The ability for a company to rapidly scale depends on a few different things — capital raised, resources, the team, the product itself, and the market as a whole.
Bolt, the Estonian-based ride-hailing startup, has scaled beyond expectations to become a market leader in its industry. What’s the secret to its success?
Adrian Pica, VP of Product Management at Bolt, joined Disruption Talks to explain the secrets to Bolt’s scaling success. Bolt recently raised 628 million euros ($711 million) in a new funding round and has been valued at 7.4 billion euros ($8.4 billion) — essentially doubling in value from just five months ago.
It’s safe to say that Bolt is one of Europe’s hottest unicorn companies. Bolt’s been working hard for the past eight years on its mission to rebuild cities for people, not cars. Car ownership continues to be a problem pollution-wise, but by providing more affordable and accessible alternatives, Bolt is doing its bit to work towards a post-car city.
As a natural competitor to Uber, Bolt has launched into key markets such as London and Paris and has expanded into other lines of business, including food delivery and e-scooter hire.
Adrian has a vast amount of experience as both a Product Manager and a CEO and co-Founder of several small startups. His experience as an entrepreneur has helped him build and scale the product team. He shares his insights into hiring, scaling, and developing digital products in this discussion.
Pedro Sousa: Can you give a short personal introduction?
Adrian Pica: The way I entered into product management was not the usual path, but that’s the same for a lot of Product Managers. I went to law school and studied for a master’s in marketing. That’s when I started focusing on marketing and digital product building.
A lot of my experience that followed was with brick-and-mortar businesses, so I had a car dealership, a restaurant, an advertising and web design agency, and did a bunch of other entrepreneurial things, slowly moving into the digital space.
I then started spending time in product management and startups, working in a few companies in product management before moving to Bolt.
Is entrepreneurship a background you look for when hiring Product Managers?
At Bolt, we have this concept called Extreme Ownership which is where a Product Manager acts essentially like a CEO of their product. They’re truly responsible for it, and we guide them through the larger vision of the company.
When hiring, we only make offers to Product Managers that show they have the skills and the potential to be CEOs of their products. It doesn’t mean that those without entrepreneurial experience are not a great fit, but a lot of those entrepreneurial characteristics are great for Bolt.
What are the biggest challenges to scaling a company at this pace?
One of the things that helped us with scaling was a laser focus on the business’ main KPIs. The leadership team identified them and built the business around them, so we now focus on becoming extremely efficient and keeping costs low.
We did not have access to the same level of funding as our competitors, so we had to somehow serve the same markets with fewer resources.
Bolt had to build the business with lower costs in mind, but this helped us scale faster.
It meant taking less from our drivers and our customers, which helped us compete with other players in the market.
How does Bolt organize product management to scale and maintain lower costs?
Bolt had to use ruthless prioritization. Whenever you have a roadmap for the next year or month, every Product Manager needs to be able to prioritize. We focused on ROI, which meant allocating the smallest amount of engineering work to the right tasks.
Our competition was extremely well funded, they hired more than we did in different locations. However, this meant they had a higher cost of serving customers — and a higher price for them as well.We focus on delivering a high quality of service at the lowest price and believe that this is the right value proposition for the business verticals we are in.
How do you instill the innovation and creativity in your team to not just copy what the other companies are doing?
Our value proposition has always been to say: we can give you this mobility service, whether that’s ride-hailing or delivery or rentals, and we can give it to you faster and cheaper. The way we look at our roadmap is to find those items which will bring the most value.
We encourage our Product Managers to think critically. We don’t want to just copy the competition.
Not because other companies are doing it wrong but because they had a completely different set of market opportunities, fundraising, they hired different people, worked in different markets, or started at a different time. We found this way was the right way for us, and I think we have a good approach and company culture.
How do you keep in touch with user needs?
The obvious answer is to try to keep in touch with our users. I still do that quite often. I try to engage in conversation with drivers and couriers because it’s easier to understand their daily problems.
It’s important for a Product Manager to understand the lives of your operations colleagues because there could be a lot of product growth unlocked by understanding a different side of the business.
Can you explain how Bolt’s three verticals work?
The first vertical is the most well-known one, the ride-hailing vertical. The second one is delivery, so that’s food and takeout delivery. The third is rentals which involve the rental of green scooters around cities.
Above all that, we have a platform layer that I’m responsible for, which involves the user account and identity part, communication, and so on. This applies across all the verticals.
The more complexity you have, the more challenges you face keeping everything in sync, but that’s always the problem with scale-ups. When you move from the startup or idea phase, you move into the problem-to-solution stage, where you experiment and do MVPs. Then you move into the growth stage.
Each stage has different challenges, but one of the reasons startups work well is because they’re extremely agile compared to larger, older businesses.
Startups see that the value in learning is much higher than the value of process. If you’re a product lead, you need to constantly monitor the balance between the value of learning and the value of process. In the early stage, the value of learning is high while you’re building and experimenting. As you find your feet, the value of process is much more valuable.
When you’re launching new initiatives, do you assemble a task force from different departments in Bolt?
We always have frequent meetings on new potential verticals or areas to expand into. We’re always doing deep research, looking into the unit economics, and understanding the total addressable market to see if there are any pockets of value we can explore.
With grocery deliveries, we experimented with a bunch of options, looking at unit economics, and decided that we wanted to focus on fast grocery deliveries but with smaller items of stock.
How do you validate new product ideas at Bolt?
The Product Manager has a discussion with the team and puts together a list of potential ideas.
We all look at the merit of the ideas, the data, the potential uplift that a new feature might bring, and then speak with the engineering team.
They give us a good estimation of how much work would be needed to make it happen. Then it goes onto a priority list with other projects and ideas.
With such a high demand for tech talent, how do you attract the best people?
One thing I’ve noticed at Bolt is that there’s a high level of intellectual challenge. We try to hire people who have critical thinking, and we also have very open communication where we positively challenge each other all the time.
We also have a decent work-life balance at Bolt, which I know is appreciated in a high-growth business. If you pay your employees fair, and you treat them fairly, but give them a lot of interesting professional challenges and opportunities, you might attract a group of awesome like-minded people.
If you could cast a spell that gave all 12-year-olds in the world a new skill or piece of knowledge, what would it be?
Though it’s not related to product management, I would say taking care of your brain from a mental health perspective, taking care of your body with nutrition and exercise, and taking care of your finances. If we can achieve that with 12-year-olds, we might create a generation of entrepreneurs.
This discussion is part of our Disruption Talks recordings, where we invite experts to share their insights on winning innovation strategies, the next generation of disruptors, and scaling digital products. To get unlimited access to this interview and more insights from industry experts, sign up here.