Leaf CEO on building a tablet for retail: ‘My investors wanted to kill me’

January 21, 2013

Leaf was founded in January 2011 by Aron Schwarzkopf and has, like other vendors positioning tablets as a POS device, enjoyed a steady rise over the past 24 months.

The start-up has raised $4 million in venture funding and seen 100 merchants start using its tablet platform (with around 500 tablet devices being used) from coffee shops and restaurants to gyms and ice skating venues.

For founder and CEO Schwarzkopf, this growth is just the start for the company, which defines point-of-sale as just one part of its solution.

“We don’t call ourselves a tablet POS platform, we call ourselves the platform for business,” opens Schwarzkopf, clearly trying to define his company from competitors like ShopKeep, Revel Systems and others.

“What differentiates us from people like ShopKeep is that we build our own platform, of which POS is just a feature, and secondly that we run on our own tablets.”

Leaf built its own tablet and version of Android

The last comment does indeed make Leaf different to your ordinary start-up. For while Leaf’s cloud-based platform delivers everything from POS, CRM, social networking and other business features, it is the fact that these developers from Boston handcrafted their own Android tablet that is most surprising.

Schwarzkopf says that the move made sense, but admitted the firm had no idea on how to build the tablet until they actually tried it.

“When we, as a small company, told our investors we saw an opportunity in building a commercial tablet, everybody wanted to kill me,” admitted Schwarzkopf.

“No-one in the founding team had any experience in building hardware but we started to understand what components we needed, and it became less of a manufacturing job and more of a managing job with the stuff already out there."

The learning curve didn't end there for Leaf.

“We also built our own version of Android and one of the main reasons [for that] was so we could control and build app stores, as well as other services, on the tablet. The aim was to control the whole experience” said Schwarzkopf.

On completion of all this hard work, Leaf had built a 7-inch Android tablet teeming with support for NFC, QR codes and mobile wallets.

The company also appears to have made set-up simply for business too. Interested parties can sign up for the solution by entering an email address on the Leaf website, after which time they will receive the tablet in the post.

Once placed in the counter, Leaf says that retailers can then personalize what their tablet can do by selecting what vertical they are working in as well as add additional controls, such as the ability to give complimentary food, take signatures or send items to the printer.

All of this, coupled with its cloud platform, sees Leaf describe the solution as ‘dashboard with a news feed’. Indeed, Schwarzkopf says business owners have been ‘pretty freaked’ when they discover they can use the tablet for everything from social networking and CRM to mobile payments. 

iPad POS solutions are 'too expensive'

The Leaf CEO says that its clients have been even more impressed when they find out they can get all this, with one tablet included, for a reasonable $50 a month (additional tablets cost $250 each), a far cry from the price of some iPad point-of-sale solutions.

“Most counter checkout places only need one tablet so they dump what had before for just $50 a month, which is astonishing given iPad POS systems can cost a couple of thousand a month.”

Price isn’t the only reason Schwarzkopf believes SMBs and retailers should use his solution — he also says that iPad POS systems can be fragile in terms of security and be too distracting for employees.

“The credit card dongle (which is used for some iPad POS solutions) is one of the best inventions over the decade, but it is not dependable. It’s not really made for business use and the consumer tablets themselves develop problems when used for commercial reasons.

“Plus, about ten of our clients didn’t like iPads or Android tablets because their employees were playing Angry Birds.”

Legacy POS systems are finished

Going forward and Leaf’s immediate aim is to expand its reach from Boston by going across the U.S. and perhaps to international markets in 2013, with the firm also hoping to especially target the retail clothing sector.

And far from dissing his competitors, Schwarzkopf believes that firms like Leaf and ShopKeep can help each other out in their common pursuit of replacing legacy POS systems.

“I completely embrace anyone putting mobile technology in counters because they’re helping to build this revolution. Every time ShopKeep or LevelUp put something there [in a counter] it helps to build up the revolution and put mobile payments on the map.

"It’s pretty clear that legacy systems are not going to be in the counters of the future.”

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