Twilio's Jeff Lawson: Building an API Empire
Early to recognize the power of communications API model, Twilio's founder is busy making sure his company doesn't lose its first-mover advantage.
As CEO and co-founder of Twilio, Jeff Lawson has helped propel the idea of communications platform as a service (or, as he likes to call it, "cloud communications platform") into the enterprise consciousness. For his pioneer's insight on API-based communications, Lawson is regularly featured on technology sites and showcased by major business publications and investor forums. And, just recently, he was tapped as a keynote speaker at Enterprise Connect 2017.
Twilio went public in June, not long after its eighth anniversary, and saw revenues double in 2015, to $166.9 million (read related post, "The Biggest Event of 2016"). The company recently reported its third-quarter results, citing total revenue of $71.5 million, up 62% from the same period in 2015 and 11% from last quarter. Twilio today has about 650 employees, well over half of whom are in technical fields. Technical or not, all employees -- "Twilions," as they're known internally -- are expected to build an application using Twilio services.
Jeff, who grew up in Michigan outside Detroit and obtained degrees in computer science and film from the University of Michigan, has a strong entrepreneurial drive. In addition to Twilio, he founded Versity (education) and NineStar (sporting goods), and served as first CTO at StubHub (ticket marketplace). He even held an entrepreneurial role at Amazon, serving as one of the first product managers at Amazon Web Services (AWS).
Jeff founded Twilio with co-founders Evan Cooke and John Wolthuis while living in the Seattle area. In 2009, he moved Twilio to San Francisco, where he lives now with his wife and two children.
I've been watching Twilio from the beginning, and openly admit to not getting it at first. I was not alone; in the company's early days, more investors turned away Twilio than Jeff cares to count. This isn't a problem any longer. Twilio's API model is well understood now, and the CPaaS space is getting crowded. Twilio does enjoy significant first-mover advantages, including a portfolio that includes 16 product lines.
I had the opportunity to meet with Jeff to discuss Twilio and the industry, and our conversation went something like this:
I've heard you refer to Twilio as a "third wave" company. Can you clarify?
We refer to this third era of computing as the "age of the platform." The first era was selling on-prem apps to the CIO -- long timeframes, big price tags, high-stakes software. And it was all back-office -- your big ERP systems, etc. The second era was SaaS -- apps sold to LOB owners. Salesforce, Workday, etc., helping LOB owners run their part of the business, but still using off-the-shelf, behind-the-scenes software.
The third era is about building software, not just buying it -- because how companies differentiate today is digitally. Those companies that build will win. The third-era software companies are those providing the building blocks -- AWS, Twilio, Stripe, New Relic, Google Maps, etc. These are the raw ingredients in every app you use every day.
This is the age where developers and businesses are free to rapidly experiment and innovate with scalable, flexible, cloud-based building blocks that empower them to build the future of customer interaction. For example, AWS opened the door for developers to start new companies, products, and services at a fraction of the capital they would have needed 10 years prior -- all through the power of the platform.
Tell me about how Twilio communicates internally...
Twilio has 11 global offices and over 650 employees, yet we don't have a PBX or phones on our desks. But we do have apps that we've built on Twilio to help employees get their job done. For example, every employee has their own Twilio conference line. As we build more products, the roadmaps are often guided by our internal use. For example, we now power website chat with our Programmable Chat product, and two-factor auth of the Twilio account portal is powered by Authy.
We use our own products and, in fact, many of Twilio's products actually started as internal tools we used in R&D. For example, we built our recently released Voice Insights as an internal tool, and then realized it would be great for customers [see related post, "London Calling and It's Probably Using Twilio"]. Same thing for Twilio Sync; we used it to power Programmable Chat initially, and then rolled it out to customers as its own building block.