Digging into Wolt with cofounder Elias Pietilä

    Our Finnish readers most likely have Wolt on their radar. The app, released last week, allows users to pre-order (and pre-pay) for food from a growing list of restaurants around Helsinki, letting you to skip the lines and walk out with a bag full of burritos. Busy Finns that hate lines aren’t the only reason the app has gotten some attention, however.

    On top of a €400,000 seed round and a strong team, cofounder and CEO of Wolt is Miki Kuusi, the recently retired Main Organizer of Slush, Helsinki’s startup conference that has ballooned to 14,000 attendees. Wolt answers the question, “What is Miki doing next,” and has picked up a good deal of Finnish press and traction from startup watchers.

    To dig into the company we spoke with cofounder Elias Pietilä, Product and Mobile Lead at Wolt. Pietilä is also a cofounder of Qvik, a Helsinki-based mobile development firm, and in 2009 won the Apple Design Award for Wooden Labyrinth 3D, an impressive accomplishment considering Steve Jobs must have had some say in the matter.

    We caught Pietilä as he was walking back from lunch yesterday. It wasn’t a Wolt pickup – he’s eaten a ton from the Wolt restaurants around their office, but instead was doing “market research”.

    So, two Qvik birthday parties ago we were eating some cake and talking about mobile payments. What are your thoughts about mobile payments and how have they evolved?

    My relationship with mobile payments began in 2012 when I was speaking at this “Mobiilimaksaminen 2012” event – we were sponsoring it with Qvik. I had just gotten back from San Francisco where I met with Jyri Engeström [cofounder of Jaiku which sold to Google for an undisclosed sum]. We had come out with QvikCard which is a mobile white-label loyalty card. I was so excited about NFC and how it can be used for payments and so on. He was like, “dude the problem is already solved, we don’t use NFC for anything.” To illustrate he ordered us ice cream using Pay With Square – a solution where your face was essentially used to validate purchases.

    At the conference I was supposed to talk about the possibilities of mobile NFC payments but ended up bashing them for trying to mimic the credit card with the smartphone. I’d argue in this scenario you’re missing out with the point of the smartphone – it’s this smart device that can do a lot of stuff but it can also run out of battery. Why would you have to take out your phone and have to rub it against a NFC terminal? It doesn’t save you any time or anything.

    The problem is that NFC payments don’t fix anything that is inherently broken. The thing about [traditional] payments is that it works. It’s secure and fast, but you have to do it in a set place at a set time. The pain is not that you have to put the credit card into the device or tap it on the side, but the biggest difference [to Wolt] is that I need to be there to make the payment. I think we are seeing the old companies pushing this NFC card business while the new start-ups are building completely new experiences that push payments to the background where it belongs.

    So how did this then evolve into Wolt?

    For me personally, the opportunity to found Wolt came at the perfect time. We had built the QvikCard with a native app for iOS, Android, and Windows, and we were working with a major telecom to bring payments into the platform. That didn’t move fast, and we even ended up putting €200k into the platform without necessary traction. That didn’t work out and we figured we had to move on. Out of the blue, Miki called me and said he’s gathering a team to do a mobile payment thing which I thought was awesome, because we’re working on this too. Miki had actually been toying with the concept building mock-ups and such with our designer Mika Matikainen and some other people for a year.

    I don’t know why, but intuitively Miki had come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t do a white-label product. QvikCard is white-label where you have a different app for every customer – something we learnt the hard way wasn’t easily scalable. Instead, we wanted to put it all under one app for Wolt. I don’t think there’s anything really revolutionary behind the concept, but we see it as a more of an execution play. We want to make the experience the best it can be. We don’t think we will be the first or the last one to have a shot at this, but we want to be the best.

    You’re a design guy. What are some of the things you’re really proud of with Wolt?

    What we really love at the moment is the core loop. Although the meaning of “core loop” is different from that of games, it’s the cycle of finding the place where you want to eat at, and ending up there with the order. The loop works beautifully. I really like how the basic flow of the application works when you make the order and return to home base safely.

    I also really love how we stole Facebooks’s chat ball – you always have your orders with you. You don’t have to go to a special place to view them, and so you can continue to browse the menu for supplementary orders of drinks or dessert while retaining quick access to your pending orders. I like this stateless order flow that we have.

    Also I like these small touches with loading indicators and transitions, such as how the loading indicator turns into an avatar or keypad. First we looked at Mika’s finished drawings and decided where the affordances are to do cool things, and then we spent our time making small animations and tweaks that don’t distract you, but make the app overall more organic or fluid. For example, when the total price of your orders changes based on your selections it bounces gently, and when the order is actually delivered the checkmark transitions to your order history. You see where things end up. It’s a team effort of course and it’s great to have Mika, Miki and the whole team come up with ideas.

    What I learnt from the time I designed and developed apps at Qvik and doing my own games is that apps people want to show each other spread the best. In Wooden Labyrinth 3D I think the thing that sold the game was that the menus. You could roll the ball on them as they were made from the labyrinth itself. It’s the thing I got most positive feedback on. At Wolt we also want to do stuff that looks awesome so that you show it to your friends. You are often in a social situation when ordering food, so when you order with Wolt you’re likely to spread the word.

    Do restaurants see the value in Wolt right away?

    So far I might almost say the sales part of Wolt is automatic. The combination is lucrative. There’s little to no upfront costs, and our cut is very small. Everyone wants to be in mobile, but many companies cannot afford their own mobile offering.

    We can now start to prove Wolt does bring in new customers. A pop-up restaurant on Iso Roba [a street in Helsinki] called Kansleri says they actually have 30% of their revenue through Wolt, which is fun. It’s getting a fair bit of use at the moment. Now it’s just a question of how fast we can launch new places.

    Our experience in Finland isn’t quite realistic when going abroad – we can’t say it will be Finland, but bigger. Here we have a lot of connections and a lot of goodwill that helps us out tremendously. We’re humbled to have that, but we know it’s not the case when we get to central Europe.

    Speaking about that, I was in Shanghai last December, and we got everything from Belgian beer to Pho delivered to our door, and in bigger cites in the States you can get almost anything delivered. Talking international growth that’s a competitor to you guys, are you only limited to midsize cities like Helsinki?

    Definitely we are behind the curve here in Finland. Like, in many countries people have their groceries delivered, where as this is only becoming possible here. That’s why Finland is an easier market for us because we don’t have as much competition. There are already many established players in the States and Japan, that’s why our strategy is to spread through Europe first – we don’t have many massive metropolitan areas.

    The way we see Wolt evolving as a way to buy physical things around you. We want to expand that going forward so its not only restaurant food and drinks, but tickets, flowers, clothes – whatever you can have in the physical world around you. It’s an interface to buy things close to you. Delivery, even though it doesn’t exist in the application yet, is going to expand the possibilities we can handle.

    So delivery is coming soon, and to Finland then?

    Yeah, delivery in on track to being launched in the coming months. We’ll be announcing some big chains once this feature makes its way to the service. In years to come we are also thinking of delivering products outside of restaurant food. We’d also want to do groceries, but we have to go vertical by vertical. We’ll build the best UI for each use case. What is the next one? We shall see. But we’ve got good ideas.

    Anything else you want to mention?

    We are definitely looking for talent. We are currently the founding team of six, and are looking for developers, designers, and sales people, and were looking to hire more passionate people to our team.