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Product-driven Innovation at bol

Vincent Weijers, COO at bol, shares innovation lessons from the past year.

Bol seems to be a true ‘innovation machine’. What was 2023 like for you, what will be the focus for the coming year and what role does AI play in this journey?  

Speaking on behalf of the operational side of bol, we grew so significantly during Covid, we went from a single warehouse - single-carrier operation to a multi-carrier – multi-warehouse operation. As a result, there were brand-new challenges like cost selection algorithms and required innovation focused on optimally utilizing our capacity. Managing inventory allocation became pivotal: It is an important cost driver and a large contributor to customer satisfaction. Carrier transformation and innovation enabled us to offer extra service options and expand our product range significantly. In addition, reliability distinguishes us from competitors and must be ensured despite all this growth. So, we can conclude that on the operational side a lot of time and energy has been invested in innovation over the last 2-3 years.


For a platform, scalability is important. Your physical infrastructure must grow with you. While technology can more easily scale with increased volume, logistics is different. Artificial Intelligence helps us become more scalable regarding logistics services and business models. Among others, we’ve used AI models that increase reliability for the customer and don't necessarily require the same capital expenditure. AI primarily serves to increase our much-needed scalability.


For the future, the AI journey will continue. We must look closely at what the future is going to bring us, which is quite difficult in our market. We went from undercapacity in the market (in terms of carriers, for example) to a situation of substantial overcapacity. Where during COVID, everyone was focused on “effectiveness” (can I fulfil the growing demand?), the current phase requires all players to put focus on “efficiency”.  Additionally, technological innovations grow at such rapid speed, it's hard to predict what will be next.  


What guides your decision-making for innovation?   

We are not a research center that excels in technical innovation, we rather just experiment.

In the end, we are a tech company. We don't overdo extensive market research. Instead, we launch a pilot, to solve real customer problems. With 13.5 million customers, we always have access to a large and relevant enough sample. If an experiment develops well, we press “roll-out”. If it's not successful, we press “undo” and start the next experiment. That way, we can be fast, customer-focused and iterative to create an atmosphere of continuous innovation and growth. Our preference is to be innovators or early adopters, exploring new technologies rather than committing to specific tools.


Bol wants to keep the start-up mentality. Yet, the organization may slowly become more bureaucratic as it grows so rapidly. How do you foster a culture of innovation?

At bol, we are not a hierarchy of people. We are a hierarchy of goals. Shortly after COVID, we noticed more structure was needed. Sustainability, supporting the local economy, diversity and inclusion are increasingly important to our people and customers. Zooming in on our strategy we identified the three business models and value streams with which we serve our customers and partners.


Structure and bureaucracy may sound the same, but they surely aren’t. We redesigned our strategy with a clear ‘what’ but left a lot of room for the ‘how’. Ironically, the clearer you are about the strategy, the more freedom people can experience in such a framework. We use the OKR methodology to help us limit the number of goals we set and prioritize along those OKRs. Our people have the autonomy and freedom to act and experiment, within that set framework.

bol COO Vincent Weijers sitting at a counter


For many employees, being experimental is in their DNA. We saw this translate into a lot of enthusiasm for the launch of Ampère, which provides a more sustainable collection of packages from sales partners. How do you explain the excitement around it as a workplace?

Many of those who lined up for Ampère had a kind of nostalgia for the early days of bol. Ampère was born in my team, and I was worried that during the intense growth phase, mixed with a lot of dependencies between tech and other business teams, it wouldn't stand a chance, so we deliberately chose a start-up set-up for Ampère, even at a separate location. By now, I am glad to see a company that is also experimenting a lot, just like bol. The start-up mentality was so far embedded, that when the office had to be equipped people even bought cabinets at IKEA and assembled them on a Saturday! It's all about the mindset of setting up a new business and building something together from scratch. 


How do you stay true to your mission?

‘Success is only a success if it feels that way for everyone who is involved’. A powerful statement that’s also somewhat reflected in bol's 'the shop of us all’ (Dutch: De winkel van ons allemaal). It's what you promise, but keeping that promise is the other half of the deal. In my role as COO, I speak to CEVA Logistics, PostNL, DHL, etc. daily specifically about this to ensure our mission statement is also carried out by them. For example, with CEVA we have an open book contract and (theoretically) skimping on working conditions to increase their margins would simply not pay off for them. We take responsibility for that. 


How do you get so many parties moving at the same innovation speed?

I had a professor who used to say, 'Don't partner with the stupid'. If your dependency on a party is so great that their innovation problems become your innovation problems, you might have to find someone else. Make sure the processes run well and that your priorities are considered on the other side as well. We discuss what we need from our partners in consultative structures and then they innovate for us as well.


Choose your partners intentionally and provide support in digitization along that journey. For instance, we noticed quite a few dependencies in our landscape on a certain party. However, their governance was a bit rattled. First, we made sure to understand what the problem was on their side. Next, we opted for short, high-frequency cyclical consultations about the essentials and set milestones together. Not long tedious meetings but fast, practical and short-cyclical to ensure results are achieved step by step. That way, you help them structure their thinking. We also help our sales partners with data and insights to digitize, which benefits them and thus bol as well.   


What can companies learn from bol? 

It's all about people. Make people better and let them take charge of their development. We are essentially hiring smart young people who want responsibility. You have to offer structure, clear direction, resources and honesty to keep them excited. The people we bring together in bol contribute with talent and passion while still being caring, which also makes them go the extra mile for each other.

Want more executive insights like this one? Download the full IG&H Innovate magazine.


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