Startups

Backed by a16z, Relay races to market with Zapier in its crosshairs

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Jacob Bank, founder of Relay, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background
Image Credits: Relay / Founder and CEO Jacob Bank

A new automation startup is setting out to eat Zapier’s lunch, formally launching to the public today after an extended period in beta.

Relay, as the company is called, touts itself as a workflow automation platform that helps people tackle mundane, repetitive tasks, going “beyond triggers and actions” popularized by similar rules-based platforms such as Zapier and IFTTT that can automate tasks between applications.

The San Francisco-based startup is the handiwork of Jacob Bank, founder of a VC-backed smart scheduling app called Timeful that he sold to Google back in 2015. Post-acquisition, Bank joined Google, where he was tasked with integrating Timeful’s tech into various products, including Gmail and Google Calendar, before landing in various product lead roles at the company.

Fast-forward to July 2021, and Bank left Google to found Relay, a product that sits somewhere between Zapier and Asana, recruiting some of his former Google colleagues for his new venture in the process.

Collaborative workflows

Relay is all about collaborative workflows; so rather than simply automating mechanical data flows between products, it’s designed to support actions where multiple stakeholders might work in tandem. This includes scenarios such as organizing all-hands meetings or board meetings or onboarding new recruits — Relay wants to help businesses reduce the amount of human admin hours required for tasks that repeat themselves.

For instance, a company might integrate Relay with their various productivity tools, calendars and team collaboration software, and then configure their all-hands meeting so that all contributors spanning multiple departments automatically receive the correct presentation template a few days before the meeting. They can then be asked to add their content, with Relay creating a Slack channel for that specific all-hands.

Relay: Automating a meeting
Automating the all-hands. Image Credits: Relay

Relay formerly debuted in beta last year with $5 million in a seed round of funding led by Khosla Ventures, a VC firm that also invested in Bank’s previous startup Timeful back in 2014. And alongside its formal public launch today, the company revealed that it has raised a further $3.1 million in funding, this time led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z).

Remote control

It would be somewhat remiss not to at least mention Relay’s structure, with a workforce distribution owing a little something to the internal product development history at Bank’s former employer.

Indeed, while Relay is headquartered in San Francisco, the company counts just three employees in the U.S. (including Bank), with one in Canada and seven spread across Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The somewhat convoluted reason is due to the fact that Google Calendar has been developed entirely from Zurich for more than a decade, a move that stems from Google’s efforts to make Google Plus a thing by giving this priority at its core Mountain View hub. Consequently, the internet giant leaned on its capacity elsewhere for other products, with the likes of Calendar, Tasks and parts of Gmail transitioned to its software development team in Switzerland’s largest city.

And so when Google acquired Bank’s smart scheduling app Timeful in 2015, Bank worked closely with the Calendar team in Zurich. Fast-forward some five years to the start of the pandemic, and many of Google’s employees returned to their original home cities and towns across Europe to work remotely — something that proved to be a boon when Bank left Google to found Relay in 2021.

“When Google started to pull people back into the Zurich office in the fall of 2021, right as we were forming the core team for Relay, some of the great people I had worked with in the past didn’t want to move back and reached out to see if they could work at Relay,” Bank said. “It was lucky timing for us.”

“Alternative to Zapier”

Much has changed in the 12 months since we last caught up with Relay during its early access period. At that time, Relay was what Bank describes as a “todo list for repeated sets of tasks.”

“At that time, we only had automations in a handful of products, including the Google Workspace apps and Slack,” Bank explained. “Through our early access program, we learned that the primary value of Relay is the ability to automate repeated actions, so we decided to evolve Relay into a full-fledged workflow automation platform that would be a complete alternative to Zapier.”

Indeed, Relay now supports hundreds of triggers and actions spanning myriad integrations, as well as more advanced workflow functionalities.

More importantly, this past year has also ushered in significant advances to the broader AI realm specifically, including the generative AI hype train spearheaded by OpenAI’s ChatGPT. As such, Relay also now includes an AI assistant powered by ChatGPT, which can suggest content, extract information, summarize notes and autofill fields.

With AI Autofill, for example, Relay (via ChatGPT) can suggest paragraphs for email messages, or summarize content from sources such as a Notion page or email.

Relay: AI assistant powered by ChatGPT
AI assistant powered by ChatGPT. Image Credits: Relay

Additionally, Relay also now offers a feature called AI Classify. This is to support workflows with conditional paths, for instance:

If an email to ‘feedback@domain’ mentions an issue, file a bug and follow up. Otherwise, respond with an email thanking them for their feedback.”

Using AI Classify, Relay can help users make these “left-or-right decisions,” as Bank puts it, without waiting for a person to decide what to do, or having to preconfigure rules in advance.

“Our customers are using AI for a variety of use cases — support teams are using AI to classify if an incoming email contains a bug, and finance teams are using AI Autofill to summarize the content of monthly email updates and extract key metrics like ARR and runway,” Bank said. “App developers are also using AI Autofill to generate responses for new App Store and Play Store reviews.”

Relay: AI Classify
AI Classify. Image Credits: Relay

However, similar to its existing automations, Relay is all about human-in-loop approvals, ensuring that nothing sensitive or erroneous is sent out without first being approved. After all, many companies won’t be comfortable handing complete control over to the machines quite yet.

Relay: Human-in-the-loop
Human-in-the-loop. Image Credits: Relay

And this points to the single biggest differentiator with established incumbents — the ability to have humans intervene in otherwise automated workflows to give the final greenlight to a specific action.

“In Relay, we make it easy for users to double check any step before it happens, input missing data, add personalized content and more,” Bank said. “We firmly believe that not all workflows can be entirely automated, and that many still require human judgment, so we’ve made it easy to gracefully layer human-in-the-loop input onto any step in any playbook.”

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