Want to perform an “easy” boot? Be a programmer and realize that some aspect of your workflow is needlessly complicated. Create a tool to fix that, and run it as a dev tools company. Get your first 100 customers from all your friends, then raise $5 million to sell it to everyone, and eventually GitHub or Salesforce will get tired of paying you to use the tools and buy the entire company instead. Not to mention how hard it is to build each company, but that is certainly one of the easiest ways to make a few million dollars.
reviver is almost the exact opposite of that. If you’ve driven around California, Colorado, or Arizona, you may have seen its product: e-ink license plates. The first time I saw one I thought “wow, that’s brave for a hacker to put on their car”, but then I realized it was the first of a wave of electronic license plates. Since I am a startup and hardware geek, I got curious and the next time I saw one of the plates on a parked car, I wrote down the name of the company.
The product itself is not complicated; it’s an e-ink screen that needs updating once a year (when your taxes are paid), and that’s about it. However, building a business in that space is a special kind of madness that I have a lot of respect for. The company’s co-founder, Neville Boston, is basically trying to build a business under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. It’s an easy-to-copy hardware product (actually a solid Kindle) in a heavily regulated (everything in the auto industry) one that hits the DMV databases. The product must work in freezing cold, blistering heat and in cities where people “park by touch” as if bumpers were meant to be used. And for these things to end up on people’s cars in the first place, the company had to jump through an almost unimaginable series of hoops, in a permanent confrontation with bureaucrats who have no real incentive to make change happen. It’s a perfect storm. If someone came to me with this idea for a business, I would advise them to go the other way. So, of course, I called the company co-founder to find out why he’s such a sucker for punishment.
The company has raised more than $70 million and has approximately 65 employees. Headquartered in Granite Bay, California, the company has offices around the world and today approximately 30,000 cars are on the road with their e-ink license plates. The company hopes to get that number to 50,000 by the end of the year and grow exponentially from there.
“When you think of the valley… Andreessen Horowitz said software is eating the world. Everyone looks at things that get going quickly, get funded quickly, and you leave quickly,” Boston said in an interview with londonbusinessblog.com last week. “Yes,You’ve made all this money, and it’s fantastic. I think what we do is unique because it’s highly regulated. License plates were a market ripe for disruption.”
That’s right, the humble license plate. In the US, you get them after a series of more or less (usually less) frustrating visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The challenge is that many of these systems all run on really old computer systems, and the interface with them is quite different from what you might think if you are used to modern APIs and the aforementioned dev tools.
“They’re still running on mainframes that run COBOL,” Boston laughs. “They are really behind the times, and everything the RDW does involves paperwork. Whether you get your registration or your driver’s license or whatever; there is so much paperwork and it has not been modernized. Their systems are old. They bring retirees back to work on the systems because they are the only ones who know how the systems work.”
It’s a perfect storm in a way: old systems ripe for modernization, run by an almost universally hated institution. And then a global pandemic wreaks havoc, meaning people there couldn’t safely go to the DMV for a while to get their paperwork done. There must be a better way, right? That is the solution Reviver thinks it has come up with.
“When I started talking to people about digitizing the record, 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 were broken and then talk about ways to fix them — not just for you, but for every institution across the country,” Boston says. “We had a platform that really worked. It turned out to be a long talk, because it’s quite a 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 where there are hundreds of millions of cars, and in a world where there are many more, it is certainly a huge market that deserves a closer look. So that’s what Reviver wanted to do: solve some of the core problems with the way license plates are distributed and road tax is handled, all through the simple license plate.
“When you start talking about EVs and autonomous vehicles and all the things you need to have the highway of the future, you really start to realize that this is a big deal. Whether you’re in Bakersfield, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago or Florida, it doesn’t matter. The license plate is how law enforcement recognizes your vehicle’s compliance,” Boston explains. “And it’s not just here in the United States. It’s also in Africa and in China and in Australia; all the same across the board. I saw that as a huge opportunity: everyone who owns a car should have a license plate.”
And while it may seem intense to start the business in the first place, it gets a lot more interesting when you realize that having the first-mover advantage in the context of shifting how things are done within the government layer, you a pretty formidable lead.
“I’ve developed relationships with just about every DMV director across the country. I have worked with the Ministry of Transport. I work with law enforcement,” Boston sums up, explaining the breadth and depth of the company’s moat.
However, having a deep moat is not enough; there are many challenges in tackling the 50 or so different sets of rules and regulations to market this product. 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 bit vague; but in the states where it’s legal but doesn’t sell, that means it has some affiliation with the DMV and is working on plotting a route to market.
“Legislation is underway in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington and Nevada,” Boston rattled. “Tthere’s a lot going on and our focus is on the top 10 auto markets in the US. We put our energy there because we had the first conversations with other players who wanted to join once we had 50% of the driving population.”
The company is eager to give a lot of credit to the various government organizations that have enabled them to operate. In a world where people aren’t the biggest fans of change, someone has to at least stick their neck out a little to enable digital records.
“I think the partnership aspect is crucial; to have a public-private partnership where everyone wins. They take advantage of it. We are given the freedom to operate. When it comes to government, all you hear is the problems. You don’t really hear about the successes; I want to praise them for being progressive and say ‘this makes sense’. And we’re just looking for the opportunity to operate in the state,” Boston explains.
The company has two products; a battery operated license plate and a wired plate. The latter is focused on fleet usage and adds a ton of extra functionality, including GPS, accelerometers and other features aimed at fleet management.
The main thing that unlocks the electronic plates is convenience for the drivers and flexibility for the governing bodies.
“If a state wants to change what it puts on license plates to comply with regulations, it can, but if the cost is that they have to ship another 5 million license plates to do it…it stops innovation,” Boston argues. . An example is that California has the month and year of registration of the car on the license plate. They don’t do that in Arizona. It would be difficult to change that, but digital records unlock things like that. “That’s why having the digital display is so important. It enables the states to move into the future.”
The company also has an eye for the future. The company suggests linking the plate to the traffic systems means they can do smart routing and traffic balancing, for example. Just like a company like Waze already does, and frankly might be better positioned to do it given the number of people already using maps on their phones. Self-driving could be another possibility where smart boards can come in handy.
“If the vehicle is driving autonomously, you could have the sign indicate that so that, you know, across the board, when you see this circle with a dot in it, it means it’s an autonomous mode,” Boston says. “Some cues can be developed, changed or improved by technology. I think it’s because everyone is looking at the plate as a way to identify information about the vehicle. That means you could use that real estate to do a lot of creative things.”