Durable cements $14M to build bots and other AI tools for small businesses in service industries
Builders, bakers and body conditioners might not be the first trades that come to mind when you think about how AI is transforming how we work. But today a startup that’s building AI-powered business tools specifically for them — and the thousands of other categories that make up the world of small businesses and service industries — is announcing a healthy round of funding on the back of a surge of interest in its products.
Durable — a startup based out of Vancouver, Canada that has built an AI website creator and number of other AI-powered tools to help small business owners plan, create and run business apps more easily — has raised $14 million, a Series A that it will be using to continue expanding its platform and customer base.
The round is not the biggest in Series A’s but it comes with an interesting list of investors. Spark Capital is leading the round, and Torch Capital, Altman Capital (the VC founded and run by Jack Altman, the brother of OpenAI’s Sam Altman), Dash Fund, South Park Commons, Infinity Ventures and Soma Capital — all previous backers — are also participating. The startup has now raised $20 million in total.
Durable’s AI-powered website builder, aimed at people who either have very rudimentary online presences if any at all, has already been used to create more than 6 million websites since launching a year ago, it says.
“We have a lot of those traditional companies that have been around for a long time, but with no online presence. They have no software, they have no systems. That’s a big part of our customer base,” said founder and CEO James Clift in an interview. “The plumber, the skilled trades, the personal trainer. A lot of these like one- to six-person companies just haven’t had the time or the resources to actually build online presence, build marketing materials.”
Durable will be building on that momentum, using advances in the world of AI to build out more tools for its users.
Its ultimate goal, said Clift, is an omniscient assistant that not only answers users’ questions but also makes proactive suggestions about how to run their businesses better.
There will be a beta of that “automated, proactive assistant” released “very soon,” Clift said in an interview, likely in about three months.
Based around the different needs of specific profiles of users (bakers might not want or need the same information as body conditioners or builders), “We are training it in areas like taxes,” he said. “Press a button, and it will run your business for you in the background. You get a text message once a day, the jobs are booked in your calendar, and you just show up.”
Other tools that Durable has built to complement its flagship website builder include a CRM platform, an invoicing service, a blog builder and a precursor to the proactive assistant: an AI bot that users can ask questions related to their business. That AI assistant is powered by OpenAI, among other LLMs.
The gap in the market that Durable is aiming to fill is actually a familiar one in the technology world.
Small enterprises and sole traders have been an elusive target for startups developing business tools. Despite accounting for more than 99% of all businesses in markets like the U.S. and U.K., SMBs have been a complicated group of users to court, in part because individually they will spend less than larger businesses (making the ROI per customer harder for vendors), and they are generally a fragmented bunch when it comes to their tech needs.
Of course, none of the above is new information in the tech world. There are dozens of startups and larger tech companies targeting smaller businesses and specifically those working in service trades, building apps to manage their teams, their accounting, their banking, their payroll and everything else.
The unique selling point with Durable, Clift said, is that it’s applying the advances of AI to the problem to bring small business owners and employees into the modern age.
AI, in his view, has a democratizing role. First, it is making it possible for SMBs to have access to more affordable tools that might have been out of reach for them before. For example, Durable is working on producing logo and branding builders for its users, something that would have been out of the budget of most of its customers if that service were provided by a consultancy.
Second, the use of AI means that Durable itself can scale out its services more easily, circumventing the problem of selling and distributing services to a fragmented customer base.
“The way software is going, you can start delivering a ton of value that only an enterprise customer might have had even last year,” he said. “You can now deliver an even better level of service to someone who is a one-person shop that might not have had the budget for this kind of thing before. It’s very long tail but a big market opportunity.”
Durable’s tapping of OpenAI comes partly by way of the access it has had thanks to Altman Capital, which led Durable’s seed round.
“OpenAI has been a great partner from day one,” Clift said. Given the trajectory of OpenAI, which is reportedly working on closing another round of funding at a valuation of more than $80 billion, a startup that is a close partner with ties to the CEO is probably one to watch.
“One of the ideas I’m currently most interested in is ways AI can empower founders to build 10X better products from the ground up than what exists today. Particularly in spaces where the technology can help people do things more cheaply, quickly and accurately,” Jack Altman told me. “When I met James, beyond being very impressed by him as a founder, I was excited about the potential for what this product could do for entrepreneurs and small business owners. Seeing how well he and the team have executed since that initial investment has only increased my hope for what Durable can become!”
“At Spark, we have always been driven to find the founders challenging the status quo. Not only are James and the Durable team doing this in their own right, but they are also creating a global platform for entrepreneurs to do the same with a frictionless user experience powered by AI,” said Natalie Sandman, general partner at Spark Capital, in a statement.
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