Do you want to implement an “easy” startup? Be a coder and realize that some aspects of your workflow are unnecessarily complex. Create a tool to solve it and spin it off as a dev-tools company. Get your first 100 customers from all your friends, then raise $5 million to sell it to everyone else, and eventually, GitHub or Salesforce will get tired of paying you to use tools and buy the whole company instead. What is difficult to build is not to be made easy anything company, but it’s definitely one of the easiest ways to make a few million dollars.
Reviver is exactly the opposite. If you’re driving in California, Colorado or Arizona, you’ve probably seen its product: e-ink license plates. When I first saw one, I thought, “Wow, that’s a very brave thing for some hacker to put on their car,” but then I realized it was the first of electronic license plates. Being the startup and hardware geek that I am, I was intrigued, and the next time I saw one of the plates on a parked car, I made a note of the company name.
The product is not complicated; It’s an e-ink display that needs to be updated once a year (when you pay your tax) and that’s about it. Building a company in that space, though, is a special kind of crazy that I respect a lot. The company’s co-founder, Neville Boston, was trying to build a company in basically unimaginable circumstances. It’s an easy-to-copy hardware product (basically, a sturdy Kindle) in a heavily regulated (any automotive) industry that hits DMV databases. The product must work in cities where people “park by touch” as intended to use freezing cold, sweltering heat and bumpers. And for these things to end up in people’s cars in the first place, the company needs to jump through an almost unimaginable series of hoops in a perpetual stalemate against bureaucrats who have no incentive to make change happen. It was a perfect storm. If someone comes to me with an idea for a business, I advise them to take a different route. So, naturally, I called the company’s co-founder to find out why he was so pressing for punishment.
The company has raised more than $70 million and has about 65 employees. Headquartered in Granite Bay, California, the company has offices around the world and today has nearly 30,000 cars rolling around with its e-ink plates. The company hopes to reach 50,000 by the end of this year and grow exponentially from there.
“When You think of the valley… Software will eat the world, said Andreessen Horowitz. “Everybody’s looking to get things done faster, get funded faster and you get out faster,” Boston said in an interview with Technology Flow last week.You’ve made all this money and it’s amazing. I think what we’re doing is particularly different because it’s highly regulated. The plates are a market ripe for disruption.
That’s right, the humble license plate. In the US, you get them after more or less (usually more) frustrating visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The challenge is that many of these systems run on really old computer systems, and interfacing with them is very different from what you might expect if you’re used to modern APIs and the aforementioned development tools.
“They’re still on mainframes running COBOL,” laughs Boston. “They’re really behind the times, and everything the DMV does involves paperwork. Whether you’re getting your registration or your driver’s license or whatever; there’s a lot of paperwork and it’s not modernized. Their systems are outdated. They only know how the systems work so they put retirees in the systems. Bringing it back to work.
It’s a perfect storm in a way: old systems ripe for modernization managed by an almost universally hated organization. And then, the global pandemic wreaks havoc, meaning that for a while there, people won’t be able to safely walk into the DMV to complete their errands. Surely, there is a better way? The Reviver thought of the same solution.
“When I started talking to people about digitizing the plate, to my surprise, everyone was open to it because they realized I was looking at it from a partnership perspective. I didn’t want to be a customer; I wanted to be a partner. I wanted to talk to you about things that are broken and talk about ways to fix them – your Not just for, but for every organization across the country,” Boston said. “We have a platform that actually works. It turned out to be a long conversation because it was a sea change from what had been done before, and there were people who were a little nervous because, especially in government, nobody likes change.
But in a country with hundreds of millions of cars and more in the world, it’s certainly a huge market that needs to be closely monitored. So that’s what the Reviver aims to do: solve some of the major problems in the distribution of license plates and administration of road taxes through the Humble Plate medium.
“When you start talking about EVs and autonomous vehicles and all the things you have to put in place to have the road of the future, you really start to realize that this is a big deal. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Bakersfield, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Florida. A license plate is how law enforcement identifies compliance with your vehicle,” Boston explained. “And it’s not just here in the States. It’s in Africa and China and Australia; it’s the same across the board. I saw it as a great opportunity — anyone who owns a car should have a plate. .
And while starting a company in the first place may seem overwhelming, things get a lot more interesting when you realize that having a first-mover advantage in the context of changing how things are done in government can be pretty cool. A formidable start.
“I developed relationships with every DMV director across the country. I worked in the transport department. I work with law enforcement,” the Boston company listed, describing the width and depth of the trench.
Having a deep moat is not enough, however; There are many challenges in dealing with 50-odd different rules and regulations to bring this product to market. The company’s products are available in California, Arizona, Michigan and Texas. For government vehicles, the plates are also legal in Colorado, Illinois, Georgia and Florida. The distinction is a little fuzzy; But in states where it’s legal but not sold, it means it has a connection with the DMV and is working on planning a route to market.
“Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington, and Nevada have laws,” Boston said. “TThere is a lot going on here and our focus is on the top 10 vehicle markets in the US as we have initial conversations with other players who want to participate once we have 50% of the driving population and that is where we put our energy.
The company is keen to give a lot of credit to the various government agencies that have enabled them to run their operations. In a world where people aren’t big fans of change, someone has to stick their neck out a bit to make digital plates a possibility.
“I think the partnership aspect is very important; everybody wins in a public-private partnership. They’re getting benefits from it. We’re getting the freedom to operate. When it comes to government, you hear about the problems. You don’t really hear about the successes; I think ahead and say, ‘This makes sense.’ I want to give them credit for that. And what we’re looking for is the ability to work in the state,” Boston explained.
The company has two products; Battery operated license plate and wired-in plate. The latter is aimed at fleet use and adds a bunch of extra functionality, including GPS, accelerometers and other features focused on fleet management.
The key to unlocking electronic plates is convenience for drivers and flexibility for governing bodies.
“If a state wants to change what they put on the plates to compliance, they can, but the cost is they’ll have to send out 5 million more plates to do it…that would stop innovation,” Boston argued. An example is the month and year the car was registered on a California plate. In Arizona, they don’t. It’s hard to change that, but digital plates unlock that sort of thing. “That’s why having a digital display is crucial. It allows states to move into the future.
There is also a focus on the future of the company. Connecting the plate to traffic systems means they can do smart routing and traffic balancing, the company suggests. A company like Waze already does, and frankly, might be in a much better position given how many people already use maps on their phones. Self-driving is another possibility where smart plates could be useful.
“When the vehicle is driving autonomously, you actually point to the plate so that whenever you see this circle with a dot across the board, that means it’s in autonomous mode,” Boston said. “Some instructions may be developed, changed or improved due to technology. I think it is because everyone sees the plate as a way of identifying information about the vehicle. That means you can use that real estate to do a lot of creative things.
Edit note: An earlier version of this article referred to the product as a ‘number plate’, which turns out to be a Britishism. We have updated the article.