“Build or Die”: Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson on Embodying the Silicon Valley Software Spirit in Berlin

The San Francisco-headquartered software company helping to power communications for Uber, Airbnb and more is celebrating one year of operations in Berlin. Co-founder and CEO Jeff Lawson met with Silicon Allee to share his vision and the story of how Twilio became a leader in the cloud communications revolution.

You’re speaking today at hub conference about “Build or Die – the notion that companies must build and adapt more quickly than ever in order to stay afloat. Why is this concept so important now?

Essentially, software has moved from the back office of companies to the business models of companies. It used to be that there were a few software companies — like Microsoft and Oracle — and their product was CDROMs. Now, software companies are building and delivering every kind of product and service imaginable, whether it’s causing a car to show up at your door, renting you an apartment in a city that you’re visiting or anything else you can imagine. Software is the new business model in every single industry. One of the most fundamental properties of software that makes it so attractive, is that it’s iterative. With software, you can constantly improve and up the bar for a great customer experience. We’re essentially entering into a period where it will almost literally be a Darwinian evolution of companies. Those that have the ability to adapt quickly will survive. Those that can’t adapt quickly, will not. And so we call that Build or Die.

How does Twilio fit into the picture?

One of the things that’s fueling the innovation that you see is the availability of cloud platforms for developers. These allow developers to very quickly spit out global infrastructure to power their ideas. There’s never been the ability for developers to build and scale anything as fast as it is today. Twilio is an important part of this ecosystem that allows developers to execute at this lightning speed. It allows developers to incorporate communications into their applications and do it at global scale.

It used to be that communications was this very esoteric field with expensive and high upfront costs prohibitive to iteration and innovation. It was also geopolitically bounded. If you had a global customer base, as most software companies do now, you would have to go country by country, carrier by carrier, figuring out some sort of relationship and then scaling infrastructure in that region. With Twilio, developers think of it as pure software and can incorporate voice phone calls, SMS messages, chat and video embedded into the app. It works anywhere in the world for nearly any phone on the planet. That’s extremely powerful.

How did the idea for Twilio initially come about?

When we started Twilio, we were primarily solving our own problem. I’m a software developer and I had started three companies prior to Twilio. At every one of those companies, I noticed common trends: number one, we were using the power of software to iterate rapidly and build a better customer experience, and number two, we had needed communications in order to build that great customer experience.

We had previously been turning to the telecommunications industry to solve this problem. They’d say, sure, we can bring in our professional services, and it’ll cost millions of dollars and take years – which is completely contrary to the whole software ethos of shipping every two weeks. We started Twilio to power the world’s software developers to be able to incorporate communications into their apps.

How have your goals as a company shifted from the beginning until now?

The thing we didn’t anticipate in 2007 was that smartphones were going to come around — powered by very fast LTE ubiquitous wireless coverage — and that software was going to accelerate its importance in the world. Because of that, it’s now very clear to us that the future of all of our communications is in software. So the work that developers are doing now is actually bringing communications out of the monolithic, siloed app and rolling it into every single experience that we have.

If you call an Uber, you get the message that says your call is pulling up now. If you use DriveNow, you get a text message telling you where to pick up the car. Or if you use Airbnb you’re able to communicate with your host. These are communications that are rolled into the app experience that you’re having, that replace standalone, “dumb” communications with fundamentally more contextual, relevant communications.

You opened an office in Berlin in 2014. What were your thoughts and expectations coming here? Have your goals as a company been met after a year in the city?

Yeah, absolutely. We came into Germany because, for one thing, it’s a fantastic market with lots of great companies and industry, but also because there’s a great startup scene especially here in Berlin. We see the software spirit being very strong. We launched here a year ago with a big product push. We opened an office here in Berlin and also have people in Munich.

Twilio has been approaching this market just as we do in the US or the UK where we’d launched previously. We have not been disappointed. Customers like Delivery Hero and Kreditech have adopted Twilio and rolled it into their customer experiences. It’s been fantastic here. We do feel like we’re just getting started.

What are some use cases you think would be really interesting for Twilio that you haven’t fully executed on yet?

One of my favorites, and we are just at the beginning of this, is what we call contextual communications. For 150 years, you had the phone call. Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call 150 years ago by wiring together a speaker and a microphone and some copper wire, and said “Watson, come here, I need you.”

Roll ahead for the next 150 years. The technology has gotten amazing. Yet, how we use that phone call has changed astonishingly little. The biggest change that’s happened with the phone call since the days of Alexander Graham Bell has been how you dial it.

We see that about to get turned on its head entirely. The reason for that is contextualization. Think about it: all the apps on your phone, together, essentially contain the context of your life. Who you are, who you know, where you’re going, where you’ve been, who you do business with. That context can now power how we communicate much more effectively than ever before. It can make our communications more meaningful and relevant.

What would be a good example of this contextualized communication?

Imagine an airline app. You can never quite [change your flight] in the app – there’s always something that gets in the way. So you have to contact support. There’s a free phone number somewhere in the app, and you click it and it comes up to the dialer on your phone. It’s a “dumb” phone call. You’re kicked out of a modern super computer application, and into the 150-year-old [concept]. You have the whole horrible experience, you wait on hold until finally an agent answers 20 minutes later and asks you why you’re calling.

We’re now working with companies who are bringing that communication into the context of the app. When you’re booking that flight, you click Get Help, and it starts a call with an agent. The agent immediately comes to the phone and says, “Hi Julia, how can I help you with flight 1234 to San Francisco tomorrow?” And you say, “I’m trying to change it to the next later flight.” And the agent says “Okay, how about this flight?” And a card pops up on your screen with all the details on it. And you say, “Yeah that looks great.” The agent says, “To confirm the change, please hold your finger on the touch ID of your phone to authenticate yourself.”

That’s what we’re looking to get into, and we’re in the very early stages. [In 2015] we launched our embeddable SDKs, so developers can embed voice, video and chat functionality into their mobile and web applications with a few lines of code. This is really the infrastructure and tools that developers need to start building those kinds of experiences.

What is some truth you can impart about the San Francisco startup landscape to people in Berlin who are curious about it, but haven’t had direct contact with it?

The spirit in the Bay Area is one of just continually trying. Experimentation is cheap and the prerequisite of innovation, so keep doing it. Run experiments as cheaply as possible. Have that spirit of innovation. That’s ultimately how you get to success.

I do have one other tip for entrepreneurs, and this is something from my past: No matter what you’re building, be passionate about the product you’re building and the audience you’re serving. Creating something from nothing takes a tremendous amount of work. At some point in the process, if you don’t viscerally feel that the world needs the thing you’re building, that the customer’s life is better because of what you’re building, you will not have the energy and the will to get through all the hardships that you do have to endure as an entrepreneur. The thing that gets you through is the love of your customer and the love of what you’re doing for them.

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