Twilio’s Jeff Lawson: An Evangelist for Software Developers

The day after the Lehman Brothers collapse, Jeff Lawson was sitting in the office of a venture capitalist who liked his idea for a voicemail program but couldn’t commit to an investment.

“Super interesting, but sorry, no,” Lawson recalls of the investor’s expression.

This scenario repeated itself in the summer of 2008, and Lawson failed to raise venture capital for his start-up Twilio.

Along with his co-founders, Evan Cooke and John Wolthuis, Lawson self-funded the modest costs of the business and received no salary. After Lawson and his wife got married, the couple sold their wedding gifts to raise additional funds.

Twilio, which finally raised a first round of funding in 2009, has since grown into one of the leading software companies in recent years, following an initial public offering that ended a drought of new listings in 2016.

Lawson, 43, attributes the company’s rise to a messianic focus on customers – a sentiment common in Silicon Valley, where investors and startup executives obsess on the search for “product-market fit”.

“Being a customer-centric business means putting customers first, understanding their issues and listening to them as a guide,” Lawson says. “If you do that, everything else falls into place.”

But he’s even more eager to credit software developers, a market that has garnered little enthusiasm among venture capitalists when it raised seed money. “The period we are in right now is the third great period of software,” Lawson says.

Companies like Uber use Twilio’s application programming interfaces to build text and voice messaging applications to communicate with customers. Over the past decade, Twilio has helped popularize the use of these APIs – essentially lines of code the company sells to engineering teams, who integrate them into their own codebase.

Twilio has even become a consolidator of the so-called API economy, signing multi-billion dollar deals to buy the SendGrid email marketing service and customer data company Segment.

This focus has made Lawson an evangelist for software developers, a group he says is underutilized by their employers. “Companies rarely go to their developers and say, ‘Hey, here’s a big business problem I’m trying to solve,’” Lawson says.

Lawson’s philosophy was codified in Ask your developer, a book he published in January. The same title adorns the billboards of Twilio’s Bay Area.

Lawson says venture capitalists initially balked at creating an API, urging it to build an app and continue from there. Instead, he started circulating code in developer communities, allowing programmers to create new tools. Twilio quickly had an following in Silicon Valley and began to generate revenue.

Even investors have started to take notice. A venture capitalist used the Twilio API to create a program that dialed contacts and started playing “Never Gonna Give You Up” from pop singer Rick Astley, on the popular “Rickroll”Meme / prank, a hyperlink that redirects the user of the subject in question to a music video.

“We basically ignored the feedback from these early investors because we thought clients were a better guide,” Lawson said. “I think that’s often the case.

Lawson had direct experience of the boom and bust cycle of technology earlier in his career.

As a student at the University of Michigan, he started a business that made lecture notes available for free online, attracting a large audience of Midwestern students and, soon enough, advertisers. At the height of the dot-com bubble, he dropped out of school, raised $ 10 million from venture capital firm Venrock, and moved the business to Silicon Valley.

His start-up sparked the interest of a buyer who planned to go public in early 2000. They completed the acquisition but missed their IPO window as the market went down. collapsed and in August the company filed for bankruptcy. The shares Lawson and his startup investors received from the sale became worthless.

Looking for a way out, Lawson briefly became the first CTO of the StubHub ticket exchange. He then teamed up with a friend to create a Los Angeles-based extreme sporting goods store, NineStar, building the company’s point of sale system from scratch.

His big breakthrough came in 2004, when he joined Amazon to work on early developments for Amazon Web Services, the cloud storage provider that extended the Seattle-based company’s dominance to software.

Although Lawson spent less than two years at Amazon, the experience was vital. At Twilio, he advocates a concept similar to what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos calls “Two Pizza Teams,” which dictates that workgroups should be small enough that they can be fed with just two pizzas. Lawson’s focus on developers aligns with Bezos’ principle of “customer obsession” leadership.

Lawson’s work at Amazon also reinforced the growing sense that developers could become big business leaders, if not big companies in their own right.

One of Twilio’s most important products, developed through a trial and error process with several key customers.

In 2011, a start-up called RedBeacon, later acquired by Home Depot, set out to build a call center from scratch using Twilio. But there were so many call routing issues that RedBeacon would have chosen a different option if they had predicted the difficulties, Lawson says.

Back at Twilio, a team of developers created a tool called TaskRouter, to try and troubleshoot RedBeacon issues. Yet when Dutch bank ING decided in 2015 to overhaul its contact center with Twilio, it devoted dozens of engineers over several years to get the job done, a big expense that flattered Lawson but only raised the bar. other questions.

Three questions for Jeff Lawson

Who is your leadership hero?

The two leaders that come to mind are Jeff Bezos and Marc Benioff. I admire the intellectual rigor Bezos instilled in Amazon and the soul Benioff brought into the culture of Salesforce.

If you weren’t CEO / leader, what would you be?

A software developer.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

Have conviction. If you don’t have a real, visceral belief that the world needs and is improved by the product or service you are building, it is extremely difficult to stay engaged despite the extreme ups and downs of building a business. (I made this error more than once before starting Twilio!)

Customers wanted a better option, and in 2018 Twilio introduced Flex, which the company says allows businesses to set up customizable contact centers in less than a week.

Another product, which monitors call quality in real time, came from one of Twilio’s biannual hackathons, which the company calls “Tweeks”.

“It’s up to us, as leaders, as managers, not to just say we want innovation, but to embrace the process to get it done,” Lawson says.

“The way you do this is by experimenting, by having assumptions that are proven or disproved in the course of work, and by encouraging teams to take this experimental approach to learn what customers need,” he adds. .

As Twilio’s profile grew, so did Lawson’s, bringing out some of his showman tendencies. Ethan Kurzweil, partner at Bessemer Venture Partners who invested in seed funding for Twilio, recalled a company conference where Lawson created an app that allowed his father to video chat with his little one. -son, live on stage.

These events give Lawson another channel to speak directly to programmers, a group he says has grown in strength with the rise of cloud services. “It’s never been a better time to be a software developer. “

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