Markus Villig, founder and CEO of Estonian technology and mobility unicorn Bolt, says in an interview that everyone, including drivers, would gain from Estonia having fewer cars on the roads.
Have the lessons learned in the process of launching Bolt been painful?
Yes, some of them have been very painful. We were bullied by taxi companies, down to death threats. They felt we're competition especially in Lithuania and the Balkans. They can no longer do their business in shadows and have to start paying taxes.
Markus, you're the youngest billionaire in Europe at 29. We also want to become billionaires. What do we need to do?
A lot of work. I'm not sure most people would like to undertake the kind of work we've been doing for the last decade. It is very lonely in a way. You need to work from morning to evening every day for a decade, often also on weekends. Most people find there are other things to do in life, do not have this kind of a mission to pursue for ten years.
What gave you the necessary faith?
I have been a tech fan from when I was little. I cannot imagine having done anything else than becoming a tech entrepreneur. I knew that is what I was going to be doing when I was ten.
Ridesharing and couriers existed before you came along. Did you just copy other people's ideas for profit?
It doesn't matter to us who did something first. The important thing is who does it last. Facebook and Google weren't the first in their sector. They just came along and did it better than anyone else. We have carried the same philosophy. There were five taxi apps in Estonia before we started. How many are left? It boils down to who does it better in the end.
For young people watching, where should one start to find success?
I'm a tech fan. Estonia is so small that we cannot really compete in traditional sectors. So, we're left with the new sectors that are just opening up. That is why our startups are flourishing.
Bolt was voted the most desirable employer among students. Do you believe young people today are prepared to work as hard as you have?
Every generation has its crazies so to speak, people for whom it is their calling and who don't even count work hours. It is not really their work but something that interests them. Our job at Bolt is to find them and give them a platform. Work ethic matters to us. We want to find people who aim to change the world and realize that it requires a lot of work. Many young people find that attractive.
We have many different departments. Technology is one of the most important. We build apps, hardware and scooters. It is a lot of work.
How do you spend your money?
My billion-euro fortune is largely fictitious as 99 percent of it is my stake in Bolt. I've realized that most things that matter in life cannot be paid for in cash, whether we're talking about health or loved ones. Rather, you run the risk of damaging those things if you work very hard. Most people maintain a balance in life where they keep these things in order and have money left over to do something good.
I spend on hobbies. They are not major sums, while I'm concentrating on two things now. One is chess. My friends gifted me the opportunity to play world champion Magnus Carlsen, and I have been learning to play chess every day for the last six months.
My other hobby is history. I became interested in why there are wars and how they are won, especially since the start of the Ukraine conflict. I have read ten books on the subject and will keep reading more.
Which truths have you moved closer to?
Wars are won by the side that has the greater desire to win and refuses to give up. Looking at the Estonian and Finnish wars for independence, the side whose will is stronger wins.
Is is true that as recently as 2019, you did not get a separate hotel room for yourself and flew economy airlines?
I still fly with Ryanair, because why not. It's not about whether I can afford to do something. The question is whether I would really gain anything from spending thousands of euros. Would it make me happy.
You would get to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
I find joy in other things, spending time with family and friends, my hobbies. I don't have a car because I don't have a driver's license.
That is not sensible.
I understand that people have been raised to believe that the money you make needs to be spent on expensive luxury goods. I was raised differently. I care about my family and friends and...
Scooters, I'm sure.
Because I don't have a driver's license, I use Bolt services, public transport or just walk every day. On the one hand, I need to know how our products really work. Secondly, it's a good opportunity to show there are others ways of getting around than a car.
Are there too many cars in the city?
It is sensible to have one car per family. The problem is that people use cars more often than they should. They become slaves to their habits and start driving even when they only need to travel 500 meters.
What do you think about a car tax in Estonia?
Estonia is the only country [in Europe] with no car tax. We are very much in favor of its introduction. It will change the way people behave, depending on what it will be like, while I am very much in favor in principle.
There are a lot of people who "hate" electric scooters. Did you ever imagine they could become such a problem?
We see them as a solution. People who love scooters outnumber those annoyed by them tenfold. Bolt scooters were used by half a million Estonians last year.
When cars first arrived a hundred years ago, they took some getting used to and created a lot of extra work for people. It also took time to realize that driving under the influence of alcohol is not a good idea.
But it also surprises me how impudently people drive and park. I see a few such cases every week. It shows that we need to do our work better at Bolt. People's habits can be changed in cooperation with the city and the police.
Several limitations for Bolt scooters will enter into force from May 1. There will be a speed limit and two people cannot share a scooter anymore.
We will be voluntarily self-regulating as the city could not do it before next year. There is no need for draconian regulations. It is enough for the city and the firm to cooperate.
What happened in Paris? There was a referendum and 90 percent of people said they no longer wanted scooters in Paris.
Just 1 percent of voters turned out for the referendum. Not exactly a representative sample. Paris is in many ways a worse city for scooters than Tallinn. We have proposed using Bolt scooters in Paris, but they were not received in a civilized manner. Scooters were thrown in the river, up trees and simply wrecked. Our scooters are treated with respect in Tallinn, compared to other European cities.
How good is Tallinn for cyclists and pedestrians?
Not very good, with statistics reflecting as much. People blame the weather, while that's not really a sound explanation. Looking at Helsinki, bike use is up five times compared to Tallinn because of good infrastructure and the fact it is safe to ride and park there. We believe Tallinn will do the same in the next five years.
Tallinn's bike strategy is solid, and we're planning to do the same things that exist in Scandinavia. We simply haven't put them into practice yet.
Change does not have to include conflict. More people using bikes would be excellent for drivers. There are 400,000 cars in Harju County alone, with the Estonian fleet growing to one million cars next year. We have the most cars per capita in Europe. If some of those people would start using bicycles, everyone would be better off. We would have less traffic and cleaner air.
You were on the cover of Forbes a few weeks ago. How big of an event was that for you?
It was a bigger deal for the team than for me. I celebrate good results. I don't attract too much attention in Estonia, and I like it when people don't recognize me on the street.
Editor: Marcus Turovski