paris. Efficiency is one of our core values, and by adding more urban transportation options, travellers can avoid unnecessary car journeys for shorter trips.

Today, we have over 230,000 scooters and e-bikes across Europe.

Bolt's scooters

In May 2021, we furthered our commitment to making urban travel more sustainable by launching Bolt Drive, a car-sharing service. As of 2023, Bolt Drive is live in four European cities, and the service is expanding to more cities worldwide.

A woman using the Bolt Drive service

What’s next for Bolt?

We’ve got no plans to slow down. Today, we operate in more than 500 cities and 45 countries in Europe, Africa, Western Asia, and Latin America. 

With millions of customers, we remain focused on making the world a better place and accelerating the shift from owned cars to shared mobility. From ride-hailing and shared cars, bikes and scooters to food and grocery delivery, we continue to offer more transport options to make our cities more liveable.

Check out our blog for the latest Bolt news and updates. And if you support our mission and want to help us make cities for people, not cars, visit our open vacancies and join our journey.

Download Bolt

Recent posts