Intrro FM: Scaling Stories

Kevin Kwoka
Director of Talent Acquisition
GRIN

Kevin Kwoka, Director of Talent Acquisition at GRIN

In our conversation, Kevin discusses the importance of knowing exactly what qualities will make a candidate succeed at an organsation. In the case of GRIN, those attributes include “‘extreme ownership’ and humility.”

  • Kevin describes his team as being a “culture gatekeeper”, and explains: “We want to make sure that regardless of experience, and regardless of what their resume says or who they know – are their core values aligned and can they add to our core values in our culture?”
  • “It's the character of the individual.” By following this approach, it means dispensing with the idea that credentials are everything. For example, during the interview process, “not overlooking in your gut those little red flags” can help you avoid making the wrong call.
  • Moreover, this culture-focused strategy has been a long time in the making. In its early days, GRIN established a core list of values, and sought feedback from employees on the proposed list.
  • GRIN continues to live and breathe these values even after an appointment has been made. For example, Kevin explains that new hires are invited to a face-to-face core values presentation by the CEO, rather than being asked to watch a pre-recorded video.

There was plenty of food for thought in our discussion, so check out the podcast and let us know what you think!

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Transcript

Kevin Kwoka  

Every one of my team, they are unique in their own way. And I believe that it's my job as a leader to adjust my approach to each of them to match where they are, versus trying to get 10 people to adjust their approach to match me.

Nasser Oudjidane  

Hello and welcome to our series of scaling stories, a discussion with talent leaders about their lessons building teams at some of the world's fastest-growing companies. I'm excited to introduce our guest today, Kevin Kwoka, the Director of Talent Acquisition at GRIN. For those of you who are unfamiliar GRIN is the pioneer behind the world's first creative management platform. Kevin a huge welcome and thank you for joining us.

Kevin Kwoka  

It's an honor to be here. Thank you, Nasser.

Nasser Oudjidane  

To get started, could you give us an introduction about you and your background?

Kevin Kwoka 

So I am the Director of Talent Acquisition for GRIN as you mentioned, we are a creator management platform, really pioneering the infrastructure behind the Creator economy. And our software allows brands and companies that work with influencers and creators in their marketing, to upload those creators and manage the full lifecycle. In a software, our majority of our customers are sitting on spreadsheets and have to manually track campaigns sieving product, and at the end of the day, they're unable to know the true ROI of those campaigns with those creators. GRIN allows them to automate many of those steps and shows the true ROI that was generated by each individual creator. I oversee our talent acquisition team of about 10 individuals that are responsible for recruiting the every role within the company.

Nasser Oudjidane  

Okay, um, what about your background? There's quite some unique periods which we want to get into with regards to company culture. Did you expand on your experience with particularly Orian lighting and Ralph Anderson?

Kevin Kwoka  

Yeah, so I got my start in recruiting probably as most people do by accident. I my first job out of college was in sales for a lighting manufacturer and solar installing company headquartered in the Midwest. Got approached as we got a new CEO at Orion energy systems. I was approached to join the organizational development team and help really transform and do put a 180 on the culture of the company. It's about 400 employees have blue collar in the factory half office workers headquartered in Wisconsin, and that's where I got my first taste of the importance of culture when it comes to not only building a company but running a company and getting the most out of your people. And so I moved to from Chicago to Wisconsin, and was an organizational development specialist worked closely with my boss as well as some outside consultants to define our core values as a company and then spent about six to eight months rolling those out to all the employees. We didn't want it just to be. Here's a poster on the wall. We wanted everyone to truly understand what those core values were, what they meant. So we had a even understanding of how to apply them then in decision making in promotions, demotions, hiring, all of that stuff. And so, that's where I've got my first taste of the sales aspect plus organizational development and culture. At Orion are recruiter left and me being the yes person that I am. I said, I'll try that out. And my first role to recruit for was a new recruiter, and I quickly realized, I loved recruiting I loved telling the story, painting the picture for candidates and selling them on this opportunity. And then I said, Well, I'll be the recruiter let me recruit for all the other roles. So I for three years then was the recruiting coordinator talent acquisition, I was the only person at the company recruiting for factory line workers all the way through upper level management. And that's where I found my passion, solidifying around bringing people together around a common mission with common values to achieve something much bigger than we can do individually. Then I moved from the Midwest back to my hometown in California, where I got a taste of the agency side of recruiting. And so Rob Anderson was a great opportunity was there for about a year and a half. I Ralph Anderson is a public sector agencies so cities, counties, they hire agency recruiters to find their police chiefs, fire chiefs, Head of Public Works, city managers, those types of roles. And we need civil servants like they do a great job. But being on the outside trying to pitch a working for a company or working for a city that I was not a part of. It was very tough for me. And because I love telling that story and getting people excited about the culture, about the work that they're going to be doing and knowing more about the people on the team that they'd be working with. So when I was approached by a recruiter for this opportunity at GRIN, which at the time I was unable to find on Google, they were about 15 employees headquartered software company in Sacramento. I was like, the idea of being in house again, and helping to build a company versus my prior experience at Orion where it was turning that culture around this would be building it helping to build it from scratch was very intriguing to me. So I jumped at the opportunity. Partnered closely with our founders to define our core values our mission, what opportunity and what experience do we want to give our employees we didn't want to just to be another job. We wanted this to be a place where people can come in and grow professionally be challenged, and really produce some great work and so I joined at there about 20 employees at a time. Fast forward to now three and a half years later and we're be just broke 450 last week.

Nasser Oudjidane

Yeah, what an amazing journey, when you think back to the earliest days or even before you joined? What was it about the founders and the mission and vision that attracted you to actually take the risk and join an early stage startup?

Kevin Kwoka 

 So they did the two founders Brian and Brandon did not have there was no mission there were no core about no formal core values. But what intrigued me about it was their excitement and passion about this new industry. I did not at the time know much about influencer marketing. You know, I have still only have 500 followers on Instagram. But I just seen the two fire festival documentaries if you remember those from a couple years ago. And what really stood out was you can have 300 people share an orange square that gets seen by a billion people. So I saw that potential for this emerging market, this emerging arm of marketing, but our founders were just so passionate about this. And they saw where GRIN would be and could be that taking the risk at a pre-seed funded startup with 20 employees where everyone was just doing anything to survive was very exciting for me. And I know that with great risk comes great reward. And it's been a very great experience up till now. But just seeing their passion and their dedication and the big picture that they had for what GRIN could become was very enticing.

Nasser Oudjidane

And what were you doing the earliest days? And perhaps Could you perhaps fast forward into what's going on now. So how was your role developed from 15 - 20 to 400? And you take that picture.

Kevin Kwoka  

So I think my formal title when I got hired was talent acquisition and organizational development specialist, which is a mouthful that barely fits on a business card. So at that time, I was took over recruiting directly from our two founders had to implement an applicant tracking system, write job descriptions, I interviewed everyone in the company, there were 20 people and I needed to know what their jobs were. I was new to SAS, but also, I want to find what are those common threads for those core values? What are those things that those early people have that had made, you know, GRIN? really succeed through those early years? Two things that jumped out were Extreme Ownership and humility. Everyone in the company so as our founders were recruiting they didn't specify we want humble people or we want people to take ownership, but everyone that they hired had that. So I interviewed over the company but I was also then responsible to onboard I was ordering desks and building desks for new hires. I was provisioning laptops and mailing them out on the weekends to new hires. I was the only person relatively close to HR at that company. So Policies Procedures Handbook we had we were on a PEO so I didn't have to run payroll, but I did review it and approve it. I was involved in bonus letters, bonus calculations, getting those in the payroll, Facilities Management mapping out the office at the time when we were in person. So I was basically doing everything, but building the product, selling the product or supporting the product. It was a pretty wild time.

Nasser Oudjidane  

What are you most proud of?

Kevin Kwoka  

For me, it's the organization that we've built and the people that we have in it. We were recently recognized for a second year in a row as a great place to work. And, and we were ranked number five by Glassdoor as one of the best places to work. And so I think that Glassdoor ranking is to me a culmination of the culture that we've built. We didn't participate in a survey, it was all through anonymous employee reviews. And to me that shows that the as we went from 20, to 100, to 250, to now 450, we've been able to and it's been a focus and that's, that's how you're able to do it. But even through those struggles, maintain the core values shown through that glass door number five, best place to work.

Nasser Oudjidane  

Could you share some concrete examples? Anything that you can think of that perhaps outlines the steps that you can do to maintain and build the company's values and culture?

Kevin Kwoka  

So for the building of the core values and culture, we started at the nucleus we started with our founders, and it said, what when you think of great people that you want to work with that, you know, throughout your lives, prior relationships, professional or personal, what are those values? So we had a list of values. Then we expanded that to 5 to 10. Early employees that we knew exhibited those values, and we got their feedback on those values. Then we started defining what does that mean? What is humility mean for us? What does integrity mean for us? Once we did that and locked those values down? Then we rolled them out to the entire company. And so we had sessions to make sure that everyone knew what the values were, what the definitions were spoken straight from our founders. And I think that's one of the most important things is hearing it from the founders makes it real. The more that you grow, that the more the easier it is for those values to lose their meaning or just become words on the wall. So what we do today on our employees their first day, their first meeting that they have is with our VP of people to for two hours, and the first hour is our core values, our purpose, our mission. So that's the first the new employees first exposure to those values. But before they even start throughout the interview process My team is responsible for I call it being a culture gatekeeper. We want to make sure regardless of experience, regardless of what their resume says or who they know, are they a core values aligned and can they add to our core values in our culture? And so making sure that first my team as we're recruiting we understand what those values are? What questions to ask. And if there's a little red flag, we don't move them forward, regardless of who they are, who they know. They have 15 years of the most perfect experience on paper. If they're not 100% core values match. We're not even going to move them forward. And so having that consistency throughout the interview process, and not overlooking what may be kind of in your gut are those little red flags, because well, they've worked for this big company before they've done the job before, but we can overlook maybe we can help them become more humble. No, you're not going to be able to like your core values or who you are as a person. It's the character of the individual. So we're just looking for people that align with those, but then implementing it make sure making sure that every employee knows about it. Each month, our CEO and founder co founder, Brandon, he does a live core values presentation to all of the new hires who have started that month. So it's not just a recording that people can watch on their own. We do have that but they get time face to face to hear about our values from our co founder. And then every month in our all hands. Ours, you know, the updates for different departments and initiatives, initiatives that are going on the first five to seven sides are all the same. It's our core values, our mission, our core purpose as a company and where we're going. So that repetition helps build an understanding. And then we just went through performance reviews. And the top section of the performance review is core values. So are you meeting are you exceeding Are you below and your manager gives you a review on the core values and you also have to do a self review. So for GRIN our core values are really core to who, who we are and how we've been able to succeed this far.

Nasser Oudjidane  

And as you look, perhaps into the role that you're performing now, what have been some of the challenges and surprises.

Kevin Kwoka  

A lot, not just from GRIN's growth, but, my professional growth as well. You know, overseeing a team of nearly 10 people that's responsible for what in a rapidly scaling company is the most high profile result which is are we hiring people. Every one of my team, they are unique in their own way. And I believe that it's my job as a leader to adjust my approach to each of them to match where they are, versus trying to get 10 people to adjust their approach to match me. So that's been a big challenge, 10 people that are on the full spectrum of how they communicate best how they receive, prefer to receive praise, how they handle direct conversations, or indirect how they handle, you know, accountability in certain different ways. And so I've had to grow a lot as a leader. And then there's also working with now, finance of our leadership team, our C level on the headcount planning piece of it in the early days of GRIN it was, you know, I was hiring five or six people and you know, I could keep it all straight. We had a, you know, ATS but I didn't have anything documented for, here's our comp, here's our, you know, the data behind all that. So now, I need to be much more data driven, because I need to hold my team accountable and not just go based off of feelings. I had a conversation earlier this week with one of our VPs and they're like, you know, I'm just feeling that I'm not passing enough people through after my interview. And I said, Well, let me pull the data in. Let me either validate that feeling, or there might be some recency bias. And so I pulled up the data and I was like, actually, here's the numbers. They validate how you're feeling and they were like, okay, good, you know, and so then I go back to my recruiter and I say, what can we do to improve these pasture rates? Right so having to be really data driven now? In order to best manage the team, the hiring managers, the VPs, and all the stakeholders?

Nasser Oudjidane 

Yeah. You said something that stuck with me that a core part of your role is to minimize the noise for your team. 

Kevin Kwoka  

Yes.

Nasser Oudjidane 

Are there any specific steps that you take to help achieve that?

Kevin Kwoka  

So in recruiting, we were partners with various hiring managers that have various levels of experience in recruiting, as well as VPs and directors of different departments. And one thing that comes to mind is we do periodic re-forecasting. And part of that is new roles that will get added and hiring managers get really excited and sometimes will come to my recruiter and say, Oh, I'm going to be recruiting for this position, right, a new customer success manager. And my recruiters like, I haven't heard about that. So I've told my team when it comes around those periodic re-forecasting times. You're going to be hearing about new positions. Just let whoever tells you no I don't. I'm not saying that you're wrong. But until I hear it from Kevin, I'm going to be I'm going to continue working on what I have in front of me. Or a hiring manager. Once the recruiter comes to me says, hey, the hiring manager wants to change this role. From an associate to a senior level. Obviously, there's compensation changes involved, all that stuff. So I just immediately take that and I said, Hey, Steph, let me take that from you. I'll go and handle it. And so then I go back. I talked with finance, talk to the leader, talk to a hiring manager, corral everything into a nice, succinct package. And then I go back to my recruiter and say, All right, Steph, here's what we're doing. Because all of my recruiters have five to 10 wrecks that they're working on. So there's enough work for them to do to not have to go and track down and have conversations to finalize all this stuff. It's one of my favorite parts of the role, but it's still challenging.

Nasser Oudjidane  

Yeah, I can imagine. It's just the daily tasks of a startup can change on a 180 and then back again. So that's I'm sure your team can thank you for that. How can you think about how do you think about the rituals of technology implementation to maintain the company's culture in a hybrid and remote working environment?

Kevin Kwoka  

So we are a remote first company. So we have employees now in over 40 states, and we're getting together. The goal is once a year in person, and Sacramento and, but what we have to do is make sure that everyone has adequate the same technology, you know, so we provide everyone with a MacBook Pro, monitors, keyboard, mouse, all those core essentials. We do have a written policy for meetings to have your camera on. Obviously, if they're one on one meetings or impromptu, no one's policing it to make sure that they have your camera on. But we believe that that face to face, even though it's not perfect, as if you're in real life together. It does help foster that those that body language that you can see the head nodding the disagreement on someone's face that you can then move in and dig deeper on. Also, a little bit of preventing, doing double work while you're answering emails and trying to be in a meeting. We also have implemented the Entrepreneurial Operating System and something I really like about that is in the structure of the meetings for ELS, the first five minutes is everyone goes around and shares good news both personally and professionally. And what I found is it's very easy in a remote environment to you're beholden to your calendar, you get meetings put on your calendar, the meeting starts and you jump straight to business. And so it's very difficult to you're no longer walking to the meeting room with your peer, you're no longer walking out to lunch with them. And so let's grab lunch and talk about non work stuff. So in the Eos model that first five minutes, that's where you get to learn about what people did over the weekend, what they're excited about from last week that they accomplished or that the progress that they've made. And so it's let it in those small five minute increments, but we do them every week. You're able to build a relationship with your team members, versus just let's get straight to business.

Nasser Oudjidane  

I really liked that. And I'm going to be doing some more reading about that because that's that's something that's done on team meetings on a weekly basis. Correct?

Kevin Kwoka  

Yes, yeah, they call them EOS brands. As an L 10. Level 10 meeting.

Nasser Oudjidane  

Okay, awesome. What tech do you use for your job and your talent teams and please feel free to shout out any, any tools and systems that are delivering value.

Kevin Kwoka  

We, our ATS is greenhouse, implemented about five or six months ago and that's really been a big game changer, especially on the data side. We have had to change our processes to align with how greenhouse runs but I believe it's a best in class software. The data then I'm able to, again, fact check based on data and not feelings about pipeline conversion activities, outcome based metrics. It's we've had to shift our team because now the data is only as good as the people that input the data. So making sure that they're updating the ATS in a timely manner because of those timestamps. D cueing candidates in a timely manner. But it's really helped automate a lot of the manual processes that we were doing before when it comes to scheduling getting feedback. We're no longer using Slack or Google Forms. It's all within greenhouse software. I'm sure many of your listeners are. Probably all of them are aware of greenhouse. Use a lot of Google Sheets. So for tracking requisitions or budgeting all of that right now is in Google Sheets. And then we do Zoom for video interviews. That's I think one big change that is good from the pandemic. So grant we were fully remote or fully in person, before the pandemic. Everyone was in Sacramento. We had about 45 - 50 employees at the time. And all the interviews I did was were over the phone. And then that first time that you see someone meet someone is in person. I don't know why but why wasn't I using Zoom at that time. And so Zoom is a big piece for us. So at all of our interviews are over Zoom, they're all video on to make sure that you can have those nonverbals you can see candidates reading off of prepared, scripted notes, that type of stuff.

Nasser Oudjidane  

Yeah, it's been a game changer. Looking back into your career, what would you say is one of the biggest mistakes that you've made and how would you approach it differently now?

Kevin Kwoka  

As I was reflecting on this, it's only a mistake in hindsight. At the time when I joined GRIN, 2020 employees hiring five or six people at a time maximum. I wish and this didn't become prevalent until our CFO started about a year after I had started. And his shout out Chris mon Kranz, he was focusing helping me focus on let's build for where we're going to be and not just where we are right now. So the tracking the spreadsheets, the data accumulation, like at the time it was just me who I didn't care if the ATS was up today like I just knew everything that was going on. But if I had built what we have now, even on the manual spreadsheet side, if I had done that three and a half years ago, I'd be so much better now. I'd have such a better understanding of it and it'd be much more evolved. It's going to be where it wherever it is in two years. would be where I could have been right now. And so I think what I'd tell myself three and a half years ago is build their processes for where you're going to be in two or three years. And that's happened at GRIN. There's in every department there, all the leaders have done this before, which has been a big help, you know, scaled companies, but having that forward thinking you only learn that by not doing it. And so if I ever have to do this right again, I'm going to be building it at 20 employees as if we're 450 And then when we get to 300. Let's build it for if we're at 600. Right, and so there you're always building for those shoes that you're going to grow into.

Nasser Oudjidane  

Yeah, well, yeah. Thanks for Chris for that advice.

Kevin Kwoka  

Yes.

Nasser Oudjidane  

And can I ask for your advice then for recruiters, recruiting leaders and those that are trying to foster a partnership with hiring managers in the overall business? What has worked for you What do you feel strongly about?

Kevin Kwoka  

It for any relationship in my opinion, it comes down to strong trust for there for you to have a strong relationship, especially in a remote world, you have to have strong trust. And trust is only built over time. It can be taken away in a second, but it takes many interactions. And for me as a recruiter. It's the trust is built by following through with what I say I'm going to do. And so that is timely scheduling candidates getting jobs posted, getting feedback and having those interviews and producing what you say you're going to do. We all have, great resumes and great experience, but that's what helps you get that first interview. Once you get into the job. You got to produce results and follow through with what you say you're going to do to build that trust.

Nasser Oudjidane  

And what would you say is the biggest BS advice when scaling teams that you've heard come across perhaps had to stamp out what myths need to be put in the trash?

Kevin Kwoka

Not that this is, hopefully this isn't too prevalent, but. Anybody is better than nobody. So as you're scaling, there is so much work to be done. When I was first recruiter and I was doing 17 different jobs, I would have loved to have an IT person, would love to have a payroll person. And when you're stressed and having so much to do, it can seem like anybody is just better than nobody. So there's you're willing to overlook those red flags in those early days because you need somebody to get that work done. But. In the long run, a miss hire that early can ruin the culture to a point that it might not be reversible, and so defining what it is from a core value in a culture standpoint you want, and be unwavering and unwilling to make concessions for those because that's going to make you stronger in the long run.

Nasser Oudjidane  

Yeah, but very difficult to do in the moment.

Kevin Kwoka

Ohh, extremely, extremely yeah. When you're doing those 14 - 16 hour days for months on end and your spouse is worried about you, yeah, it can seem like anybody would be better than nobody.

Nasser Oudjidane  

Moving on to the closing questions now. What would you say is one challenge that you're facing today that you'd love to be able to fix and make disappear if you had a magic wand?

Kevin Kwoka

Very specific to recruiting candidate compensation expectations. So as we've gone through to now being remote, there's companies that have just a one, you know, a national, here's our rate, here's how much we're willing to pay regardless of where you live. Other companies have tons of different zones based on geography and all of that stuff, but. The struggle is, especially when you need people now, you may be willing to overpay. 5,10, 15%. That all adds up. And when you're hiring, grim is hired 220 people so far this year, almost 30 per month. Even $5000 over what you could have gotten someone else for, that's I'm not good at math. That's why I'm not in finance. That's a lot of money. And then with the recent, you know, 5-6 months, candidate compensation expectations have just been mind-blowing. Even during a two or three-week interview process, we've had candidates because of other roles that they're looking to, their expectations go up 50%. So that would be my magic wand.

Nasser Oudjidane

  Yeah, I mean, I suppose we can do a whole nother podcast on remote compensation policies because that's just something that is, I think, unfolding in front of our eyes.

Kevin Kwoka

Yeah, it's evolving even from in the past couple of months and I know a lot of companies are doing are reverting back or changing and it's a lot of experimentation right now.

Nasser Oudjidane  

Yeah, absolutely. Is there anything that you listen to, that you read or watch for inspiration that you'd like to share?

Kevin Kwoka

I'm a big fan of Gary Vee. He's a thought leader. He got his start as family, as wine store and was one of the first to put a wine store online. And he's just, he's a very positive person. Brings things back to just the humble beginnings of where he started and he and related to what GRIN does, he's a huge content creator. He's all he was. He's an early adopter of Instagram, early adopter of TikTok Big on LinkedIn, he's constantly producing little snippets of content. So I feel like from a related to the industry that we're in, he's a great example of a creator and then he just puts in little you know quick 30 seconds sound bites that make it digestible. That's been one of my favorite people to follow over the past couple of years.

Nasser Oudjidane  

And is there one thought, value or phrase that you live by?

Kevin Kwoka

So I'm a new father or my daughter. Our daughter's 15 months old and when I was on child bonding leave from Thanksgiving to New Year's last year, was taking a morning walk with her. One weekday, no one was at the local park. I come around a corner and there was this. Older old old guy, Grandpa type guy shuffling his feet along and ahead of me. And I've got my headphones in and listen to podcasts looking at my baby and go to pass him and he says something to me and I was like, not really in the mood to talk to strangers because I was sleep deprived at the time. And so I took my headphones out. I was like, huh? And he goes, oh, isn't it such a privilege? And I was like, huh, he's like, isn't just such a privilege like to raise your child to have this, that the weather that we have today, just to be able to go for a walk and this guy, you know, is probably 80 to 90 years old? And then I continued my walk and it's really stuck with me in that what I get to do every day is a privilege. And that's kind of been my new mantra is it's a privilege. So the hard times, the difficult conversations, the both personally and professionally as a new father, as trying to be a good husband, a son, grandson, everything I get to do is a privilege. And so it just for me helps bring me back to like every day. What I get to do, the company I get to help build the industry that we're in, the luck that I had with a recruiter reaching out to me, it's a privilege. And so that's really been the mantra that I've started telling myself for the past nine months. This is a privilege.

Nasser Oudjidane

  Yeah, that's awesome. What a lovely grounding mechanism, that is.

Kevin Kwoka

Yes.

Nasser Oudjidane  

What are some of your goals for the future?

Kevin Kwoka

We're taking GRIN public. That's the goal.

Nasser Oudjidane  

I love it.

Kevin Kwoka

So, you know, with that, that's a long ways out and obviously things can change, but. As we grow to, you know, eventually. 700 employees, 1000 employees, wherever we're going to be that my goal is to maintain our culture for as long as we can and that comes with who we recruit and the character of the individuals that we allow to join GRIN. That's my big goal for the future.

Nasser Oudjidane  

And last one, where can we go to learn more?

Kevin Kwoka

Grin.io is our website so you can go there. Grin.co careers is for our career webpage talks about our core values, our culture. We also have a lot of videos on LinkedIn, Employee references, yeah Grin.Co

Nasser Oudjidane  

I’ll be sure to put that on the show notes. Kevin this has been awesome, that you.

Kevin Kwoka

Thank you, Nasser it’s been a privilege.

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Head of People and Talent
Aviros
Bea Dominguez: Head of People and Talent at Aviros

In this episode I learn from Beatrice Domiguez, Head of People and Talent at Aviros. Founded in 2015 in Zurich, Aviros is building fleet management software in the cloud and is one of Europe’s fastest growing B2B SaaS companies.

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