A former HubSpot exec built a chat bot to make sure customers don't slip through your fingers

Drift foundersDriftDrift cofounders Elias Torres and David Cancel (from left)

“Chat bots” broke onto the tech scene earlier this year with a torrent of hype, but most have so far failed to live up to it.

Part of that is because many consumer chat bots seem like just another repackaging of an app. You chat with a robot instead of pushing buttons, but you didn’t really get anything new.

“They don’t feel like a net efficiency gain,” David Cancel, former HubSpot exec and CEO of Cambridge startup Drift tells Business Insider.

Drift is trying to use chat bots to provided something new, Cancel says. Its “Drift Bot” works as a concierge for businesses when potential customers arrive at places like the company’s website. Its goal is to make sure these people are routed to the right person.

“It wants to get out of the way as soon as possible,” Cancel says.

Drift Bot is, in some ways, meant to replace the online form. “Online forms transferred the work [of initial intake] from company to the [customer],” Cancel says. Drift Bot makes the labour feel more 50/50. It pops up, asks a few questions, and gets you where you need to go. It’s like reaching a digital operator.

Cancel says Drift is trying to use the “artificial to make something feel personal.”

How it works

Drift Bot uses your words and actions to determine who within the company to route you to.

And Cancel’s goal is to make Drift Bot smarter, both by improving the artificial intelligence aspects and by letting companies give more fine-grain roles to employees. Cancel also wants to keep the cadence of his time at HubSpot, which releases features at a ferocious pace.

Drift Bot lives on many different platforms: web, HipChat, Slack, email, and so on. And you can set up rules for what platforms you want it to route through. For instance, your potential customer might be chatting on your website, but Drift Bot could route their messages to an employee on email or Slack, depending on your preference.

What businesses is Drift targeting?

“The Fortune 500,000,” Cancel says. “Mid-market, as many businesses as possible.” Cancel says Drift Bot has already signed up over 6,000 businesses, though not all are paying, as it’s priced as a freemium model.

Drift has also raised $15 million in funding from CRV, General Catalyst Partners, NextView Ventures, Founder Collective and angel investors including Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot.

The future

The ultimate goal of Drift is to integrate AI and human workflow in a way that helps businesses snag customers. Cancel says that all the best bot initiatives he’s seen have been in the human-assisted AI realm. That’s where Drift is playing.

“I don’t get a lot of the bot stuff,” Cancel says. “It’s cool engineer stuff, but it doesn’t solve a problem. Everything looks like a toy.”

Cancel thinks the best way to push beyond toy status is to make something that can hook into existing, human workflows. A bot doesn’t have to do everything, it just has to actually be useful.

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