ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.
Serial entrepreneur Jeff Lawson founded Twilio in 2007 after he realized that integrating phone calls and text messaging into software and online services was harder than it needed to be.
The company now powers online communications for many other firms, mostly in ways you've probably never noticed. Ever received a text message from Uber letting you know your car has arrived? That was a Twilio-powered message.
Twilio’s platform lets developers add voice and text services to their mobile and web applications. While text messaging—and arguably voice calling, too—is declining among consumers, businesses are using the technology to power their services in an increasingly mobile-driven world.
Lawson calls the builders using his service “doers” and is passionate about helping entrepreneurs succeed. In addition to startups and corporations, many nonprofits integrate Twilio into their services, and recently the company launched Twilio.org, a project Lawson hopes will help nonprofit organizations affordably improve communications services to better serve their initiatives.
Software To Solve A Problem
ReadWrite: What was your original vision for the company?
Jeff Lawson: We started Twilio to really solve our own problem. I’m a serial entrepreneur, this is the fourth company I’ve started, and I was a product manager at Amazon Web Services. When I left Amazon I knew I wanted to start my next thing. I didn’t have a specific idea in mind.
One thing I realized was, "Hey, at each of my previous companies, we were software people trying to use software to tackle a new industry, create some efficiency, do something better in the world.” And every one of those companies, at one point or another, we wanted to incorporate communications into what we were doing in order to create a great customer experience, create a great product.
We felt there was this hole in the market. I’ll give you an example: In 2000, I was the first CTO at StubHub. We were using the power of software and the Internet to legitimize secondary ticket transactions, bring it online, make it so it isn’t on the street corner, make it so you don’t feel you’re going to get stabbed after you hand over the cash. We had this great model, but one of the things was, if we were going to compete with the street corner commerce, we’ve got to let you buy a ticket up until the last minute.
We said, in order to do that, we’re going to have to be able to call the seller. “Hey seller, your ticket just sold! We’re sending a courier to pick it up from you.” Then we had to call a courier. “Hey courier, we got a job for you. We need you to pick up the ticket.” And then we needed to call the buyer. “Hey buyer, the courier is showing up in two minutes on the street corner, make sure you’re ready.” The whole logistics of this thing, and our team—software people—we didn’t know how to make phones ring.
When we figured out we had this problem, three companies in a row, I said, “Let’s solve this.”
RW: You talk a lot about software people. Can you describe the idea of software people for those of us who might not be as familiar with it?
JL: Being a software person is a mindset, not a skill set. What it really means is that it’s a worldview where you see the world through that lens of software. You’re always asking that question, “Can I solve this problem with software?”
When you see a problem in a company, something that’s not efficient, a customer interaction that’s not efficient, your brain jumps to, “Hm, how can software solve this problem?” You see this mindset pop up in not just developers, but anybody who really sees the world that way.
It could be anyone in an organization, the head of customer service, the head of sales, the CFOs, CEO, COO, and the developers. Interestingly enough, for developers, just because you write code doesn’t mean you look at the world through that lens either.
Apple, that’s a software mindset company, they’re a software people company. Why? Well, they make a whole lot of hardware, including your laptop, and your phone, but really, what these are things about, the iPhone is the minimum amount of hardware required to have an amazing software experience. That was the key innovation that occurred when the very first iPhone came out. No keyboard. Why? Keyboard is hardware. Just limits what we can do.
The Elevator Pitch Gone Horribly Wrong
RW: What was it like describing your ideas to initial investors?
RW: How exactly did you explain the telco technology thing?
JL: I’m sure it was a horrible, terrible pitch. Every time I struggled to sit down and say, okay, “How am I going to tell this story?” I think hopefully it got better every time I did it, but it's a tough concept to sell.
The first time we did it, sat down in front of investors and said, “Hey, we want to build this platform, APIs, that developers can use to build communications.” I got a very common response back which was, “Why developers? You go out and build an application first. Why don’t you go build a PBX [private branch exchange—a hardware phone exchange for use by a single company]. Go compete with RingCentral. If you’re successful then you get an API too.”
That was the most common refrain that we got. We thought about it, and a lot of people gave us that advice, smart, successful people telling us this, and oh, maybe we should listen to that. But at the end of the day that’s not the problem we’re trying to solve. My goal isn’t to provide a PBX for people.
We think that the future is based on APIs, we believe that everything from startups to enterprises are going to be more and more like software companies. They are going to think like software companies, in fact there’s an element of natural selection that’s is going on and going to continue to go on, whereby companies that react to a changing market react to changing technologies the quickest are going to survive. Right? It’s adaptation.
Companies that are chained to big hardware, big software on a ten-year buying cycle where its millions of dollars in consulting fees just to bring in professional services to make any changes to such a system—those people are going to lose to those who are of an agile mentality. Those who can use the power and flexibility of software to their advantage and respond to a changing market quickly—it seems to me that those are the people who are going to win. Our goal is to serve those people because in our opinion that’s the future...
It’s like that mentality that says what we need are the right value of building blocks for software people and software oriented organizations to build in to solve problems for their customers. They don’t need another PBX.
RW: Do you think it’s difficult to maintain that agile mindset and constantly be changing as you grow as a company?
JL: No, because if you do a good job, what you’re doing is breaking down the problem. Anything from a startup to a company of our size with 250 people, to the largest enterprise. The job of a well-run organization is to break down the problems in a way that aligns your organization to your customer’s needs. At any level of scale I think you could do a good job of breaking down your problem—what am I trying to solve for a customer, breaking that down into manageable chunks, doing good planning, and focusing on delivering value in short intervals over big intervals.
Shorten your iteration cycles. Learn faster, ship faster. What I think is happening with mobile software, it’s happening with manufacturing—the more lean, the more agile the company is in anything that it’s doing, the more able it is to respond to the market with changes or manufacturing defects. You’ve got companies like Toyota who are thinking that way.
RW: You were saying you’re 250 people now. You went really quickly from being a startup to this point. What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced?
JL: I would say building a company as you scale, continuing to focus on the customer, execute with that urgency as you scale, is the most important thing. That’s a set of systems, processes, philosophies, hiring, so that as you grow, you can be a larger organization, but one that is comprised of small teams, that continue to think the way you did as a startup with three people working out of a coffee shop.
Every team is fighting for its life to serve a customer and to improve the customer’s experience and solve another problem for that customer. Companies that lose sight of that are the ones where the size of the company becomes a detriment. Companies that keep that focus use size as a benefit.
Product Built On Communications
RW: What has it been like competing and working with carriers?
JL: What’s interesting, what Twilio does, one side of a company we work with developers, software companies and enterprises, and we enable them. The other side of the company works with carriers and talks to carriers.
We’ve got people in our company who work with carriers everyday, we’ve got people who work with enterprises and startups and software people. One of the most interesting things I think is the impedance mismatch between speed. We operate and our customers operate at a speed which is very different than that of carriers.
So how do we solve that impedance mismatch?
The typical carrier thinks in billions of dollars, whether in costs, revenues, or things like that. Whereas from the point of view of who their customers are on the enterprise side, that’s caused them to think differently, and we can solve that impedance mismatch. Pay as you go, rapid development, in all the modern languages type of model. To a system that, from its legacy, is built from innovation and changes that by design, are on the decades timeframe.
Because a telco is creating very big, very reliable, very robust systems that operate at enormous scale. It’s fundamentally not an agile world. What we do is bridge those investments. Carriers have immensely valuable assets in these copper and fiber networks under our feet and these airwaves. That’s immensely valuable. What we do is bridging it to the pace and cadence of software people.
RW: Was it difficult in the beginning to get those telco companies to understand what Twilio was doing? Did they at any point ever see this startup as a competitor to what they were doing?
JL: Well we never believed that we were competitive with carriers. And I don’t think we’ve positioned ourselves or talked to carriers that way. We’ve always talked to carriers as partners. The people who lose in the world of Twilio are Cisco and Avaya and ShoreTel. And people who are trying to sell a big, expensive, inflexible boxes that you’re going to run in your own closet, and they come every year and charge you 20% support and maintenance just to keep the thing running.
That’s a world that’s disappearing. We’re moving to a flexible world of the cloud. And we’re moving to a world of composeable services. And people trying to sell you inflexible on-premises boxes are going to go away.
Twilio, Just For Developers?
RW: So I imagine it’s fairly easy to convince developers, software people and highly technical business owners that Twilio is a great option for them. But how do you market and sell an API to non-technical business people?
JL: Well what’s interesting, there’s a question of are we actively trying to sell Twilio to those people? I’ll separate that into a few buckets.
We don’t necessarily think that your mom who is non-technical, let’s say, has to know who Twilio is, because we are focused on a core market. People who are software thinking people and people who want to leverage the agility and flexibility of software running on the cloud to power communications experiences for their companies, for their customers, etc.
A non-technical person, depending on the skillset, or depending on what company it is, should understand the benefits of the business for saying yeah, I’m not going to spend a million dollars on Cisco, agility and flexibility in the cloud is important. I can save money, maybe get to market faster, I’m going to have a more flexible solution, they understand that, but they don’t need to understand the details of how the API works.
There’s two audiences there. I’m thinking about a line of business owner with a big enterprise, or a CIO at an enterprise. Well, they should really care about agility and the impact that has on their ability to compete in the market, attract great talent, and respond to changing conditions. And then a developer is going to say yeah, and I love this API because it makes me successful in minutes. There are sort of two sides to that equation.
RW: At TwilioCon you talked about developers sort of going against the machine. Can you describe a little more of what you meant by that?
JL: There’s a mantra in the world of technology, build versus buy. That’s an argument put forth by vendors who already built the thing they’re trying to sell to you. What they’re really saying is that you’d be an idiot to build this again.
There are these phrases, why reinvent the wheel, right? These are all arguments made by them to say you’re an idiot for building something that already exists because you’re just going to buy it from me. I understand the logic, it can make sense. When you end up with a solution, this monolithic, big, spending a ton of money on all sorts of things you don’t need, it’s inflexible because the more that’s prebuilt, the less flexibility there is.
Fundamentally that model is proven to be broken. If we look at the big enterprise software, big enterprise hardware legacy of our industry, well 70% of those huge things, those huge software installations fail. You cut in millions of hours to some vendor and two years later the thing isn’t running and then the new CIO comes in and says let’s cut our losses and kill this thing—70% of the time that’s what happens. That’s an amazing failure rate for an industry. Think about all the waste that’s going on there. Think about the number of careers that didn’t go anywhere. It’s silly, and the software people when I look at them, it doesn’t make any sense.
So my point to software people is like, “Guess what? Because of this movement to the cloud, because of the rise of APIs, and smaller building blocks, it is good to build.”
In fact, companies that build are going to be the companies that win, because they are the ones going to operate in that agile way. That’s not to say that every company has to become an expert in everything, or you have to build everything. Facebook’s building its own servers, I’m not advocating every company go do that. But rather, you can choose to buy smaller building blocks to maintain that agility. That’s what’s so interesting from software people’s perspective is, it’s empowering.
RW: So do you think that’s going to be a trend that we see among both big businesses and smaller startups—to rage against the machine and start building their own things in a world where basically everything is an API. Do you think that’s going to be a trend?
JL: Absolutely. I think that it’s going to be a matter of composeability. Of breaking down problems into constituent parts and building some of those and buying some of those. But I’m not going to buy a huge box that’s going to be brought in with a forklift into my company.
I’m going to buy small boxes that I can arrange. The companies that are going to essentially survive and thrive are the ones that have that flexibility in their business. I think that’s going to happen across the board. That’s why you see software as a service becoming extremely popular. It used to be if I needed CRM [customer-management software for sales], what would I do? I would go talk to Siebel and spend six months with the sales process and another 6-12 months doing an implementation and a customization phase with professional services. Great, 18 months later I’ve got a CRM. I can go to Salesforce today and sign up in an afternoon with a credit card.
Who’s going to thrive in that world? Then you think about the next layer and well, now we’ve got CRM but it’s not quite what I want. Well then you’ve got APIs, you take that and integrate it into everything else you can do. It’s just composeability that is going to lead companies to actually solve problems faster.
Open Source For Good
RW: You’re a big advocate of open source. How has Twilio benefitted from being in the open source community? And have you noticed more interest from developers in incorporating Twilio into their apps?
JL: We are big users of open source, big contributors. Open source is baked into the technical ecosystem nowadays. Big users of Linux, and Nginx, and MySQL, and all these technologies that are part of the, I talk about small building blocks. Open source has provided a huge number of these small building blocks that have allowed companies to iterate quickly and grow quickly and do what in ‘97 and the dot-com days was, “Hey I need a $20 million dollar check from OBC just to get my company off the ground.”
Because we’re building all sorts of stuff and buying all sorts of stuff. They’re saying no, there’s companies who have launched, companies who are using Heroku, right, you can use an application that can launch better and faster for 0 dollars than Pets.com did in ‘98. There’s more power available for free today than there was—it just completely changes the landscape.
RW: Of course I know you’re very passionate about Twilio.org that gives a $500 Twilio credit and 25 percent discount on Twilio services to eligible nonprofits. Will you talk a little bit about your vision for this organization?
See also: Saving The World One Text At A Time
JL: We launched Twilio.org a couple of months ago. Its mission is to power a million messages for good, and it comes based on the observation that over the years, one group that we consistently saw come up were people from the nonprofit universe who have a mission of their own to solve some problem in society, make the world a better place for some segment of the world.
People kept coming up and saying, “I can use communications to solve the problem, to make the world a better place.” Every time they did we were very excited that our technology could be used that way. We would have very ad-hoc conversations with those people.
Think about it, we’re human beings, when we communicate, when we collaborate we make things happen. So the problems in the world, whether it’s hunger, disease, climate change, whatever the problem is, some amazing percent of the time, people communicating in some way, or people who weren’t communicating before and are now communicating, can now be the solution for that problem.
Our technology can be used to power that. You’ve got all these organizations in the world who see these problems firsthand, and many of those organizations have software people, the software mindset, thinking how we can use technology to solve these problems.
Because we believe that every organization, non-profits included, should have access to the best technology to achieve their mission.
Businesses Turn To SMS
RW: So consumers are turning more to messaging applications, there’s WhatsApp and Snapchat. It seems you were saying businesses and nonprofits, these unique ways of using SMS are exploding. Are you seeing as far as texting and consumers goes, are you seeing a move to interact with businesses and different products using SMS as opposed to texting friends?
JL: Absolutely. Think about SMS as a medium as opposed to one person texting another. For an example, you’ve got Uber using software to reinvent transportation.
I remember when I first moved to the [San Francisco] in 2009, hailing a cab went like this: I would dial one, get the wrong number, dial the other. So I call the number, it’s busy, redialing, redialing, finally I get through, say I need a cab at this corner, 20 minutes later I say, "Where’s the cab?" I call back, it’s busy. Horrible experience.
Along comes Uber and says, you know what great customer experience is. When the cab is a few minutes away I’m going to text you, when the cab is 10 seconds away I’m going to text you. Proactively letting you know where the cab is, and what to expect. That’s an amazing customer experience. It’s good to see so many companies doing interesting things along these lines to create engagement with customers in this proactive sense that you just didn’t get before.
Building The Twilio Community
RW: I know you’ve mentioned doers a few times when we’ve spoken, and you made a huge point to talk about it at TwilioCon. So why do you call people doers? And what do they mean to the Twilio community?
JL: I don’t know when exactly we started calling them doers, we just kind of sat down and thought well, “What do we think about ourselves, what properties we like in ourselves, and people who are the kind of people who would adopt APIs, or who are building things?” Those people kind of cut through the BS, and don’t sit around wondering, "Maybe we could do this."
That’s not how Silicon Valley operates, that’s not how developers operate. We thought about it, we’re doers, we sit down, we pick up our tools and our skills and go about solving a problem. That’s what causes people like us to wake up every morning.
We came up with the word doer to represent that notion.
RW: What is one of the most memorable hacks you’ve either seen by an employee or by a doer at a hackathon?
JL: There was this artist in LA who built this interactive installation as part of an event at the MOMA. It was a miniature golf course, all through the museum. It was like put-put, and there were ones where you would put into an elevator, go down a floor and put out of the elevator. He had ones where it was down stairways, crazy miniature golf. What does this have to do with Twilio? Well, he put an RFID chip in every golf ball. Then he outfitted the hole with an RFID reader. So he knew every ball, which person it was, and every time you sunk a put, your phone rang, it gave you a clue to some puzzle you were trying to solve.
It’s like wait, what? It’s amazing.
RW: So speaking of the next phase, what are you working on right now? What’s next for Twilio?
JL: The way we think about it is continually listening to our customers, and see what problems we can solve for them. What are the next layer of problems with interacting with your customers? Or building applications to communicate. How do we enable that, that’s why we launched MMS at Twiliocon, because we heard customers saying there was so much power in the medium of SMS, but there were so many categories of opportunities that you can’t solve.
All images of courtesy of Twilio