Rapidly Scaling Twilio Into a Worldwide Juggernaut
Jeff Lawson, Twilio, CEO and Co-Founder
Jeff Lawson, CEO and co-founder of Twilio, was a great deal of fun when he dropped by ZURB HQ to get on his soapbox. More than that, he shared the challenges Twilio faced into breaking down the telecom monoliths that have existed for decades.
Jeff wasn't just insightful. He was funny, telling us a story about Dave McClure and his mysterious Jedi PR tricks. He also told us why one of the first things he built with Twilio was an application that would Rickroll unsuspecting victims on their phones.
One of the things, however, that still resonates with us was how culture plays an important part in scaling a company.
Feel free to listen to the podcast as you read through the summary of the event below.
Breaking Down the Telecom Monoliths
When it comes to the telecom industry, it’s nothing new, said Jeff. It's over a 100 years old and hasn't changed much over the years.
Network of copper and fiber under our streets. Then you could plug a phone into it. And that was what people considered telecommunications.
Telecommunications, traditionally, weren't very user friendly for software developers, said Jeff. It was big software and big hardware that you couldn’t modify to suit your needs.
These monoliths aren’t built for the software people.
Jeff saw an opportunity in this old, stodgy way of thinking and doing business. In his other entrepreneurial ventures, Jeff and his cohorts wondered what if there were applications that could reach out and touch someone. Apps that could talk to customers, vendors and business associates in new and interesting ways. After all, as Jeff put it:
Communication is really fundamental to how we interact, how we do business.
Jeff said Twilio basically breaks down these monoliths into smaller building blocks, putting the power of telecommunications into the hands of developers. It allows them to take those building blocks and arrange them into different applications to solve business problems for their companies.
You've Just Been Rickrolled
In 2007, no one was safe from being Rickrolled, thanks to Jeff who built an application that would play the prank on unsuspecting victims through their phones. He built it as a way to demonstrate what he was building to his friends at the bar. For it to work, you had to email an address which would then trigger a call. It was just supposed to be a harmless prank to explain Twilio. As Jeff joked:
We were never ever supposed to be talking about that ever in the life of the company, because … not at all the use case that we actually want people to associate with Twilio.
After an evening of drinking and sushi, however, the Rickroll gained a life of its own. Just two days before Twilio's official launch, Jeff was out with investor Dave McClure, whom he had previously shown the Rickroll app. Feeling a little buzzed, Dave asked Jeff, "What's the email address?"
Dave then pulled out his phone and activated a Rickroll on someone. Afterwards, he said to Jeff, "So I just Rickrolled Mike Arrington."
That is to say, Micheal Arrington, founder of Techcrunch.
When you're launching a company, you have this very orchestrated notion of what your launch is going to look like. You have this idea in your head and it's all embargoed. And there's a shroud of mystery around what you do. You’re coming out and suddenly you have a big splash in the media. You have this notion that this is what a launch looks like — and then he Rickrolls Mike Arrington.
At the time, Jeff thought that Mike wouldn't know where it came from. But Dave does something else, he posts on Mike's Facebook wall that the Rickroll came from him via Twilio.
But Jeff still felt like it was going to be alright. After all, he still had his official meeting with Techcrunch to brief them on the launch.
10 minutes later, a post goes up on Techcrunch: "I just go Rickrolled by Dave McClure using something called Twilio. God, I hope its more useful than this."
But the stunt didn't backfire on Jeff as he feared. The placeholder site for Twilio blew up, getting huge amounts of traffic. When they saw the amount of traffic, they scrambled to get a sign-up form on the site.
And the next day, Jeff had his meeting with Techcrunch, who ended up writing about their actual launch.
Dave works in mysterious ways. And that little PR stunt was a cool way to kind of set the stage for the Twilio launch a couple of days later.
Scaling the Cloud
Having previously worked at Amazon, Jeff learned an important lesson from the company's S3 web service, which at the time was designed to scale at a set number. But the design team got sent back to the drawing board after a meeting with Jeff Bezos. That's because they assumed they'd just re-architect the service to scale linearly if it gained traction, said Jeff. The lesson he learned that was if a cloud infrastructure takes off, you won’t have time to re-architect it, he added.
If you fall over because of scale, you're going to put a nail in the coffin in the cloud infrastructure. The whole promise of the cloud is scale. If you can't live up to the challenge, then there’s no point in the product in a lot of ways.
It took another two years before S3 was ready. And that lesson stuck with Jeff, which is why Twilio invested in scale and capabilities very early on.
Twilio also helps developers not worry about scale by having them pay for what they need, not an entire circuit or channel like in the old school telecom model.
Another way that Twilio has scaled is by forming partnerships, with other services such as Parse and KDDI in Japan. Which has helped Twilio break out of the United States. It’s now in 40 countries worldwide.
Just last year alone, its customer base skyrocketed by 400%! Some 150,000 developers use Twilio, which processes an average of 1.5 million calls a day.
Twilio, through its partnerships, is certainly creating an ecosystem that is the best of breeds rather than the old juggernaut all-in-one services, such as Microsoft.
But scaling isn't just about users or how many countries you are in. There's much more than that. There's the company itself and the people who work for it.
At a certain scale, you have to think about the company as a product, said Jeff.
Give a lot of my thought to the company as a product.
Jeff put it this way: you have a certain experience with a product. Working at a company is the same way — it's a product, you include things as well as exclude them.
A company should be easy to use like a product is.
And that comes down to culture. That's why Twilio has made it a point to write down its core beliefs, which have evolved over time with the company, which they call their "Nine Things." It’s called that because when you think of core values, people want to barf, said Jeff.
Think core values as a thing on the wall in a nice frame with the words [like] "integrity."
The tenants had to not just be words on the wall. Because if they are you just go about your day and do what you want to do anyway, said Jeff. "That's not culture," he added.
You don't create them, you articulate them because they have to be something that's already there. If you create them, then they're just nonsense on the wall. If you articulate them, they're real and all you're doing is stating what’s there. Because if you don't put a spotlight on them, you're at risk at losing them.
Our conversation continued with Jeff as he took questions from the audience. We like to thank Jeff and all those who attended.