Reviver is building a company one licence plate at a time

·9 min read

Do you want to run an "easy" startup? Be a coder, and realize that some aspect of your workflow is needlessly complicated. Create a tool to fix that, and spin it out as a dev-tools company. Get your first 100 customers from all of your friends, then raise $5 million to sell it to everyone else, and eventually, GitHub or Salesforce gets bored of paying you to use the tools and buys the whole company instead. Not to make light of how hard it is to build any company, but that certainly is one of the easiest ways of making a couple of million dollars.

Reviver is pretty much exactly the opposite of that. If you've been driving around in California, Colorado or Arizona, you may have seen its product: electronic paper licence plates. The first time I saw one, I thought "wow, that's a brave thing for some hacker to put on their car," but then I realized it was the first of a wave of electronic licence plates. Seeing as how I'm a startup and hardware nerd, I got curious, and the next time I saw one of the plates on a parked car, I made a note of the company's name.

The product itself isn't complicated; it's an electronic paper display that needs to update once per year (when your tax gets paid), and that's about it. Building a company in that space, though, is a special kind of lunacy that I have a lot of respect for. The company's co-founder, Neville Boston, is basically trying to build a company under the hardest conditions imaginable. It's an easy-to-copy hardware product (basically, a sturdy Kindle) in a heavily regulated (anything automotive) industry that touches the DMV databases. The product must work in freezing cold, sweltering heat and cities where people "park by touch" as if bumpers are meant to be used. And for these things to end up on people's cars in the first place, the company needed to jump through an almost unimaginable series of hoops, in a permanent standoff against bureaucrats who don't really have any incentive to let change happen. It's a perfect storm. If anyone came to me with this as an idea for a business, I'd advise them to run the other way. So, naturally, I called up the company's co-founder to figure out why he's such a sucker for punishment.

The company has raised in excess of $70 million and has around 65 employees. Headquartered in Granite Bay, California, the company has offices all over the world, and today there are around 30,000 cars driving around with its e-ink 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 about the valley... Andreessen Horowitz said that software eats the world. Everybody's looking at things being spun up quickly, getting funded quickly, and you exit quickly," Boston said in an interview with TechCrunch last week. "You've made all this money, and it's fantastic. I think what we are doing is uniquely different because it is highly regulated. The plates were a market ripe for disruption."

That's right, the humble licence plate. In the U.S., you get them after a series of more or less (usually more) frustrating visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The challenge is that a lot of these systems all run on really old computer systems, and interfacing with them is rather different from what you might imagine if you're used to modern APIs and the aforementioned dev tools.

"They are 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 so much paperwork, and it has not been modernized. Their systems are old. They are bringing back retirees to work on the systems because they are the only ones who know how the systems are working."

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 that for a while there, people couldn't safely go into the DMV to get their admin done. Surely, there has to be a better way? That's the solution Reviver thinks it has come up with.

"When I started to talk to people about digitizing the plate, to my surprise, everybody was open to it, because they realized that I was looking at it from a partnership point of view. 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 of fixing them -- not just for you, but for every institution across the country," says Boston. "We had a platform that actually worked. It turned out to be a long conversation because it's a sea change from what had been done before, and there were people that 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 than that again, it's certainly a huge market that warrants a closer look. So that's what Reviver set out to do: Fix some of the core problems with the way licence plates are distributed and road taxes are handled, all through the medium of the humble plate.

"When you start talking about EVs and autonomous vehicles and all the things that you need to have in place in order to have the highway of the future, then you start really realizing that this is a big deal. Regardless of whether you're in Bakersfield, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago or Florida, it doesn't matter. The license plate is how law enforcement recognizes compliance with your vehicle," Boston explains. "And it's not just here in the 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 -- anybody that has a car should have a plate."

And while it may seem intense to start the company in the first place, things get 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 of things gets you a pretty formidable head start.

"I've developed relationships with just about every DMV director across the country. I've worked with the Department of Transportation. I'm working with law enforcement," Boston lists off, explaining the breadth and depth of the company's moat.

Having a deep moat isn't enough, however; there are a lot of challenges with tackling the 50-odd different sets of 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 the states where it's legal but not selling, it means it has a connection with the DMV and is working on plotting a route to market.

"There is legislation in the works in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington and Nevada," Boston rattles off. "There's a lot happening, and our focus is on the top 10 vehicle markets in the U.S. We put our energy there because we had initial conversations with other players who wanted to get involved 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 stick their neck out at least a little bit to make digital plates a possibility.

"I think the partnership aspect is vitally important; to have a public-private partnership where everybody wins. They're getting benefits from it. We are getting the freedom to operate. When it comes to the government, all you hear about are the problems. You don't really hear about the successes; I want to give them praise for being forward-thinking and saying 'this makes sense.' And all we're looking for is the ability to operate in the state," Boston explains.

The company has two products; a battery-powered licence plate and a wired-in plate. The latter is aimed at fleet use, and adds a bunch of additional functionality, including GPS, accelerometers and other features that are focused on fleet management.

The main thing the electronic plates unlocks is convenience for the drivers, and flexibility for the governing bodies.

"If a state wants to change what it puts on the plates to be on compliance, they can, but if the cost is that they have to send out another 5 million plates in order to do it... it stops innovation," argues Boston. One example is that California has the month and year of the car's registration on the plate. In Arizona, they don't. Changing that would be hard, but digital plates unlocks that sort of thing. "That's why having the digital display is so key. It enables the states to move into the future."

The company has an eye to the future too. The company suggests that connecting the plate to the traffic systems means that they can do smart routing and traffic balancing, for example. Much like what a company like Waze already does, and, frankly, may be better positioned to do, given how many people use maps on their phones already. Self-driving might be another possibility where smart plates could come in handy.

"When the vehicle is autonomously driving, you could actually have the plate signify that so that, you know, across the board, whenever you see this circle with a dot in it, it means that it's an autonomous mode," says Boston. "Some cues can be developed, changed or improved because of the technology. I think that that's it because everybody looks at the plate as a way of identifying information about the vehicle. That means that you could use that real estate to do a lot of really creative things."

Edit note: An earlier version of this story refers to the product as a 'number plate,' which turns out to be a Britishism. We've updated the story.