Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson Q&A: ‘We’re Trying to Make Communication Less Dumb’

By David Knight | Software

If you have ever received a notification text from an app on your smartphone, there is a decent chance it was powered by Twilio. The San Francisco-based cloud communications company, which was founded in 2008, finally launched in Germany last week, with carsharing platform DriveNow as its launch partner.

Jeff Lawson, CEO of Twilio, was in Berlin to celebrate the launch, and he sat down with Silicon Allee to talk about how the way we communicate is finally going to become less dumb and why the German capital is the place to be.

SILICON ALLEE: Let’s start from the beginning. What exactly does Twilio do?

JEFF LAWSON: A hundred and fifty years ago, Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call, by stringing together a speaker, and a microphone and some copper wire. What’s amazing about how the 150 years since have progressed is that while the technology has gotten much more complicated and sophisticated, how we interact on the phone has actually changed very little. Even though there’s a phone app on our smartphone now, it’s functionally identical to a phone your grandparents might have used. If you think about it, the only real thing that has changed is moving from operators to rotary to touchtone.

But we still make a call, someone might answer and we say hello, we may have no idea why they’re calling. That’s a what you call a dumb phone call. And we see all that as about to change. Twilio is here to migrate communications from its legacy in hardware, in the physical networks and all the Alexander Graham Bell stuff, to its future which is purely based on software.

By doing so, by migrating our communications into software, we can now integrate it into all the other applications and experiences and workflows that we use, to make our communications more meaningful and relevant and contextual. And so, Twilio is a cloud communications platform as a service that lets developers incorporate phone calls and text messages into their applications in order to make their them communicate.

SA: Surely we have already migrated? Who even uses a landline any more?

JL: If you think about it, you have things like Voice Over IP (VOIP), but that has not made our communications any better. It’s made them a little cheaper, but it has not changed how we interact with our technology. To us, this meaningful change in our communications comes about when you integrate it with the other things that we are doing. So for example, Uber is one of our customers. Uber is often cited as having this great customer experience and they do if you compare it with how it used to be, at least in San Francisco.

If you needed a cab, you dialed the phone number on the side of the cab. You’re making a dumb phone call. You call it, and they have no idea who you are. You wait on hold for a while until you reach a dispatcher, and they ask where you need the cab. You tell them and they hang up on you. Then 20 minutes later you’re standing there and your cab hasn’t arrived yet, you say, well, maybe I should call back and ask where it is, and you explain that you previously ordered a cab but they don’t really care, so you just say alright, send me another one. So it’s that whole experience of having a dumb phone call with no context, no meaning to it, it’s just a voice pipe to someone else on the planet.

But now you jump ahead and you’ve got Uber, and you want a cab. You get a text message when your cab has been identified, that says it will be showing up in five minutes. That’s driven by software, by the logistics application that Uber has written. Then you get another text that says your cab is pulling up right now. So you go outside and get in.

If you need to call the driver, there is a call button right there inside the app. There is software using Twilio that routes that call to the driver. And that call is safe and secure and anonymous because they use Twilio to mask your number, but what’s so cool about it is that the driver immediately knows you’re his ride and you know he is your driver. The context is all built into that phone call.

SA: Did the VOIP revolution, primarily Skype, enable this contextual move?

JL: In the first iteration of VOIP, it was primarily about reducing cost. Why did everyone adopt Skype initially? Because it was free. But I don’t think that really took advantage of the capabilities of what software can do. That was just the first step. Similarly, you look at the wave of messaging applications today, and I think this is just the first step, this is day zero, because those apps have just been about being cheaper. But it’s not fundamentally better. We are moving into the next phase of a lot of this software-based communication, which is about making that communication better, not just cheaper.

SA: How do you envisage ‘better’ communication?

JL: We make it more relevant. We make it more contextual. We make it more meaningful to us. That’s what better communication is. A world where you never get a spam communication, a world where you always get the right communication at the right time about the right thing. That’s better. That’s not just cheaper.

SA: A question which always raises it head when talking about a US company coming to Europe – how have you approached the more stringent data regulations on this side of the Atlantic?

JL: Of course we abide by EU safe harbour provisions. As far as data retention goes, Twilio’s data footprint is actually quite minimal compared to consumer applications where you’ve got cookies everywhere, and B2B apps where you have CRM, all sorts of data. We just have call records and SMS records, but those are important pieces of data and that’s why we allow customers the ability to delete them whenever they want to in order to control the size of their data footprint.

SA: But where is the data stored?

JL: It is currently held in servers in the US, and we are working with customers around Europe and around the world on our roadmap for how our data retention products should work. We always think that one of the best security measures is being able to delete the data, that’s why we offer that capability.

SA: You have partnered with Telefonica for the Germany launch – what attitude do you generally find with the large telcos?

JL: We actually bring business to the carriers that we partner with. We are powering new usecases for their investments, the infrastructure for phone calls and text messaging that they have already built. And whilst some usecases have very notably been in decline in recent years, Twilio is bringing a whole new set to the market that just didn’t exist before.

SA: Are you not a bit late in launching in Germany?

JL: You could say the same thing about Twilio launching in 2008. Telecommunications is 150 years old, yet it still took Twilio launching in 2008 to begin this revolution. As far as Germany goes, it’s a complex market to enter both from a partnership side and a regulatory side. So we are really excited about the launch; we have a full product line launching including mobile numbers that can do two way voice and SMS, and geographic numbers and toll-free numbers that can do voice.

I think our product is also ideal for the German market because we have localised it in a number of other ways including full unicode on SMS, which means the German language can be properly expressed in SMS, all the characters come through correctly, including German text to speech for our voice product line. So we have really thought through the details here of launching a German product that works well for German customers.

SA: You’ve already started to be active in developer evangelism here in Berlin – are there more plans for that?

JL: It’s how we have grown Twilio to date; the primary means has been with developer evangelism and we will continue doing that. Typically our goal is to just be a part of the developer ecosystem that we’re serving. That means going to events, hosting them sometimes, and being helpful. We’re really just there to be a part of the ecosystem, so it’s not a pushy sales thing.

Talking to developers, being present and being authentic are the two most important things you can do.

SA: What do you think about Berlin?

JL: I’m excited to be here – I’ve never been before, it’s my first time. So far it’s been raining and cloudy.

SA: Sounds more like England than Germany!

JL: Exactly, more like Seattle, which is where I lived before I moved to San Francisco.

SA: As someone who is based in San Francisco, then, what are your feelings about the scene in Europe?

JL: When you hear about entrepreneurial activity in Europe, one of the scenes you hear a lot about is Berlin. That’s one of the reasons why we started putting developer evangelists here early on knowing that we were going to be launching here. It’s great to see the amount of energy that’s going into the entrepreneurial scene in a number of ways.