$56 million raised, can Duffel go stratospheric?

Founder and CEO Steve Domin talks us through his masterplan to dominate travel
BizAge Interview Team

Hi Steve! What is Duffel?

Duffel is a travel technology platform consisting of a powerful Flights API and Payments API that enables any merchant to instantly search flights, make bookings, reserve seats, and sell paid extras like checked bags. Put simply, we make it easy for almost anyone to start selling flights in a matter of minutes - compared to weeks or months. In doing so, we have removed some of the biggest barriers to entry. Our product is built with developers in mind, offering simple, composable APIs, comprehensive documentation, and a robust testing environment to make selling flights as seamless as possible..

Where did the idea come from?

The idea for Duffel originated during my role as an engineer at GoCardless. I wanted to build my own weekend getaway generator and I naively expected that accessing inventory for travel supplies such as hotels, flights, cars etc. would be simple, but the reality was far from this.

I found accessing inventory a problematic and time-consuming process, with regulatory and supplier relationships gated and difficult to build for new travel sellers. This was a real turning point and the birth of Duffel – I wanted to create a business that would help drive innovation, disrupt travel tech, and level the playing field for new types of travel sellers, all while improving the overall travel experience for users.

The first product we offered is a flights API, making it easy for anyone to start selling flights in a matter of minutes, including the ability to search flights, make bookings, reserve seats and sell paid extras like checked bags. We wanted to create a self-serve model that travel sellers could use without the need for connecting with hundreds of airlines individually or becoming an accredited travel agency.

However, it’s not just aimed at helping new and emerging travel sellers. Using Duffel means well-established merchants have access to real-time flight information and booking capabilities without the technical complexities, lengthy set-up processes, or financial hurdles. Airlines can also benefit from our product offering since partnering with Duffel reduces distribution costs, grows ancillary revenue, and cuts the time for connecting to new sellers with minimal IT investment.

How can travel sellers differentiate other than on price?

Travel sellers can set themselves apart from competition by providing an enviable customer experience. The customer journey shouldn’t just begin and end at booking, travel should be embedded into their lives. Travel sellers can offer add-ons such as transfers for door-to-door service to ensure customers get exactly what they need without unnecessary friction or they could provide travel insurance or health and safety updates to remove anxiety and stress within the current environment.

Personalising the travel booking experience can also differentiate your product while boosting customer loyalty. For example, if you know your customer is eco-conscious, including information about C02 emissions per flight and offering ways of offsetting the emissions can really make a difference and encourage them to return to you for their next booking.

What are some of the important but underrated features of Duffel?

Duffel Components is an important part of our offering. It’s a suite of drop-in components that make it even quicker to build fantastic travel experiences. We’re all about making life easy for those integrating flights into their website or app, especially as travel sellers often struggle to present rich, detailed information in a clear, intuitive, and interactive way. Duffel Components lets them do that without having to build a complicated user interface (UI).

Take, for example, seat booking – which on the surface may seem straightforward. Even with a well-designed and fully documented API, turning data into a beautiful seat map for customers to use isn't simple, due to nuances such as aircraft layout, seat placement, order of cabin classes and row numbering inconsistencies. Some travel sellers can spend weeks or even months building a seat map.

Our seat selection capability can handle all of these variables, presents it in a clear way and allows customers to find their perfect seat. So, while easily overlooked, we’ve tackled several key challenges and built a component that gives travellers a great seat booking experience across any device, while staying fully customisable and able to adhere to existing travel seller branding.

Accreditation and content are also hugely important features. Airlines don't allow just anyone to sell tickets on their behalf, you'll need to be an accredited travel agency – and this isn't just a case of filling in a quick online form. Potential sellers will need to prove financial viability with audited company accounts, provide a bond or bank guarantee of around $50,000 and pay application and setup fees of over $1,000.

This isn’t realistic for most new travel sellers. As Duffel is an accredited travel agency in five countries (and growing), we let our customers piggy-back on our accreditation and airline relationships to sell flights from day one. Doing so removes the time, effort, and classic hurdles of going it alone.

How does Duffel support the developer experience?

We focus fully on the developer experience – making it not just painless, but fun, to build websites and apps using our Flights API. To build modern websites and apps, developers have to integrate with lots of APIs for different tasks. For example, when building an online travel agency website, they may need to send booking confirmation emails with SendGrid, collect payments through Stripe, track user activity using Mixpanel and, of course, actually book flights.

If you speak to any developer, they'll likely share their API horror stories around broken test environments, unclear error messages, unhelpful customer support or painful version upgrades. On the flipside, they'll also be able to tell you about their favourite API, which would most likely feature intuitive design, clear and up-to-date documentation, fast response times and code snippets they can just copy and paste to build more quickly.

To us, a developer's first experience with our API is incredibly important. So, we're doing all of the right things to make sure that Duffel is one of the APIs that developers love and tell their friends about – not one they hate and want to forget. And this starts with our comprehensive guides.

To make things as smooth as possible, we've published a series of ‘getting started’ guides. Our Quick Start walks through the first steps with Duffel, right through to booking the first flight and a developer can follow it step by step, in less than 10 minutes. We've also published guides to some of the more advanced features in our product (such as adding extra bags or selecting seats). Lastly, we have launched 3 client libraries (Node.js, Python and Ruby), or software development kits (SDKs), which takes care of some of the initial, boring and repetitive tasks. When integrating with a new API, there is so much boilerplate code to write before you can actually start building, but our client libraries are a valuable, pre-made bundle of code that developers can use to start building faster.

What clients can you name?

We are working with a number of great travel sellers – across the corporate and leisure sector– to enable their flight booking and functions. On the business travel side, BizAway and Evoke provide all-in-one solutions to book and manage business trips, using our API.

For consumers, we are working with companies including Pelikin, Worldia, Alternative Airlines, Ulysse and Jetabroad, which all help their customers book tickets with peace of mind.

Some of our customers are also using our API to combine flight selling with other forms of travel, such as Combigo, which also offers bus, train, carpool and ferry tickets. This enables their customers to find cheaper and more ecological tickets.

Lastly, as the world of travel has changed so much in the last couple of years, we are working with TravelDuqa, which is a digital travel wallet that offers personalised VISA and COVID-19 destination entry requirements. As part of its offering, TravelDuqa enables users to find, compare and book flights – which is where we come in.

What do the airlines think of Duffel?

At Duffel, we help to connect airlines with a wide range of travel sellers which, effectively, makes airlines’ lives much easier when it comes to establishing those relationships.

The feedback that we’ve had so far from airlines is that Duffel is easy to work with and, compared to other providers’ APIs, Duffel allows them to get set up quickly – several have quoted that they were able to launch new products within a day. They also appreciate how we think outside the box with our product offering. For example our seat components product and payments API.

On top of this, the added support that Duffel provides when it comes to improving their processes for onboarding sellers, helping them to launch new features and providing feedback, makes them view us as important partners. This is especially true when it comes to realising their vision of what the future of travel will look like.

Tell us about the team behind Duffel

My colleague Tom Bates and I founded Duffel back in 2017. Before then, I was an early employee at GoCardless and led the Platform Engineering team, while Tom was a product designer at Palantir Technologies.

Our team has now grown to more than 50 employees who are all united by our core principles: people come first; never stop growing; stay fast and fluid; build with pride; and understand the bigger picture.

We believe in helping and empowering people whether it’s ourselves, our customers or our teammates. We’re respectful, supportive, and understanding of one another and care deeply about communication, transparency and honesty.

We see great things in our future, and we want to get there as quickly as possible, but we accept that we’ll make mistakes along the way. When things go wrong, we own our outcomes, look at what we can learn and work together to find a solution, rather than pointing the finger. Having team members that uphold our values and this supportive, collaborative culture is crucial to us.

What funding do you have? Is it enough?

To date, we have raised $56.2 million. Our $4.7 million seed funding was raised in 2018, while in 2019 we raised $21.5m (Series A) and $30 million (Series B). Our investors have included Blossom, Index Ventures, Kima Ventures and Y Combinator. We don’t have any plans to raise any further funds at this point.

What is the five-year vision for Duffel?

The future to us means a lot more than company size or how much money it makes. To us, our five-year vision is centred around constantly questioning what travel will look like in the years ahead and more importantly what we can do to make it better for everyone.

We’re still in the early days of Duffel, and the travel industry is still very early on in its recovery from the worst downturn ever. Our vision is about making travel effortless, which starts with growing the NDC connections that we have, offering more in-depth features and services across multiple airlines, continuing to improve the developer experience, and providing more plug-and-play solutions to speed up our customers’ go-to-market strategies.

With the expanded airline coverage now available on Duffel, we’re continuing to lower the barriers to entry for new players starting to sell flights for the first time, something we believe is the bedrock for more innovation in the travel industry. We’re optimistic about the future of travel and excited about continuing to build this future with airlines, travel sellers, and start-ups reimagining a better way to travel.

Written by
BizAge Interview Team
January 24, 2022
Written by
January 24, 2022