If you have a to-do list that only seems to get longer, a Boston startup called Duckbill just launched a new service to try to shrink it — for a monthly fee.
Duckbill is the latest company that wants to make a personal assistant available to us plebeians, starting at $99 a month. The company is announcing this week that it has raised $33 million from investors, including General Catalyst in Cambridge and Forerunner in San Francisco. The company’s founder is Meghan Verena Joyce, previously a general manager at Uber and chief operating officer at Oscar Health, a health insurance startup that went public in 2021.
Joyce said she started to feel overwhelmed by “life admin” after she got married, bought a home and car, and had kids — all while working a high-stress job helping Uber to expand on the East Coast. “We were spending precious moments on hold with doctor’s offices or trying to find someone to help with some home maintenance issue,” she said.
She began building Duckbill in 2021, seeking to combine artificial intelligence software with “a human in the loop” to take on those everyday tasks for busy people.
During COVID, Joyce said, many services that couldn’t previously have been handled online went digital, and consumers became more comfortable with collaboration and assistance from remote colleagues. Artificial intelligence software called “large language models” also became more able to ingest large amounts of data, and handle it the way a human might, asking questions such as “Do you prefer to make that appointment on a weekday or weekend?” That led her to believe the time was right to start a company focused on life admin.
Early users have asked Duckbill to take on several types of tasks. One is booking medical and dental appointments, and finding providers who accept a person’s insurance plan. Another is assembling a family’s shared digital calendar, laying out schedules for school, vacation, and volunteer work.
Sometimes, users turn to Duckbill to buy supplies online, such as soccer cleats and shin guards required for a child’s soccer practice. Another task for Duckbill is coordinating home and car maintenance.
Joyce says that customers can submit tasks via text message, email, the web, or the company’s mobile app. Duckbill has hired full-time employees — not contract or “gig” workers — to execute the tasks, though the workers can be located anywhere in the US. Some may have specialties, such as party planning, or sorting through confusing medical bills. Duckbill has 30 employees.
For $99 a month, one user in a household can have access to Duckbill, which Joyce concedes is a premium price point. But, she said, the price could drop “as we automate more and more of what we do.”
Right now, there’s no limit to the number of tasks a customer can ask Duckbill to take on over the course of the month, but there is the touchy issue of tasks that may be too big or involved for the company’s employees — Duckbill calls them “copilots.” If you’re asking them to serve as your general contractor, or to “plan a 200-person wedding reception, we’ll find someone who specializes in that,” Joyce said.
Boston has hatched several other companies focused on helping out around the house, including TaskRabbit, Hello Alfred, and Stuff. TaskRabbit, founded in 2009, initially offered to take care of anything, from painting a home office to picking up dog food at the pet store; it later focused on a smaller set of tasks, such as assembling furniture, moving, and cleaning. It was acquired by the retailer IKEA in 2017.
Hello Alfred positioned itself as a twice-weekly concierge for your house, picking up dry cleaning, straightening up, and delivering groceries for a $99 a month fee. But it now sells its services to the managers of large apartment buildings and communities as an amenity for their residents, rather than marketing to individual consumers. The company moved to New York and has raised more than $200 million in venture capital funding.
Stuff, similar to Duckbill, wanted to keep its network of assistants from having to visit your home, and charged a $50 monthly fee for remote help. But that company stopped selling its service to consumers in March 2021, says cofounder Ohad Elhelo. He and his cofounder relocated to New York, and renamed the company Augmented Intelligence, Inc. Their focus is on developing artificial intelligence to support human agents in the e-commerce sector.
What did Elhelo find when he tried to sell remote assistants to consumers? “It’s a very complicated business offering,” he says. And despite the appeal of automating responses to common tasks, Stuff found it to be “very human-intensive.” So, the company focused on big online merchants such as Amazon, Target, and Walmart as potential customers.
But little progress would be made if entrepreneurs were dissuaded by predecessor companies that either struggled, pivoted to a different business, or flopped. (R.I.P. Fin, another human-AI assistant created by Facebook and Venmo veterans.) Leah Solivan, the founder of TaskRabbit, said that when she initially pitched a business to take care of pickups and deliveries for households, people asked her about failed dot-com companies that did similar things such as Kozmo.com and Webvan. But, she said, “with new technology emerging, there is always an opportunity for new innovations.”
More capable AI software can potentially help with customer support, coordinating logistics, and matching people with tasks to “copilots” best suited to handle them, says Solivan, now a general partner at the San Francisco venture capital firm Fuel Capital. (Her firm is not an investor in Duckbill.)
Taking on household to-dos is a business challenge “that so many people have tried to tackle, with no clear winner in the space,” Joyce acknowledged.
She views what her team is trying to build as the next generation of what companies like Yahoo, Lycos, and Google built in the early days of the Internet. But instead of just answering questions, Duckbill hopes to help customers pare down their lengthy to-do lists.
“We can be an execution engine — not a search engine,” Joyce said.