The Wall meets: Twilio

TwilioWhen several established beacons of Tech City independently ask on the same day whether you’ve heard ‘what the guys from Twilio are doing’, it’s probably time to interview them.

As it turned out, timing was on my side. Last week Twilio’s chief marketing officer Lynda Smith, and European director James Paton, were in London as part of a six week roadshow in the UK and US.

For any who might not know, Twilio allows its users (web developers, usually) to integrate phone calls, text messages and IP voice communications into their web, mobile and traditional phone applications, replacing legacy hardware systems and bringing them into the cloud. It is getting us to talk more. But it’s not Skype.

How is Twilio changing the communications experience for brands?
Our customers are the Ubers and AirBnbs of this world, a lot of the sharing economy type companies. Brands are increasingly talking about wanting to emulate the experiences these companies have created. If you think about the communications experience you have within Uber – you don’t think about it as picking up the telephone, it’s just part of the application that you’re using to get a car. We’re meeting a lot of people who want to create opportunities like that because they see the customer experience as a key way of differentiation and of creating customer loyalty, and communication is integral to that.

Have the younger brands been more eager to work with you?
It started with the more contemporary companies, because they were more naturally comfortable using an API. Essentially what Twilio has done is virtualise everything a company would need to create communications solutions – all the carrier connectivity. All the telephony hardware, software, telephone numbers, etc is virtualised and exposed through an API. Now, however, we’re definitely seeing expansion into more traditional brands like Coca-Cola, which are using us as part of their field services operation.

What’s the difference between Twilio and Skype?
Skype provides a direct to consumer service and a complete solution. What we provide is a business platform, which means it is meant for companies to build solutions on top of. We’re seeing people build everything from complete call centres, to novel marketing campaigns. We’re seeing companies do some very cool stuff. Pay By Phone is a good example, where you can pay for the parking meter using your mobile.

How did you disrupt the market?
One of the things we did was to create a business model where people could sign up for free to start playing with the platform, and only if they have a use case do they start paying us for it. It was created with developers in mind, to make it easy for them to start using it. The best thing you can do is let them get their hands on it.

What was the inspiration behind it?
Twilio launched in the US in 2008. Our founding chief executive Jeff Lawson was a web developer – he was the technical founder of StubHub. He had to somehow get tickets from the holders to the people that were buying them. StubHub used couriers, and Lawson wanted to find a way to mechanise this system to send automated messages to the couriers and text messages to the buyers telling them when their courier would arrive. He couldn’t figure it out, but he joined up with a few other start-ups to eventually resolve his own problem.

Why is the UK ad tech market lagging behind the US in terms of investment?
I think the difference is that in the US we have such a big infrastructure around start-ups. We have massive number of developers and big communities that support these companies. But we’ve been really excited with what we’ve seen over here, with investors becoming much more open to backing start-up tech firms.

Do you think Twilio promotes innovation and creativity? 
Absolutely. Before, having integrated communications built into campaigns and businesses was almost impossible. We’re seeing major brands doing things that haven’t been done before in relation to the Internet of Things, using communications in new ways. We’re seeing a ton of innovation occur, because this is part of the software world, not the old school hardware telecoms world.