Gousto founder and CEO: ‘Be led by purpose and the profits will follow’

Timo Boldt never cared much for making money. So, he didn’t have any misgivings about leaving his job as VP of a hedge fund in 2012 to try his hand in a new food startup, the meal kit business Gousto.

“I had about £75,000 to start the business and another £30,000 to live off while I got it off the ground,” Timo tells Jeff Skinner, Teaching Fellow of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School in an event organised by the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital.

“I was living in a one-bed flat in Oxford. I was fine with that but having no salary is a big motivator.”

Jeff Skinner and Timo Boldt at the Summit Series event

Unmoved by the unimaginative world of investment banking and unimpressed by the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ culture of the hedge fund business, Timo, who was EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2022, told a packed classroom of School students, alumni and friends, he had a big appetite to be part of something that would allow hungry consumers to not only cut their own food waste but also reduce the environmental footprint of the entire food supply chain. He saw demand for “health growing like crazy, sustainability growing like crazy, and convenience growing like crazy” and was compelled to be involved in what he saw being a seismic shift. He was also naïve enough not to appreciate the many and complex hurdles ahead – a blessing, he reflects.   

In a meandering tale of his entrepreneurship journey with Jeff, as part of the Summit Series – formerly the TELL Series – Timo repeatedly returns to the theme of purpose, mission and values and how they’ve always been the North Star guiding his decisions as the B Corps certified UK recipe box business grew from a bootstrapped startup to a company with almost 1,000 employees, counting SoftBank and Fidelity International as investors. In 2023, Gousto reports that five million people in the UK ordered one of its 10-minute meals. The firm delivers an estimated two million prepare-at-home meals a week.

“My employees often come to me to tell me what our competition is doing, but I really don’t care. I care that our NPS score is going up, that our value proposition is get better and that we are driving down our price point. If we can keep doing that then we will triple the business. It’s only a matter of time.” Timo continues. “Fundamentally, we are a product and customer-led company. If our customers are happy, they will invest more, they will refer us to their friends and they will remain with us for longer. We are winning when it comes to unit economics and margin profitability. But this is an outcome, not an objective.”

The food-loving entrepreneur who says on his LinkedIn that Gousto’s vision is to become the most loved way to eat dinner, started to think about workplace culture working gruelling hours at Petrus Advisers. “It was crazy,” he says. “Like how you would imagine finance in the 1990s.”    

“I knew I wanted to build a totally different culture where people love to come to work, and we were very intentional in building this framework early on.” This involved codifying nine ownership principles, three for every value. He is insistent that the only way to build a sustainable business is through culture. But it’s one thing to foster values in a small startup, but how do you maintain them once you’re scaling? How do you permeate the “permafrost” of middle management? Which was one particularly powerful question from the engaged audience.     

Timo says the only way is to be hyper-intentional in your hiring strategy. “My business massively depends on collaboration, so I’ve got to care. Your ownership principles have to match your business strategy and your mission. Communication with your employees has to be in line too. Educating your workers is a big part of it. We have quarterly townhalls where employees can nominate their colleagues for living our values. They can win extra days of holiday, champagne, equity in the business. This is how we educate our employees on our culture.” He says that for 11 years he has been preaching to his investors that nothing foreshadows financial success more than culture. “They’re starting to listen, but it’s a difficult concept,” Timo said.

Jeff asked Timo, now an NED for Comparethemarket.com and challenger bank OakNorth, how his leadership style shifted between the startup and scaleup phase of Gousto. “Stepping back,” Timo responded. “A key dimension of change was me as the founder stepping to empower my leadership time. We were very clear how the leadership team would operate and what specific decisions I would make. This is because I knew that the risk would be I’d become the bottleneck. Everyone would be feeding up to me and that’s just not scalable.” Timo completed a one-year diploma in coaching and mentoring in 2019. “You think, as the founder, everything you touch is going to make everything better, but that is just plain stupid. There are way better people than you. You need to identify them and empower them.”

Three years ago, Timo launched Bento Tech, offering Gousto’s best tools, technology and expertise in SaaS development to other subscription-based startups and scaleups looking for better marketing attribution and to drive up customer conversion and retention. Timo is excited about the potential of this new venture to support the startup ecosystem, especially in a new era of much more constrained VC funding. In the future, Timo sees the company leaning into their expertise in AI and building highly customisable models to create personalised nutrition plans for people living with chronic conditions and illnesses, like cancer and diabetes. This would involve partnerships with the NHS and universities and is a little way off. But this is where Timo says Gousto could be in a decade.

“You are quite literally what you eat,” he says. “And I absolutely see Gousto play a bigger role in health and wellness in the future.”

Watch the video recording of the event.