Ken: Good day, and welcome to episode 197 of our Momenta Digital Thread podcast series. Today, my co-host is Doug Harp, the Managing Partner of Momenta's advisory practice. Doug and I are pleased to host Neil Cawse, founder, and CEO of Geotab, the leading provider of fleet telematics solutions in North America. Neil founded Geotab in 2000 with a singular purpose to create technology for organizations to unlock the fleet vehicle data needed to empower critical business decisions. A true engineer at heart, Neil brings to Geotab more than three decades of proven success as an entrepreneur, software developer, product visionary, and business leader. As CEO, Neil is responsible for setting the mission, values, and strategy that has propelled Geotab into a global leader in telematics. Neil has shown a strong aptitude for identifying major technology in business shifts and taking advantage of those changes early on, demonstrated by Geotab's strong growth and inclusion, including a mention in the Financial Times, 'America's Fastest Growing Companies in 2022.' Before Geotab, Neil co-founded and was CEO of Vircom, a South African-based software solution company that sold in 1999. Neil has received many accolades for his business leadership, including in 2015, the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in Ontario. Neil holds a BSc in Electrical Engineering from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Neil, welcome to our Digital Thread podcast.
Neil: Thanks for having me. Thanks, Ken, and Doug; it's great to be here. I saw this interesting idea for podcasts, and I appreciate an opportunity to talk to your listeners.
Ken: Well, thank you. And when we talk about digital industry, connecting mobile assets is core to it. And few have exemplified and advanced this space as Geotab has. So, we are greatly looking forward to this conversation. You know, we call this the Digital Thread podcast. The idea is to talk about one's digital thread; otherwise, one or more thematic threads define their digital industry journey. What would you consider to be your digital thread, Neil?
Neil: Yeah, so I thought about this question, and now, I imagine that thread is something that connects all of the digital work that I've been involved in in my career. It's interesting to reflect on this; I liked the idea. Yes. One of the most important things is to look at advancements that happen in the world around you and be able to pick the most significant ones. It's the difference between NFT and ChatGPT. What are the things that will matter, and what are the things that are just noise and will disappear? And when I look back and reflect on that- I think it dates me, but when I look back on my early days, realizing very quickly the efficiency that you can get by using email, as opposed to the old days, which was mail and post- and then realizing the impact that the internet was going to have, then understanding software as a service.
The idea that you have a subscription revenue and then moving everything to the Cloud, not having any servers of your own, and moving to be completely Cloud native, thinking about it, and then progressing on to, for example, IoT and the importance of collecting data because one of the trends that we started seeing happen was to understand that data was going to change everything. You cannot be good at analyzing data if you don't have the data in the first place. That was one of the themes I had right from the beginning: let's start by collecting the data. We can't manage what we don't measure, so we need to be able to measure this data. That's the core of why we started Geotab, per se. Once you have the data, you can start leveraging all this amazing stuff like big data and AI. Tying all these threads together is taking all these amazing technologies, which you know will be game-changing digital technologies, and then figuring out how they solve customers' problems. If I reflect on that, it's like looking at a crystal ball. It's your job as the CEO of a company to try and give a little bit of edge on everybody else and think about what the stuff is that's truly going to impact our world in a major way, and that typically tends to be technology because that's where the advancements are happening. My specialty is obviously around digital, so it's getting to understand that. Those were the interesting threads that defined the changes in the businesses I've been involved in.
Ken: Speaking of those businesses, for the audience's sake, you are a serial entrepreneur, so this isn't your first rodeo per se. We're going to spend most of our time talking about Geotab because what a great success it's been. Still, I'd like to discuss your first successful startup, Vircom. How did your time there as CEO prepares you for Geotab?
Neil: Now we're going back a little bit there. I remember I was an engineer who knew a lot about machines and software. There was an essential part of learning. But honestly, when you go out of university, you have little preparation for the real world; how to start a company, hire and manage people, and even things like the importance of marketing and sales. As an engineer, you think the world revolves around technology and products. You don't realize that you can have the best products in the world, and if you don't know how to sell and market them, you don't get them in front of people. Then we make mistakes, and boy, did I make enough mistakes along the way. But yeah, that did help as a testbed and prepared me nicely for Geotab.
Doug: Wow. That's fantastic, Neil. As Ken said, we'll spend most of the time on Geotab. As we move into that topic, your story of starting Geotab and how you bootstrapped it in a VC era is quite significant. You could take us through that story and how you have accomplished it and bucked the system a little bit in becoming a market leader in technology, bootstrapping it. Now you've reached over 3 million vehicles under management.
Neil: Yes, indeed. It is an exciting story. As you guys can hear from my funny accent, and as you mentioned, I was initially born in South Africa, where I did my engineering degree. Around 2000, I decided to sell the company because we wanted to get married and have kids and decided we wanted to leave to do that, and that's arriving in North America; we started Geotab as a family business to help the family come into Canada and get started. The original intent was not to go out there and make as much money as possible and be as successful as we could. The foundation was we're starting again, and we tried to help the family get going. We have this weird philosophy: let's measure our success in terms of profit per person, not total profits. That meant the more we hired, the worse our number got, even if our earnings stayed the same.The reason was we wanted to keep things simple. We didn't want to have lots of people and make it complicated. That, perversely, ended up helping us be where we are today. Because what it means is that we had to outsource everything. We outsourced our office space and manufacturing; we even outsourced sales and marketing to partners who represented Geotab. This effectively created an ecosystem for Geotab, one of our most vital points today. We have thousands of companies that make a living by offering to consult, selling Geotab, and offering add-ons and services around Geotab. That helps.
Now, I was lucky enough to have Vircom in South Africa, which I had sold for a couple of million dollars and came over to North America. I remember that around the 2005 timeframe, talking to- the four of us were sitting down at the dining room table and saying, "I spent $500,000 so far on the business. How do we feel about whether this will be successful or not?" I was worried, and I remember we had this discussion, and we had a massive opportunity in front of us. They were piloting us, one of our big customers today. It's been with us for 20 years, with 90,000 devices and 90,000 vehicles, and right then, we felt good about it. But yeah, so we ended up then never raising money externally. Everything was bootstrap; $ 500,000 was the low point to where we got to, so that was the maximum amount of money put into the business. When I reflect on that, many people say, "Trust us," and "It's amazing." "You never had to raise any money. I don't know how you did it." But when I look back on it, I don't want to say that that's right in every case- it's always an accolade because I will say that it took us much longer being bootstrapped to get to where we were. When I reflect on it- we held back the business for a very, very long time when it was just five people in the company. If we had been more VC-focused, we would have ramped the company up much faster. We would have taken on a million dollars, a couple of million dollars, and we would have had sales and marketing and built the company up quicker. We could have been further ahead. It's always a difficult trade-off. It's easy in hindsight to look at it, but you never know what path walking down one path would lead you versus the other path. I'm very, very happy with how things turned out. I couldn't have asked for anything more. Because today, the only people who own shares in Geotab are those who work in Geotab, which creates an interesting culture. Yeah, the way that the company works. So yeah, that's how we avoided any VC funding in Geotab.
Ken: It's a humble beginning and a bit heartwarming from my North American perspective. If you'd been an author, in addition to everything else that you've done, you probably would have quoted a book called "Lean Startup" at the time because you established the Lean Startup principles probably a decade before it started to be the Silicon Valley thing to do. The other thing I'd add to there, Neil, is that you would have been ahead of your skis in terms of technology at the time. You would have had to do a lot more development of stuff, where in later stages, you can certainly use more off the shelf. You were growing it at the pace Moore's Law was supporting your ability to do so economically. Just again, my past-looking perspective. I've seen too many companies that get ahead of their skis relative to technology, so it's easy to say you did it well in hindsight. But you probably would have been risky if you'd tried to grow it any faster during that period.
Neil: You know what? It is so true what you say. It's something that I've been reflecting on. So many times, in life, people recognize trends. It's relatively easy to say, "Okay, well, the world is going to have autonomous vehicles in 10 years, and this is going to change, and that's going to change," we understand that. But timing truly is everything. In one sense, the problem with venture capitalism is you're giving companies money, and you need to see a return. You can't wait ten years for the return to show, so getting that timing right is one of the hardest things in life to get right. That's the most critical. When we bootstrapped it ourselves, there wasn't any- we were inexpensive, all self-funded, and low-cost. We could get the time, but we had more opportunity to get that timing right because we just went too slow as we needed to go. You raise a very, very good point.
Ken: Yeah. A commendation to you guys for not being tempted by the quick growth that some of your peers might have been during that process you were going through. I know you identify yourself and Geotab with fleet telematics, an interesting broad term and confining for what you do. But for those not familiar among our audience with the space of fleet telematics, how do you define space? What are some of the critical use cases and benefits?
Neil: The way fleet management is defined is anything involving moving assets. Our philosophy at Geotab is you cannot manage what you don't measure. You're talking about workers in these vehicles, you're talking about the safety of these vehicles, maintenance of these vehicles, allocating resources- and if I'm running a large fleet, I need to know that I have the right vehicles in the right place at the right time. There are massive savings in terms of efficiencies that you can get by ensuring you do that well, which is a huge benefit in safety. It's not just human lives which are the most important. Still, there's a huge indirect cost to having a lot of accidents, and 4% of the vehicles in North American fleets have an accident in a year, even if it's just bumper bashing. If you can reduce that by 30%, there are enormous cost savings to be had there. There's compliance that you need to be able to manage as well, and there are regulations in the US and Canada around how long you can drive for and what you can do. Then there's sustainability, which is figuring out how we optimize our carbon footprint and move towards electric vehicle use. All of those include fleet management, where Geotab provides a set of services and technology to automate all of that, to make that simple and practical for companies to do and embark on that journey. What's interesting to me is that people talk about verticals and horizontals. There are few verticals and many cases where we say, "Oh, fleet management doesn't apply to your industry."
Anywhere you have one vehicle or more vehicles, they start on one vehicle. You can have Joe's Plumbing around the corner, and they have one vehicle, and it's great; they'll have telematics. It goes all the way up to the very largest fleets in the world. Three hundred thousand vehicle fleets were using this technology to run themselves better. We saw what happened in the war in Ukraine, and with their talks about the importance of logistics in war, war is won and lost based on logistics. You have ten times the number of logistics vehicles for every combat vehicle, which applies to businesses too. You need to be able to be efficient; you need to be able to manage well. We're at the heart of doing that, and some amazing, compelling use cases exist. One of the ones that are quite interesting is New York City. The entire New York City fleet runs on Geotab, and that's every emergency vehicle, every fire truck, every school bus, every street sweeper, and every vehicle involved in servicing and construction and driving around the fleet. There are more than 39,000 vehicles in that area, and a city like New York needs to be able to manage that fleet. They need to be able to make sure that they're maintained; they need to be able to follow best practices. They're keeping everybody safe. If there is some incident, can they manage it properly? That's the heart and soul of what we do.
Doug: We see great value in the benchmarking, as you mentioned. Many operators are focusing their time on their business operations, and they need that assistance with helping them understand whether they're meeting the benchmark. Let's reach out in the future. You mentioned autonomy and electrification. Others, like mobility and connected vehicles, are changing the game potentially in the next decade versus the last decade. Tesla has designed the software-defined vehicle, per se. How does Geotab see the market evolving? Also, how do you play as OEMs may put more technology on the vehicle over time?
If I give you a behind-the-scenes look at the boardroom five years ago at Geotab, we were sitting in the boardroom going, "Yikes." We were worried the OEM threat was coming. What is the future of Geotab if every OEM is going to compete with us in telematics? We were worried at one point. Fast forward a few years later, and we realized our biggest opportunity is our partnership with the OEMs. It's the number one thing that we have on our radar now in the company, and that's because OEMs are good at certain things, and they don't understand what the customers need from the data. How do they operate their fleets? What do they do with their fleets? The other interesting thing is they don't know what data to record. We work very, very closely with the OEMs in many different ways. For some OEMs, we provide our hardware as an aftermarket. If you go into a fleet of vehicles, let's say it's a bunch of Fords, GMs, or whatever they are. You have other vehicle types or vehicles that are not connected. Fords and GMs that don't have their OEM telematics- then, Geotab is the device that's white labeled, in some cases, to connect those vehicles. We also teach the OEMs what signals they need to collect and how they need to collect them. We have a patented algorithm called Curve Logic, which tells us how to record the data in the right frequencies.
We're educating the OEMs on how to do that, working closely with them. The future of data collection belongs to the OEMs. They're the ones building the vehicles; they're the ones that have the engine computers that control the body, the engine, the user interface, and everything else in the vehicle. They are the ones that can supply the data, and they're the ones that should be supplying the data. As you rightly pointed out, the software-defined vehicle is the way of the future, so they should own that space. We know that in five years or ten years, there won't be many roles for the third-party device for new vehicles, and it's just ensuring we have open access to that data. We're working with the OEMs on standards. We're a member of the W3C, the body that does the world wide web. Many OEMs are also on that body, trying to set the future standards for the connected vehicle. These are companies like Volkswagen, Toyota, and BMW that are saying, "Listen, we know that it's important to have these open standards to connect data." OEMs it's exciting to see. Everybody's realizing the value of telematics and working very closely with the OEMs.
Ken: I like how you told the story, starting with fleet telematics and now, conceptually talking about fleet management. When we think about IoT, we generally consider three different layers. Connect to assets, collect data from assets, and then we say, correct. Effectively, that's where I'm doing all the intelligence that will give me insights or some form of autonomy. It's interesting as you move that. You said earlier about sustainability, and I'd like to drill down on that one. We've seen a hidden benefit of all connected assets. Connecting those assets is generally what the industry calls ESG, or Environmental, Social, and Governance benefits. How are you helping your customers achieve their ESG goals?
Neil: I sat and thought about this, but I did some research. The number one emitter of carbon globally is the construction industry. They were primarily talking about cement production, and there's not much we can do about that. But the number two emitter of carbon is the transportation space. We realized at Geotab that given our position as a leading telematics company, we're uniquely positioned to help companies on this sustainability journey. And the point is that vehicles are the ones that produce the carbon; we're the ones that are collecting the data about how those vehicles are used and how to optimize those vehicles.
We have more than a moral obligation to do everything that we can in the product to help companies improve their sustainability footprint. What we've done is- we originally had a group called our EV group. Then we had other groups focused on fuel and everything, safety, and everything else. We decided to combine the group into one group called 'Sustainability.' We realized that EVs would take quite a while before they get into all of our vehicles, which will take some time. In the meantime, though, there's a lot that we can do to manage and reduce carbon. The very first thing that we do is focus on fuel management. "How much fuel am I using? What types of fuel am I using? Which are more efficient vehicles? Am I using the right vehicle for the right job? Should I replace that in a diesel vehicle with a better vehicle?" A lot of work goes around reducing idling. That's all part of our Sustainability team now because there is work we can do with existing vehicles to reduce their carbon footprint. The next step is to think about how we can move the world toward electric vehicles. You've seen that PepsiCo recently got their Tesla semi, which they're testing and enjoying. It's performing very, very nicely. But the key point is what I mentioned earlier: selecting the right vehicles for the right job. Because if you select an electric vehicle- that doesn't have the right range and can't carry the right loads for a particular role, that project will fail. Then it's going to slow down the long-term adoption of EVs. The very first thing that we want to do is we want to analyze the behavior of your entire fleet. We want to look at- alright. Where are those vehicles going? What goods are they dropping? What routes are they following? Where is the parking at night? Then our system, called EVSA, will go in and look at weather conditions, look at the change in altitude, look at the types of vehicles available in your market, and then lay out a plan for you to say, "These are the top 20% of vehicles that you should replace for EVs in your fleet right now. This is your ROI. If you put those vehicles in, you'll get an ROI of two and a half years or two years." Or whatever the number is- and then help justify and prove to those people that they can take that big step forward.
The very next thing is running an electric fleet. Telematics is important for anybody who runs a fleet of vehicles. You should have telematics. But for electric vehicles, it is essential. Why? Because you know that when you go and you fill up at a gas station, it takes five minutes. If you, for example, bring your electric vehicle back in the evening, and you forget to plug it in for charging, or the cable is not correctly seated. You think it's charging, you get back the next morning, and that vehicle's not charged. It's effectively broken for six hours. That's why you need to have telematics managing all that; you need to ensure you have the right number of chargers at the right locations and the right amount of power to your building. We enter a whole new world to make sure we can make EVs practical. Then obviously, you need to think about things like battery degradation. Batteries degrade over time; when is the right time to sell a vehicle? What is the vehicle worth? You need to look at the full lifecycle when dealing with all of that. At its core, the sustainability features we're talking about. It's about making things better for existing fleets of gas vehicles by reducing idling and optimizing them, giving them better routing, and ensuring the drivers are driving this aggressively to reduce fuel footprint. But it's also focusing on helping fleets move as vehicles become available to the new world of EVs and running those EV fleets.
Doug: Fantastic. You mentioned lifecycle management, and we see that movement and trend toward lifecycle fleet management. What are you seeing, Neil? Also, in the final question, how are you positioning Geotab due to the changing market?
Neil: Yes. We know that we are in an interesting time. The world is living quickly when it comes to the transportation sector. We've seen a bunch of disruptive things happening. One, we get COVID hitting, everybody's buying everything online, and we need to transport everything everywhere. That's a big disruption. We know that EVs are coming, and everybody wants to value-add EVs and start to deploy EVs. Further on down the line, we have autonomous vehicles that we know the people are working very hard on getting autonomy going. Autonomy will be coming at some point, so with all of those changes happening, obviously, as a company, we also need to ensure that we're there to address the changing needs. That's, again, being driven by data. Collecting that data- helping companies make the right decisions as they move forward in these progressive paths from one to the other to the next, that they have the data to be able to do so. We see a role in Geotab in all these new roles. A very powerful role on the EV side, even on autonomous vehicles. People ask, "What is the point of telematics when you have autonomous vehicles?" It becomes critically important. You need to be able to schedule and manage. You need to be able to plan with those vehicles on where they're going to be. You're going to need telematics just as much. The other thing people don't understand about telematics is that it is just about gathering data from the vehicle. It's not that. It is about- as you mentioned, the whole lifecycle of the vehicle. It is managing employee productivity; it's managing safety and compliance. It's taking all of the data that those vehicles generate and pushing them into the machine of your business. We imagine ourselves as a cog. We are on the hundred cogs in your company, and our cog is driving: it's turning. We need to ensure that that cog meshes with other cogs so that we can feed the data about what your vehicle is doing, where it's going, what customers you're visiting, and what delivery you just made. Feeding that data into the systems of your organization.
Your invoicing systems and your maintenance systems, and everything else. Then, helping you make those full lifetime decisions on when is the right time to buy a new vehicle. Should I sell the vehicle? Was the vehicle involved in an accident? Was the undercarriage damaged? Being able to control all of that through those systems- that's a big part of where it's going. We're moving away from telematics just being, "Where's my vehicle now?" and looking on a map to anything operations-focused. How is this data driving the operations of your business? That's really what the next five years will be focused on.
Ken: Excellent. In closing, we always like to ask- where do you find your inspiration?
Neil: That's interesting; I only read a few business books. I like to listen to many blogs, and the best time to do that is driving, and we all do a bit of driving. It's fantastic. I'm going to make sure I bookmark this blog. For me, a good book that I read and- I just had dinner with one of the folks from Amazon. They mentioned this book, "Working Backwards," which is how Amazon operates internally. There's just no doubt that Amazon has been incredibly successful, and they've just got some interesting philosophies about small teams and accountability. You write the press release, and then you work backward from the press release. I just found it fascinating; it's one of the most interesting books I've read.
Regarding me and inspiration, one of the things that have truly helped me along the way is reading for about an hour every night. The way that I get my news in, you'll probably laugh. It's really off Reddit. I go, and I go into Reddit, and I choose the things that are most important to me, being an entrepreneur, the places that I love, and my industries. Everything else is technology. Then, Reddit gives me curated news, and I spend a lot of time reading those articles, processing them, and thinking about them. To me, that's game-changing. As a bit of an entrepreneur, you're always trying to think, "Okay. All this technology and all this work are happening to make things interesting. Where is the business use case? What are people missing? Where is the advantage that we can get from a business point of view?" That kind of stuff helps me think about that. That's where I get my inspiration from.
Ken: I love it. You're always looking for the 'so what?' in all news. It's interesting, "Working Backwards." I have yet to read it. I will. But Ikea has always had a similar approach, working backward from a price point they set. Everything, all the design, goes into that, so there'll be some interesting parallels. Thank you for the plug on the Momenta podcast. It'll be nice to be linked on that one for you. Neil, thank you for sharing this time and insights with us today.
Neil: You're very welcome, folks. Thanks for having me, and I enjoyed it.
Ken: As we did as well. It's been a very informative podcast, and we look forward to hearing more from you. This has been Neil Cawse, founder, and CEO of Geotab; I'll add in, the leader in fleet management solutions. Thank you for listening, and please join us for the next episode of our Digital Thread podcast series. Thank you, and have a great day. You've been listening to the Momenta Digital Thread podcast series. We hope you've enjoyed the discussion, and as always, we welcome your comments and suggestions. Please check our website at momenta.one for archived versions of podcasts, as well as resources to help with your digital industry journey. Thank you for listening.
Connect with Neil Cawse
What inspires me?
I pull my inspiration from many sources. I read for about an hour a night, and I do most of my reading on Reddit. The news on Reddit is curated well to my interests, and it is a great place to learn about new ideas and technologies. As I am reading about new technologies or ideas, I am always thinking about the business opportunities, asking myself, “what would be the business use case for this new technology?”
I don’t read many business books, but I enjoyed and learned from the book: "Working Backwards,” by Bill Car and Colin Byar. The book tells the story of Amazon's early days and the key learnings that enabled them to grow its organization. I recommend it to all my fellow business leaders.
Geotab is advancing security, connecting commercial vehicles to the cloud, and providing data-driven analytics to help customers better manage their fleets. Geotab's open platform and Marketplace, offering hundreds of third-party solution options, allows small and large businesses to automate operations by integrating vehicle data with their other data assets. As an IoT hub, the in-vehicle device provides additional functionality through IOX Add-Ons. Processing billions of data points a day, Geotab leverages data analytics and machine learning to help customers improve productivity, optimize fleets through the reduction of fuel consumption, enhance driver safety, and achieve strong compliance to regulatory changes. Geotab’s products are represented and sold worldwide through Authorized Geotab Resellers. To learn more, please visit www.geotab.com and follow us @GEOTAB and onLinkedIn.