Workday Podcast: How Bolt is Leveraging Technology to Steer Through Hypergrowth

On this episode, Andy Turnbull, Head of People Technology at Bolt, talks about the challenges of managing the workforce at one of the fastest-growing companies in the world, how Bolt’s technology helps it stay flexible and efficient, and the power of being honey badgers.

To understand the rapid growth of Bolt, it helps to know what a honey badger is. That’s because the feisty little creature — known for being mightier than its modest size would suggest — is this global tech giant’s original spirit animal.

Bolt started in 2013 when Markus Villig, then 19 years old, decided to overhaul the taxi industry in his hometown of Tallinn, Estonia. To launch the service, he created his own ride-hailing software and personally recruited 50 drivers. Today, the company (which now also offers shared cars, scooters, and food and grocery delivery) is in more than 45 countries and has 3,000 employees

One thing hasn’t changed, though, according to Andy Turnbull, Bolt’s Head of People Technology: “We have this culture of being a honey badger. And that impacts the people we recruit and the style of business we are running.”

Bolt offers maximum autonomy to its international partners, which it views as startups, and operates with maximum flexibility and frugality. But having a big global presence can pose big global challenges. As Turnbull says, “What’s difficult from an HR perspective is how we balance local autonomy with centralised processes.”

In this podcast, Turnbull also talks about fostering hypergrowth while staying true to Bolt’s original DNA and the importance of careful planning before deploying an enterprise management system. 

Here are a few highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity. If you enjoyed this episode, you can find our entire podcast catalog here

  • “We need to punch above our weight and have no fear. Now we’ve become a larger organisation with a bigger global remit, and we are actually leading in some of the markets. So, today, we think of ourselves a bit differently, while sticking to our core principle of no corporate B.S.” 
  • “For us, flexibility is key and being able to mitigate risk or being able to deploy something for the first time at speed is huge. We’re also, at our heart, very frugal. Businesses like ours have consolidated over the years. And it’s so important, especially in these economic times, to be as efficient as possible.
  • “In many of our markets in Western Europe, for regulatory reasons, you need to track employees’ time. At Bolt, we have different types of employees, from office workers to front liners who are fixing and collecting our scooters on the streets. Using Workday, we were able to deploy time-tracking functions in five weeks in five of our Eastern European companies for our most complex vertical. For me that was kind of unheard of.”
  • “When deploying Workday or a similar ERP, I would recommend not just thinking about the objectives of today but think about what the organisation will look like in three to five years. What will the challenges be? What solutions will you need? That’s a great way to sell it back to the organisation as well — saying these are the strategic business problems we’ll face in the future, and this is how we are going to mitigate those risks with technology.

Patrick: Urban mobility – the way we travel around towns and cities is undergoing a significant transformation, but at the forefront of that change is Bolt, which is helping people move around more than 500 cities around the world and in doing so, helping to reshape urban spaces for people and not cars. I'm Patrick Evenden, and on this episode of the Workday Podcast, I'm delighted to be joined by Andy Turnbull, head of people technology at Bolt. We're going to be talking about the challenges of working for one of the fastest growing companies in the world, how Bolt's technology helps it to stay flexible and agile, and intriguingly, honey badgers.

Patrick: Andy, great to have you on the show. We'll come on to speak about the honey badgers, but first, there won't be many people who haven't already taken a journey using Bolt, but for those who aren't yet converts, can you tell us about Bolt and its journey to becoming one of the fastest growing companies in the world?

Andy: For sure. So we were started in Tallinn, Estonia by the big boss, Markus Villig. Started in ride-hailing as our core product and then expanded to micro-mobility, so things like scooters and bikes, and Bolt Drive, and Bolt Food, which is about delivering ready-made meals, and Bolt Market, which is our 15-minute grocery delivery product. And we often see this term "hypergrowth" in our industry and a few others, in big tech companies like ours. It's thrown around a lot, right? It's somewhat of a cliché now. But when we say "hypergrowth", we really mean crazy levels of growth. So from that one city, Tallinn, we now operate in over 500 cities across 45 countries, with 100 million customers. So we're talking real, real volume. And what that translates to in terms of our business growth is 13 times in terms of GMV growth over the last four years. So the business has grown, our geographical spread has grown, and the products we're offering have grown, too. So yeah, it's been a mad journey.

Patrick: A crazy few years, I can imagine. Andy, you're head of people technology at a company that is growing at a phenomenal rate. What challenges does that pose, and what growing pains have you had to work through at Bolt?

Andy: Yeah. I think alongside the classic growing pains that every start-up organisation has, something which is really shaping how Bolt has grown is the fact that we have this culture of being a honey badger. And we'll talk in a bit more depth about what that means, but one of the big impacts it has is the people that we recruit and the style of business that we are running. And what we're doing is we're giving maximum autonomy to our country managers. And what that means is when we launch a new market, it's not like we have a template which they just deploy, and then it's run from our headquarters in Tallinn. It's rather more like they've initiated a start-up in a new location, and they're starting from scratch. So we give as much autonomy as possible. And then what can be difficult from an HQ functions perspective and an ERP perspective is how we actually balance that local autonomy with centralised processes, HQ functions, consistent service for customers globally, and then for employees as our customers globally. And just being able to balance a country manager on the other side of the world who wants to run things in their way versus doing things in a centralised way, which will keep people like our auditors and future shareholders – we're looking into IPO, so when we get to that point as well, there's even more regulatory barriers, right? So for us, it's how do we balance this culture of autonomy and being able to move fast and remove bureaucracy with ticking all the boxes we need to as a large entity.

Patrick:  And I suppose as well giving you flexibility when it comes to the cultural practices in a particular geography. You're not imposing a central view of how those organisations should operate. You're giving them the flexibility to be the way they are.

Andy: 100%. So one of our core principles at Bolt is "no corporate BS", and that's something all of us struggle with, myself and the rest of us on the people tech team. We see real value in bringing people from large consulting organisations, so kind of by nature, we are a bit corporate bullshitty already. So it's an interesting transition, something we have to upscale on. All of us joining from large corporate organisations is we like to speak in a language everyone understands because we're in so many countries. English is not the first language of everyone, and we want to be as accessible as possible. And actually, what we find is information that can come across in the simplest way possible is digested a lot easier. So kind of getting rid of some of those corporate buzzwords can be tricky for us ex-consultants, but we like to walk the walk rather than talk the talk.

Patrick: Okay, good. So for fast-growing companies, agility is key. How's technology helping Bolt to create more flexibility that enables you to grow as quickly as you are?

Andy: Absolutely. So thinking of Workday in particular, what it's really enabled us to do, and one of the key benefits realised, I guess, from an HCM perspective, is alongside us growing a really self-sufficient internal capability and growing a really in-house dream team of really, really skilled, respected resources from ex-consultancy and from other large customers, is we've been able to deploy things rapidly and at speed. And for an organisation like us, we really can't plan even two or three quarters ahead, because we could pivot. We could launch new markets and new products. We could have different worker types. We just don't know. So for us, flexibility is key, and being able to mitigate a risk or being able to deploy something new for the first time at speed is huge for us. We're also, at our heart, very frugal. Businesses like us, they consolidate over the years. There's not many of us left in this industry, and it's so important, especially in these economic times, for us to be as efficient as possible. And what that translates to for us as a people technology and ERP tech team at Bolt is if we can do things at speed, we're not only delivering at speed and able to mitigate risks that may come up or new objectives, but we're able to do things in an efficient and frugal way. We're not going to throw away money on some huge deployment. We like to do things fast, have an MVP-style deployment and iterate on that, and that's how our business is used to working.

Andy: So a couple of examples, last year we deployed Bolt's first ever global salary review. Manual salary review. And we used Workday Advance Comp, and we were able to deploy Workday Advance Comp in one month globally for the organisation, which is kind of unheard, extremely fast, and we certainly wouldn't be able to do it with a team that was overly reliant on external resources. So really, really happy on that front. And then more recently, in many of the markets we operate in Western Europe, it's increasingly – for regulatory reasons, you need to start tracking employee time, so. And we have different worker types. We have office-based employees and we also have front-liners who are fixing and collecting our scooters on the streets of Stockholm here or signing up drivers on the streets of London. So really, really different working styles, and they require their time to be tracked in many of our markets in different ways. And we were able to deploy time tracking functionality using Workday in five weeks in five of our Eastern European countries for micro-mobility, which is probably our most complex vertical when it comes to the type of workers and some of the complexities you have to work through. So that again, for me, was kind of unheard of before we were able to build this team and this setup and the capability that we have.

Patrick: Brilliant. Fantastic. Bolt takes a different approach to employee experience. For a start, you don't have employees. You have honey badgers. Andy, tell us some more about that.

Andy: Yeah, absolutely. So this has been something with Bolt that was started by Markus right at the beginning. And it was really about we're a small player, we need to really be big hitters and kind of punch above our weight versus competitors, and have no fear. And what it's translated to is we've become a larger organisation with a bigger global arena and less competitors, and actually leading some of our markets is thinking of ourselves a bit differently. So probably three main elements. So the first one would be great people over complex processes. And that can be challenging for us, because obviously managing Workday – more often than not we're the gatekeepers when it comes to keeping those processes simplified. And often we're the ones that are balancing meeting certain requirements, or local legislation, versus having a seamless process and removing barriers and complexity. So that could be tricky, but we just kind of keep that top of mind, going back to the no corporate BS. We have to remember who we are, kind of where we come from, stay humble. And we have to just take that seriously and build that into all of our conversations we have internally.

Andy: Next one is efficiency and frugality. From the beginning, Bolt's really been able to be successful and survive because of efficiency and frugality. And the core concept is that if we spend our money wisely, we pass those savings on to our customers ultimately. No, we don't want to be one of those large enterprises that doesn't worry too much about their annual spend on their HCM products or anything which is supporting our HQ functions. Ultimately, the lower we can keep our HQ costs, the better for our business that is, and the more savings we can pass on. And then the last one is acting like an owner. So it really comes back to how I talked about launching your own starter up in your own country. So acting like an owner, and that kind of means autonomy, so being able to make the decisions that we're able to pass onto local teams, but also having a personal interest and a passion in doing things right and achieving things. And that can be good and bad, right? So sometimes, if you own something and it goes wrong, that's not as great, and then in some organisations, you could pass the buck a bit easier. But in Bolt, it's kind of shared successes and failures. I think really, really great to have that autonomy and to feel like you're part of a real purpose-driven organisation that has some objectives and wants to change things and change society, not just make money for future shareholders.

Patrick: Brilliant. You touched on this idea of great people over complexity. How does that affect you in terms of the approach to talent and recruitment?

Andy: Yeah, absolutely. So for us, recruitment is of the utmost importance. I think my recommendation to people who are first deploying Workday is you need to start thinking about your team really, really early in that process. Sometimes, the error a lot of Workday customers make is they don't actually build their team early enough in that process. And what that can mean is it's almost like you're driving in the dark at that point. You're making decisions without actually having people come in and understand your business. And even if you leverage partners and you bring in other resources and contractors, they still need time to really understand what makes you tick and what your strategic objectives are before you can start translating what that means in a Workday perspective, or any other ERP solution.

Andy: So building that team early of the upmost importance. I also think getting that team mixed right is really, really important. We found quite a lot of success in kind of blending a team of ex-consultants like myself and Jaqueline who runs our finance systems team. And then bringing people in from other customers, particularly with things like reporting analytics. We found there are people who have spent a few years, another customer, that really understand business analysis and how the business works. And then we have people from department side who have really, really strong technical expertise and can go really deep and can really operate without much dependence on external resources in consultancy which for us, as a frugal company, is great.

Andy: So I think getting that mix right is really important. You also don't want to forget people who are already in the business and have tenure and have been there a while and really understand what makes things tick. So we found converting people from other departments within the people team who have an interest in technology, or even the business outside of HR, can really pay dividends also. And then picking the right partners to support you where you do need a bit of additional support. Really, really important.

Patrick: Excellent. I guess one last fairly big question to end on. I mean we're here at Workday Rising. If someone comes up to you at the show over the next couple of days, and they say to you, "Andy, look. I'm head of people technology at a company much like Bolt. We're growing really, really fast as well. We're not quite as far along in the journey as Bolt is," what advice would you give to them in terms of their ERP transformation?

Andy: Firstly, don't just think of the business now as it is today. I think the trap sometimes we can all fall into is looking for a solution for the problems of today, and in an organisation like ours, which is growing at a crazy speed and also is looking to be as efficient as possible, we really can't afford to think about today when in three years, the business could look completely different entirely. So I think consider not just the objectives and the risks of today but of three to five years' time. What will your organisation look like in three to five years? What will the challenges be? What solutions will you need? And that's also a great way to sell it back to the organisation as well, not just saying, "This is the problem we have today and this is how we fix it," but saying, "These are the strategic problems as a business we'll face in three to five years, and this is how deploying Workday or a similar ERP will help mitigate those risks," and we found that really effective. Rather than just saying, "We need an HCM transformation program," we rather just came with the problems rather than coming with the solution.

Andy: And then I kind of go back to what I said around starting early. You see so many Workday customers who they only start really when their Workday project kicks off. And actually, you're wasting so much time that you had previously where you can start thinking strategically about what you want to achieve, building those foundations, coming up with high-level decisions. Design doesn't start when you sit in a workshop with a Workday consultant. That can start months before. So I'd say start early, and more importantly than that, build that team early, have that advice, give them access to the teams and to the tools that you have currently, so they're able to do a really in-depth analysis and help you make the correct decisions upfront. And that comes down to not just the solution ultimately you're picking, but also things like the correct deployment partner, which is really important to get right, and how you're going to grow and build the team, and how you're going to support that product once it's in production.

Patrick: How involved were the different organisations around the world when it came to Bolt in the Workday deployment? And were they sort of invested from the very beginning and had a degree of autonomy or a degree of involvement in that process?

Andy: Yeah, I think it comes down to how we really manage the people function at Bolt. And it's really that hybrid model of working in verticals and then working at country level. And that's always a struggle, particularly with security in Workday when we're having people partners that support a whole vertical globally, and then we have other people partners who might support just a country. And I think we were able to get a pretty good mix on balance, looking back retrospectively, whereby our project team was built up of SMEs that spanned both those ways of dividing the business. And we really leveraged those people partners who are aligned with a country when it came to regulatory matters because they were the ones that were able deep dive and make sure we were meeting all the local legal requirements. But then, when it came to more global strategic decisions, things like how do we want our comp processes to look globally? What approvals do we really need? Those are the decisions that we're able to bring those kind of vertical-level people partners and people team leaders in. And that just meant we were able to balance the consistency with the local legal legislation that we just had to kind of tick the box on. Yeah.

Patrick: Excellent. Well, Andy, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been great speaking with you and learning more about Bolt and the incredible journey that you're on. That's all we have time for today. But if you enjoyed the show, you can subscribe at Spotify, Apple Podcast, and Soundcloud. And you can also read more on the Workday blog. Thanks for listening, and have a great work day.

Andy: Thanks, Patrick.

More Reading