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March 9, 2015updated 22 Sep 2016 11:45am

Q&A: Twilio’s Jeff Lawson talks API’s & telcos

Jeff Lawson, Twilio CEO and founder, talks to CBR about APIs and how they are shaking up the telecoms world.

By Alexander Sword

The telecoms sector, like most sectors, is undergoing considerable disruption. Application programme interfaces, or APIs, could have a vital role to play in this process. Jeff Lawson of Twilio has some thoughts on where the landscape is heading.

CBR: Tell me about Twilio and its API.

Jeff: Twilio is a cloud communications platform for software developers to build, scale and operate real time communications in their software applications. The platform powers a range of communications solutions – everything from complete call centers to work scheduling applications, from mobile marketing and lead management to tools that improve security.

Twilio is migrating the 150 year old telecommunication industry from its legacy in hardware to its future in software. By virtualising the entire telecommunications infrastructure and making it available on a global basis via a simple-to-use API, we turn massive potential capex cost into an easily controlled operating expense where developers and businesses pay for only the minutes and messages they need.

CBR: How is it used by, say, Uber?

Jeff: Uber uses Twilio to connect passengers with drivers and the way the Uber app works is a great example of where we believe all communications are headed. In the future, communications between businesses and consumers will be woven into every mobile app and the communications will be contextual to what the customer is doing.

For example, when you think about using Uber, rather than picking up the phone and dialing the numbers to a cab company, you simply push a button to request a car.

If you need to call the driver of your car, you don’t need to have his number, you simply push another button to call the driver. When you get on the line, he knows exactly who you are. You’re saved from the frustration of looking for a number, calling a generic customer service line and needing to explain who you are.

Access from within the app helps to speed up customer service and improve performance – while making the customer’s life easier. Contextual communications like this is where communications is headed.

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CBR: What gave you the idea to launch Twilio? What gap in the market did you see?

Jeff: Having started companies before Twilio and having been the founding CTO for Stubhub, I had first hand knowledge of how difficult it was to build a communications solution. It’s difficult because communications were based in hardware and tied to the physicality of the networks.

As a software person, it was mind-boggling to me that I couldn’t build the solution I needed. The only way to bring communications up to date was to move it into the world of software and the cloud.

What I can tell you is that developers and enterprises are tired of old-school approaches to communications – those that require difficult carrier negotiations, purchasing off-the-shelf solutions that don’t meet business needs, buying millions of dollars of hardware, and customisation that takes forever.

For businesses today, the time between identifying a business need and delivering the required IT solution to address that need will become hours and days rather than months and years. The common approach to enterprise IT involving decade-long technology lifespans are increasingly unable to meet the demands of businesses.

That’s the gap we’re closing. We are now fundamentally changing the way businesses build communication solutions and in doing so helping businesses create better customer experiences.

CBR: You originally come from a software background rather than telephony. How did this background affect your approach to setting up Twilio?

Jeff: Each of the three early stage businesses I was involved in had the same fundamental challenge – building the right communications for our needs was practically impossible and the expense was cost prohibitive.

For example, as the first CTO of Stubhub – we needed communications to dispatch couriers to deliver event tickets in realtime. When we talked to the communications industry, they pitched solutions that cost millions of dollars, and would take 24 months to implement.

We were software people – we ship a new version every two weeks. It showed me that the legacy communications industry was operating a completely different cadence than the world of software. With Twilio, we set out to solve that with flexible, composable APIs to enable rapid development.

The key element for software developers is composability – the ability to bring together components and stitch them into an application that solves the business problem at hand. Unlike monolithic applications which aren’t flexible, APIs allow developers ultimate freedom to create.

Unlike big monolithic software applications with high upfront cost and long implementation timelines – composable APIs encourage experimentation of new use-cases with minimal up-front friction in terms of cost and ease of implementation.

Twilio provides these – and fundamentally unlocks the potential of software developers in a way that monolithic legacy applications do not.

CBR: Will APIs fundamentally change the telecoms industry?

Jeff: Yes, but it’s not just an API. The API is the route to the platform and the platform has to provide rich functionality. Anyone can release an API, it’s the quality of the API that will matter.

A global platform like Twilio is changing what businesses are capable of. For example, we see companies going global faster than ever before. With communications now moved to software and the cloud, geo-political boundaries are not a hindrance to global growth.

We’ve done all the negotiating on behalf of businesses so if you’re in the UK and want to expand into Germany or France or any one of over 200 countries, you can do it in minutes and days versus weeks and months.

With that kind of growth possible, we can’t wait to see what developers will build! Uber, DriveNow, TaskRabbit, Zendesk – all companies who are growing at a breakneck speed due in part to the ability to plug into a global communications platform.

CBR: You have raised over $100 million in VC funding. However, initially funding was not forthcoming – why are investors seeing such opportunities in this sector and what’s changed?

Jeff: When I started seeking funding for Twilio, the thing I heard over and over again is that developers are not buyers and have no spending power. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that in the early days. That’s because people were still thinking about the world 20 years ago, when a CIO bought all software from Microsoft or Oracle, and every project cost millions and took years to implement.

Today, developers are empowered buyers of composable components – APIs – that they can bring into projects to solve problems with little friction and low up-front cost. This new developer toolkit has fundamentally changed how developers can influence the technology roadmap of the companies they work for.

We had a hypothesis that the developer toolkit is a powerful driver of business, and our growth to over a hundred million dollar run rate in 2014 is proof of that. Developers buy like consumers and have the spending power of enterprises behind them. If you can be the tool in the developer tool belt that gets the job done, you have amazing opportunity.

This is a segment of buyers who’ve been underrated in the past, but you’ll see developers having more and more of a say in enterprise purchasing decisions because they will choose the tools that get the job done.

CBR: How do you plan to evolve Twilio? Is it now just a question of getting more customers for your existing API or do you have plans to develop more?

Jeff: We’re just getting started! We are at day 1 of what’s possible in this space, and the future is in more contextual and relevant communications built into every experience we have. In short, every software app will become a communications app. We’re building the platform that lets developers build that future.


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