History of Revel Systems: A Startup That Did the Impossible

the Revel Systems team dominating the streets

Revel started out with a completely different idea: an online ordering app for the iPhone. Co-founders Chris and Lisa hit the streets of Sausalito to sell their newly-minted product. While selling their online ordering app to local restaurants, however, the two founders realized that the bigger challenge and problem in the restaurant space was the point of sale system.  

The POS systems at restaurants that they visited were bulky, archaic, and expensive, not to mention their back support and lack of open api. Many of these systems had not been updated in years, and had servers on the backend which required frequent and costly maintenance. Restaurant owners, by and large, are not always the most tech-oriented, and having a bulky and high-maintenance backoffice server was a recipe for disaster. Lack of technical expertise paired with POS systems requiring frequent repairs or replacements drove up restaurant owners’ costs.  After talking to Michael Lappert, owner of Lappert’s Fish and Chips in Sausalito, Chris and Lisa decided to pivot and develop a new type of POS system. The recently released iPad was the perfect touch screen to replace this archaic expensive legacy system. Because the first iPad had just been released, it was the most logical choice for the POS platform of the future.

Revel's first system

The first Revel Systems install in Lappert’s Fish & Chips

There were many challenges to building an iPad POS, the biggest of which was that there’s no card swipe attached to the Apple iPad. Square was the only company that had an audio port device–attachable to iOs or Android devices–that could take credit cards but after close consideration, we found it was not reliable enough for real businesses to run credit cards all day. The founders were determined to find another, more robust solution.

Their next task was to connect a card swipe through the 30 pin connector to the iPad, while simultaneously powering the device. Everyone from whom Chris and Lisa sought advice told them it was impossible. The founders had a motto, however:  Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Lisa and Chris started to search the Internet  for how to connect a card swipe, because everyone else said it was impossible. After extensive research, they found a webpage on the Internet that detailed the pin layout in its entirety. Careful analysis revealed that the pin layout had power pins and serial input pins along with USB layouts. Creating a device, and getting it certified by Apple would take several months, and the dynamic duo had only one week before they left for India to start programming the app. This trip marked the beginning of this amazing adventure into POS technology. 

While brainstorming, Chris and Lisa found more issues: Apple requires an authentication chip for any hardware accessory to communicate to the iPad, and access to this authentication technology required membership in Apple’s MFi program . The MFi program was rigid and required compliance with a number of specific rules. They needed to get the hardware connectors and components required to manufacture iPad accessories, and they had to access the iPod Accessory protocol specification, which was the communication protocol used to interact with the iPad. Testing alone could take weeks, if not months. Creating and getting approval for a hardware product could take a minimum of 6 months, and the founders did not have time for that. 

Lisa and Chris knew they had to find a way, otherwise their whole business would not even get off the ground. They then learned about the Apple Camera Connection Kit, which already had an authentication chip and was able to plug USB devices into the iPad. The most important factor was that this device was already certified by Apple.

They realized:  Why not just reuse the connector and communicate with the iPad by using the authentication chip? They could then connect a USB card swipe device to the USB Camera Connection Kit, which was a device approved by Apple. The obstacles, however, did not stop there.

While they successfully connected the Card Swipe unit to the Apple certified Camera Connector Kit, they were unable to power the iPad. When the USB Camera kit was connected to the iPad, the iPad turns off power injection, making it impossible to connect power to the iPad. This inability to connect a USB device while simultaneously powering the iPad was in fact mandated by Apple itself. Analysis of the Apple Camera Kit revealed readily that there was no power input for the chip, just a connection for USB pins.  Some pins were also not used.

As if this hurdle wasn’t enough, there was yet another problem the founders had to overcome.  They now had a swipe that worked, but for high volume restaurants they needed the iPad POS to be connected to power, enabling it to process transactions all day long.

The founders found a solution, which was to power the iPads though one interface pin. The iPads received some power, but while the card swipe was connected the charge slowly ran out over the course of 14 hours. The founders felt like they were banging their heads against the wall–they were so close yet so far away. It was two days before they flew to India to get the software created. One night they stayed up until 5 am messing with the system. The next day they noticed that the iPad was still charged. While the unit was not at 100%, it was still powered and running.

The funny part was neither one of the founders knew what they did differently to get it to work.  After a few hours they noticed the only difference was the brightness of the display unit was slightly dimmed. As it turned out, the iPad was able to receive enough power if you lowered the brightness of the iPad past 50%. They had found a way to charge the iPad with an attached card swipe.

Revel Systems with card swipe

The Revel iPad POS with attached card swipe

There are plenty of funny stories of customers calling in saying their iPad was dying, but they just had to lower the brightness to get it to work. But that’s another story :)

Read more about Chris and Lisa’s 30 pin adventure here.

The next hurdle was connecting a printer to the iPad, which, at the time, Apple had not even done. The founders thought about connecting the printer via USB, but this was not an option, as the iPad only had one USB connector and no supporting power. They ruled that out as a possibility. The only other option was to use Ethernet enabled printers. Another Revel motto is:  Only use the best. At the time, Epson printers had the best name in the business, so the two founders decided to use Epson receipt printers for their POS. The challenge here was that there was no Software Development Kit (SDK), nor was there any clue on how to connect to one. The founders turned to searching the Internet yet again, as trying to approach companies about the issue could take months. Lisa and Chris were able to find hidden commands to control the printers, so the two decided to create their own SDK, which later became the first software to print from an iPad directly to a printer.  Not even Apple itself had developed a way to print from an iPad.

Now the founders had all the missing links needed to build the hardware. They just needed a stand that could be built in 40 days to coincide with the software’s completion in India. This was the only remaining piece of the puzzle so they could install the unit as promised to the first client.

Below is the finished product, which at the time was just a prototype. Revel later had to scrap this design because it was too expensive to manufacture.

early version of Revel Systems

side view of Revel POS

back of revel pos

Now the founders just had to build the software that they knew nothing about, but they sought out to inform themselves. They asked a lot of questions of a lot of store and bar owners. They even brought in twenty managers from around the city to receive comments and feedback.

The co-founders then traveled to India. Over the course of 40 days, Chris and a team of programmers produced the first version of Revel Systems’s software platform (the second version was made in the United States with an even bigger team of 30 engineers). Chris and Lisa returned after 40 days in India and began the install in Lappert’s Fish and Chips. Michael Lappert now has 4 stores running the Revel Systems iPad POS.

Revel is rapidly growing. The company raised $3.7 million in April of 2011 and another 10 million in 2013.  Now Revel’s top clients include the following (or franchisees of the following): Belkin, Goodwill, Griffin Technology, Little Caesars Pizza, Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, Fresh Berry Frozen Yogurt Cafe, Pizza Patron, and thousands of others.

Revel’s goal is to offer the best POS solution, and to be the main connector between the shop and the consumer – through social deals, gift and loyalty programs, and social network integration Revel’s marketplace and open API allows for endless possibilities–business owners can customize their POS solutions as they see fit and they can connect them to the social networks and mobile platforms used by their customers. Even new companies can integrate seamlessly with Revel’s POS technology platform.

REVELUP! 

Contact Revel with questions about the iPad POS!

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