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Senate candidate in Rhode Island may be mobile payment pioneer

Posted by Scott Kirsner  September 30, 2011 12:15 PM

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Swiping-motion.jpgNo surprise that a former software entrepreneur from Boston, now running for one of Rhode Island's U.S. Senate seats, has been an early adopter of mobile payment technology as a speedy and efficient way to collect campaign contributions at his events.

Barry Hinckley started the Boston-based recruiting software company Bullhorn in 1999, though he's no longer on the board or involved with day-to-day management. He's running for Senate as a Republican, noting that one of his ancestors commanded the Minutemen of Concord, firing shots across North Bridge. It'd be his first time holding elected office.

Hinckley's campaign has been using technology from Boston-based ROAM Data to enable campaign workers to collect contributions by using their mobile phones to swipe credit cards. The alternative would be to write the numbers on a paper form, or tote along laptops, which would require power outlets and a wireless link. The campaign brings the swipe-enabled phones to every event, whether country club receptions, coffee talks, or benefit movie screenings. ROAM believes it is the first use of mobile payment technology by a candidate running for national office.

Despite all the hype about San Francisco's Square, ROAM touts itself as the #1 supplier of mobile credit card readers, with more than 300,000 units shipped. (See update below.) While Square works directly with merchants, ROAM typically supplies technology through other payment processors, like First Data or Sage Payment Systems, says CEO Will Graylin. By using ROAM's technology with existing merchant accounts, Graylin says that businesses pay a transaction fee that can be as much as 1.25 percent lower than what they'd pay to use Square. ROAM's card readers also work with a wider range of devices, Graylin says, including Blackberries and PCs (Square connects only to iPhones, Android phones, and iPads.)

(Update: a Square spokesperson contacted me after this blog post was published, noting that Square has shipped "over 750,000 readers across the U.S." It's readers are free.)

Graylin explains that a ROAM salesperson knew some people working on Hinckley's campaign. "They carry around the ROAMpay solution on a smartphone and tablet to pretty much every speaking engagement," he says. "They've raised tens of thousands of dollars using this method." Because the card is getting swiped, the fees are lower than they would be if the number was simply written down on paper (known as a "card not present" transaction).

The flashy new technology may not exactly change the course of the race, though. Federal records show that Hinckley had raised $155,000 through June 30th of this year — well behind incumbent Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who had pulled in $784,000.

ROAM is doing better than either candidate. Graylin told me his 60-person company has raised about $10 million in funding so far, including some from Ingenico, which makes point-of-sale systems. A new round of funding — "substantially higher" than what the company has banked so far — is in the works, he says. "Our investors are really thinking about how we can really scale ROAM Data as this de facto platform provider for mobile commerce, and how we go international," Graylin says.

Will those new investors forward funds to ROAM using an Android phone or an iPad? That'd be quite a first...

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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