Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson Talks Apps, Future of Communication
Lawson dishes on the Super Network and how Twilio works seamlessly behind the scenes in apps like Airbnb, Netflix, and Uber.
Twilio is one of the quietest startup success stories in Silicon Valley. For all the talk across the telecommunications, VoIP, and business collaboration spaces about unified communications (UC), Twilio is the company powering in-app calls and texts in some of the world’s most popular apps, from Airbnb and Netflix to Salesforce and Zendesk.
Twilio cashed in on its unique value and broad customer base last year, debuting its initial public offering by raising $150 million at a $1.2 billion valuation.
Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson, one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Mobile World Congress, took some time before the show to catch up with PCMag. The wide-ranging conversation touched on the IPO and Twilio’s latest acquisitions, building out the company’s Super Network of global carriers, Lawson’s app-colored vision for the future of communication, and how Twilio’s cloud technology works seamlessly behind the scenes without users even realizing it’s there.
PCMag: Given the backdrop of MWC, I think Twilio has a unique perspective into how the mobile app economy has evolved over the past few years. What are some of the most important or identifiable trends you’re seeing right now?
Jeff Lawson (JL): The biggest shift we’re seeing is in the increasing power developers have to move the needle for a business. Until recently, the developer was often viewed as the guy or girl in the dark room, drinking Mountain Dew, eating Cheetos and banging out code according to some business specification. But that’s changing as businesses, and particularly enterprises, are realizing that coding is a creative problem solving endeavor. They’re realizing that the right question isn’t “how fast can this be done?” but rather “what’s possible?” given the customer problem we’re trying to solve. If you give a developer a problem and access to cloud-based tools, you’ll be amazed what challenges they can help solve for your business.
Let’s dig into the global compatibility aspect of what Twilio does through the Super Network. Can you talk about what must be a staggeringly complex process of working with thousands of carriers worldwide?
Yes it’s very complex, but that’s why nobody had really done it before — and subsequently why customers find value in the Super Network we’ve built. In the past, communications was a geo-politically bounded industry. Every country had its own carriers, and companies would go country by country setting up infrastructure if they wanted to do business there. That worked for a while because legacy businesses grew much more slowly. However, software is a fundamentally borderless business. If you build an app and put it in the app store, you’re live in 155 countries overnight. So we set out to solve a hard problem, to work with the carriers of the world to build a single network that would give companies and developers a single interface to reach every end user on the planet, regardless of where they are.
Doing that is no small task. We’ve spent the last nine years building out Twilio’s Super Network, which is a software layer that spans seven regions, 22 data centers, and connects with carriers in virtually every corner of the world. As Twilio’s customer base grows, so does our network and as the network grows, it becomes more intelligent and more efficient.
How does the BeepSend acquisition play into that? Particularly when you look at the sort of work Twilio is doing with cloud providers like Amazon Web Services, on top of your own past experience there as a product manager. We’re talking about SMS message traffic segmentation, route monitoring, and analytics on a massive scale.
Twilio’s Super Network forms a flywheel that grows in momentum constantly. The more customers we have, the greater volume of communications that run through our network. With more volume running on our network, we can build more interconnects with carriers around the world, but we also get more feedback from customers as to how the Super Network is performing in the various markets around the world. With more feedback and more interconnectivity, we can build smarter routing algorithms that reduce costs and increase quality, which leads to more customers and the cycle repeats!
We have an extensive roadmap to continue innovating on the routing and feedback mechanisms of the Super Network, and the acquisition of Beepsend will accelerate that product roadmap, resulting in extended coverage and delivery options for customers. As we look to extend our lead globally, Beepsend was a natural addition to add to the capabilities of our Super Network.
I’d like talk about a couple customer use cases to help explain for our readership how Twilio enables seamless communication behind the scenes in some of the world’s most popular apps. For instance, most Uber users don’t realize that Twilio is what’s powering everything from alerts and notifications to text/voice communication drivers. Can you explain the role Twilio’s cloud communications platform plays in each of these apps, and how Twilio worked with the company to build that experience?
- Uber and Lyft: Twilio powers calls and texts between drivers and riders. Uber and Lyft both use Twilio’s anonymous masked phone number capability so that drivers and riders can communicate without sharing personal contact information. -JL
- Airbnb: Airbnb sends text messages between rental hosts and potential guests. If a host has not responded to a request, they receive an automated SMS message from Airbnb with information on the guests, the dates of the requested stay, and the price for the stay. They can then quickly respond with a text. -JL
- Netflix: Netflix allows users to reset passwords through a text message or phone call. These texts and phone calls are powered by Twilio. -JL
- Salesforce: Salesforce Lightning Voice is a product that Salesforce built and launched last year that gives a sales rep the ability to place a phone call directly to a customer from within Sales Cloud, logging those calls and forward incoming calls as needed without having to leave the Salesforce environment. The calls are powered by Twilio Voice. -JL
- Zendesk: With Zendesk Talk, companies can set up a Zendesk omni-channel call center in minutes, including voice, SMS and email — all from within their browser. -JL
- Box: To add a layer of security to shared files, Box built a two-factor authentication solution on Twilio SMS that verifies users are who they say they are as an additional layer of security for files stored in the cloud. -JL
What can businesses and Twilio customers expect in terms of platform updates and feature enhancements in the coming year? What sorts of big picture technical challenges or new capabilities are you focusing on?
Our mission is to fuel the future of communications. As a company, we have four primary focus areas of growth: First is to continue to continue to attract the world’s developers to our platform through our Business Model for Innovators, which creates the best developer experience and removes friction from developers getting started with building any kind of communications. We will continue expanding our product line to offer more communications capabilities, like we have with Twilio Programmable Video, Twilio Programmable Wireless, and our Notify offerings. We’ll also continue to address the needs of large enterprises who want to operate with the same agility as startups. Offerings like our enterprise plan and recent ISO27001 are steps we’re taking in that direction. And finally, we’re going to continue to expand our international presence to help serve businesses in new geographies.
Twilio recently received ISO 27001 certification. What are of the most prominent threats Twilio has identified in communication security right now, and how have you approached security best practices within the Twilio platform?
In the cloud, trust is the number one thing companies sell. That’s because when a customer chooses to use a cloud vendor, they’re betting that a focused cloud product can execute better than they can do themselves. This is a great value proposition, but it also requires a lot of trust. As such, we put an inordinate amount of time on uptime, availability and service quality to maintain a platform that offers both agility and resiliency. Accomplishing this at scale for all the world’s communication workloads will continue to be an area of focus for us.
At Twilio we say job number one is operations and security. Job number two is everything else. Integrity and availability are priorities for all cloud platforms. This is why Twilio has adopted a comprehensive framework approach to security. This framework marries industry best practices like having a rigorous Security Development Lifecycle (SDLC) and a comprehensive information security management system (ISMS), which have been validated through our ISO 27001 certification.
I talk to a lot of startup founders and entrepreneurs, and one of the most stressful decisions for them is whether or not to go public. Can you talk a bit about your experience with the Twilio IPO process, and whether you run the company differently now than you did before? Any advice for other CEOs considering it?
This is another part of the trust equation. Because trust is the number one thing you sell as a cloud company, you not only deliver that through product, but also as a corporation. As you know, there is substantially more scrutiny on public companies, and public companies have to run a tighter ship than private ones. So ultimately, we decided to go public because we felt it would help us continually build a stronger company, and one that customers could trust even more. We took a bet that this would help continue accelerating our leadership position in the market. I think it has.
What other advice do you have for startup founders as they build out cloud-based platforms, grow their business, and seek investment?
Businesses based on solid fundamentals will always be successful. From the beginning, Twilio focused on rapid growth with responsible investment along the way. Raising money shouldn’t be a business goal- it’s about serving your customers as you reach each milestone. So focus on the fundamentals — customers, product, team — with your eye on the top line but don’t lose sight of the bottom line, and everything else should work out.
Providers in the communications, VoIP, and conferencing spaces often throw around terms like Unified Communications or UCaaS. To you, what does the future of business communication look like, and how — technically speaking — do we get there?
For a while, Unified Communications was a term to describe bringing together voice, video and messaging; in essence unifying the modes of communication. However, those UC implementations remained a siloed experience, disconnected from the rest of the software, data, workflows and tools that businesses use. We believe they’ve been unifying the wrong thing.
At Twilio, we believe that communications is already becoming an integral part of nearly every software application. Many of our customers are already doing this. For example, Salesforce is allowing users to make and log phone calls to their customers without ever leaving the Salesforce environment. Trulia connects real estate agents and prospective buyers instantly on a live call from within the application. For Salesforce and Trulia, communications is seamless because it is so closely integrated into the software.
I also wanted to touch on WebRTC. Given Twilio’s acquisition of Kurento, how do you look at WebRTC in the grand scheme of unified communication, and how are you integrating the technology into Twilio Programmable Video and other video conferencing capabilities?
Embedding real-time communications into software applications requires software running on the device — software that implements high quality codecs, a great networking stack, and more. That’s what WebRTC has done very well. Twilio’s Programmable Video product has been out for about 18 months and it’s the easiest way for developers to adopt WebRTC across a variety of platforms like iOS, Android, and the web. With Programmable Video, you get a high quality, optimized implementation of WebRTC plus the necessary add-ons that are missing from WebRTC, such as a robust signaling protocol, optimizations that balance performance and battery life on mobile, enterprise support packages, as well as analytics and insights into how their applications are performing in the real world.
But it’s not just the edge that matters. Cloud media services add even more horsepower to real-time media applications, and this is where Kurento fits in. For example, using cloud media services, you can grow your application from just a few voice and video participants to dozens, hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. You can add capabilities such as machine learning and computer vision to detect faces, emotions, or even augmented reality. Kurento was already the most popular open-source WebRTC media server, and now it’s forming the base for our media cloud to provide all of these capabilities, and more.
Do you ultimately envision all these sectors — telecom companies, VoIP and phone services providers, collaboration platforms — working under one unified banner? If you look at Twilio’s model for how you unify communications within a contextual app experience rather than a separate service, where does that leave all these existing industries?
The future of communications is software, and that software will be built by the software developers of the world. Communications will be woven into every application, workflow, and process that we use as consumers and as businesses because it makes our communications feel seamless and magical — like when you call the driver in Uber or Lyft, or when you get a text message that your table is ready from OpenTable. Those kind of fully integrated experiences are how our communications will evolve in the coming decade, to the point where “making a phone call” will be as antiquated as “going online.” It ceases to be a distinct activity — it’s just ubiquitous.
But in order to hasten this future, communications has to be broken down into its constituent building blocks so it can be recomposed into all these different forms. That’s what Twilio is focused on. The “phone company” of the future will be features built into the many applications we use, and the legacy of vendors providing siloed communications products will disappear in the fullness of time.
Originally published at www.pcmag.com.