Monday October 16th, 2023 -
I’m heading to West London, to meet Timo Boldt, Founder and CEO of Gousto. What started as a meal kit delivery service over 10 years ago, Gousto is now a market leader in an industry packed with competitors. Focused on reducing food waste and carbon emissions, Gousto’s got big plans for improving the health of both the planet and its people.
It seems fitting that Gousto’s London head office is in Shepherd’s Bush, which was originally a pasture for shepherds on their way to Smithfield Market. Now, it’s a hub for a company that’s revolutionising how we buy, prepare and consume our food in the 21st century.
Timo comes down to the reception to meet me in person. He personally makes me tea, and we head to his office which sits right alongside his colleagues, to start on the journey that took him from West Germany to West London.
Timo was born in Berlin, when the city was still separated into four zones. This is where he first cut his teeth with entrepreneurial ventures, and it was foreign comics that got him into making money at a young age. A friend that would regularly go to Italy would bring back Italian comics for him, which he would then sell on to other kids in his school. “I bought them for around €9 or €10, which was quite expensive for a comic then, but I would sell them for €30. At that age, I felt like I was printing money.”
It wasn’t long before he had the chance to experience living around the world, and he spent several years as a teenager in California; firstly, he had two years in Napa Valley where he graduated high school, before coming back to Southern California for his transfer year in university. His godparents who were also based in Napa Valley had an entrepreneurial drive of their own that they instilled in Timo.
“They were always pushing me, saying ‘Why are you not starting a company of your own?’ They had started dozens of their own companies, with quite a few going on to be successful. And they lived this amazing lifestyle, so I always looked up to them. They got me to work in a supermarket, and really instilled in me the value of work, learning how a business functions from the inside out, and the positive impact that sustainable businesses can make. “Living there massively influenced my mindset, my attitude to risk taking, my optimism – even though I only spent a few years there.”
His godparent’s businesses in restaurants and food gets us talking about what goes into a ‘breakfast of champions’ (for Timo it’s flax seeds, chia seeds, plenty of nuts, oats and seasonal berries – spinach and kale if he’s feeling really healthy), the conversation turned to him mentioning an alternate future becoming a student athlete. “I still love exercise and see myself as an athlete. I was offered a scholarship to play American Football in the US. So, I make sure I still exercise a lot and eat plenty of protein even now.”
And as for that scholarship? He turned it down to focus more on academics and return to his native Germany for university. It was here that the entrepreneurial spark was ignited again, as he started an investment club, run for and by students.
“We had a small group of around 15, each investing between €100-1000. Then we raised another €10,000 of capital from other students and invested on their behalf. We had a logo and branded t-shirts and took it seriously. It was 2005, just before the market went really crazy. We took an insane amount of risk, and our portfolio was performing positively, so we looked like geniuses. I graduated in 2008 and was headed off to an internship and sold everything off. Months later, the market crashed, and we looked like masters of the game. All of this helped to build confidence and get me a job in investment banking.”
It’s clear he was hard at work throughout university, pushing himself with his side projects, but also ramping up his studies to set himself up for his future career.
“I’m quite an intense and relentless person by nature. In Germany, you’re not required to physically show up to university. So, I did 12 months of internships during my three years of studying. I wasn’t there all the time, but I still took all the exams and studied during early mornings and late nights. I ended up gaining a lot of work experience during university. Then, the day after I took my final exam, I moved to the UK and started in investment banking.’
‘Working in that high-paced environment was exactly what I wanted as an ambitious young guy. I loved the analytical mindset that was needed to thrive there, and it played to all my skills in maths and statistics. When I joined the industry, the market crashed, but it helped me narrow down what I wanted to do in the future with my own business. I didn’t want to be a service provider, I wanted to be an owner, which is when I moved to a hedge fund. I joined as an associate and was promoted to a vice president quickly, which came with a huge amount of responsibility.’
“I learned so much in those years – there was a huge amount of risk-taking and the people that I worked with were very entrepreneurial. But my values didn’t quite align with my career trajectory. I was motivated by the desire to do something that helped thousands of people, not just myself and a small few. I didn’t see myself working there forever, so I decided to make the jump early. I only really had about four years of work experience across banking, but even today, I’m grateful for the skills I’ve acquired.”
It draws a lot of parallels to OakNorth’s own CEO Rishi Khosla, and his journey from leaving a successful career at a young age to take a punt on a new business idea. But what made him decide to start a business in food meal kits – a completely new market – back in 2012?
“I love food, I love entrepreneurship, and I wanted to have a positive purpose. I’d always worked hard – I was in banking before, where we were pulling 100-hour weeks in hedge funds and investment banking, but I didn’t see the purpose behind it all.”
When it comes to purpose, Timo had something specific in mind – the planet.
“I wanted to do something that had a positive impact on people and the planet. Food waste is one of the top contributors to carbon emissions, and I could see that health, sustainability, and convenience would massively change how we eat. It was clear to me that there would be a seismic shift in the market that I could capitalise upon. I knew that I didn’t want to pursue this as a side hustle and the next day I started Gousto.
But with all these connections in different places, what was special about the UK and why was it here that he decided to start his business?
London was where I started my banking career, and having interviewed and interned in the US and Germany, I wasn’t afraid of putting roots down in a new country. I had never been to London before, but I’m super open-minded and attracted to new ideas and places. It turned out it was the right place for me (and Gousto!), and I’ve now been here for over 16 years. Over time I fell in love with the culture and the diversity – I’ve even got a British passport.”
Now, we’ve found what first got Gousto off the ground, but I want to know a little more about Timo’s entrepreneurial style. I ask a favourite question about what songs would make his ‘Now that’s what I call an entrepreneur!’ playlist:
“First on the list would be Unstoppable by Sia. The lyrics are hugely motivating and are about never giving up. Then Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey. It’s all about never giving up on the dream. And finally, Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson. Taking ownership of your actions, finding solutions and not complaining about the hand you’ve been dealt. The grass is greenest where you water it, and I really resonate with the message of being the master of your own ship.”
Timo’s clearly doing something right and living these philosophies, as he won the EY Entrepreneur of the Year accolade last year – it can just be seen over his shoulder, sitting on his window ledge. I asked him what he thought were the must-have qualities for entrepreneurs to attract the attention of the big awards.
“The three qualities for me are ‘dream, deliver, and care.’ Dream is the most obvious one – how can we continue to push on? It’s all about having a growth mindset and be constantly learning. However, you must be able to deliver – the ideas are the first step, but the next crucial step is being able to focus on the impact of your work and finding solutions. And thirdly, how passionate are you? Are you making a positive difference, are you bringing people along with you on the journey? For me, it’s really important that you’re not in it just to make money, and that passion is a huge driving factor behind you, otherwise you won’t survive the emotional rollercoaster of entrepreneurship.”
This comment on the money not being such a big factor goes back again to this wider sense of purpose driving him and Gousto’s ambitious. Big plans and huge passion matched with high levels of discipline. But what would he want to learn from other leaders and entrepreneurs? At a fantasy dinner party, who would be round the table?
“Leonardo da Vinci – he’s the OG innovator. He did all these crazy experiments and had plenty of failure along the way – that’s something I’d want to learn from. Second would be Nelson Mandela. After such a long stint in prison to then came out and inspire a nation to completely change the structure of their country. The willpower to face such a huge obstacle is incredible, I’d love to dig into his insane mindset. And lastly, Obama. What he’s done in terms of social movement, and equality, it’s super inspiring.’
After thinking in silence for a couple of seconds, he slaps his hands together and makes one last suggestion, ‘Ah of course,’ he says, ‘I’m adding Angela Merkel, for sure! 16 years of German leadership, I really admire what she’s done, and I’d love to meet her one day.” With half the imaginary dinner party still alive, there’s a 50% chance that Timo could be splitting a dessert with two of the most influential, game-changing world leaders of the 21st century. It’s interesting that he mentions the importance of failure, and the common thread with many of his guests is that they took a long time to build up to their most famous successes – quite different from Timo’s own journey where he had faster successes in his professional career and entrepreneurial pursuits.
Lastly, in the 11 years since Gousto was founded, its production levels have scaled massively. I want to bring things back to the question of sustainability and how Timo plans on matching and improving its impressive results. This is where you can tell the passion really shines through as he talks through what more they could be doing…
“There’s so much opportunity. For example, the latest version of our solar panels is just going live on our factories. As of October 2023, 24% of all electricity we use will be generated by us. We’re pushing the boundaries in so many areas and have already made our office much greener. What’s hard is to work with farmers and convince them that their tractor should be battery powered. So, making these changes in the supply chain is what we’ll focus on in the future. Even today, every time you eat Gousto, 23% of CO2 emissions are taken out of the system, and you save 7kg of CO2 compared with going to a supermarket.”
“But we’re asking ourselves, ‘why is it not 50% better?’ There’s always more opportunity to improve.”
Thinking ahead to the future, I’m reminded of a quote Timo has said; in 10 years Gousto will be a ‘preventative health company.’ I ask him how he sees Gousto evolving to go beyond just a meal provider.
“It’s totally obvious to me that in 10 years’ time, we’ll be consuming food in an even more personalised way and the link between diet and health will be even more established. In the future, we could continue to expand our meal options, or we could even provide a personalised meal plan for each person. But I certainly see us being able to better assess the positive impact of food on health and expanding our knowledge further by funding NHS collaborations and university research projects.” This is blue sky thinking at its finest, coming up with solutions that will help society as a whole, and taking this approach into the future. That’s what’s at the heart for him – health in every sense.
Walking out as we wrap up for the morning, I pass under the poster in the reception that features his company mantra; ‘dream, deliver, and care.’ Talking to him over the last hour, it’s clear he lives all three of these beliefs. Now we just need to see where these dreams will take Gousto over its next 11 years.