Business Leader Interview Jeff Lawson, CEO of Twilio

Jeff Lawson, CEO Twilio announcing Twilio Studio (Image credit Twilio 2017)

Jeff Lawson is the co-founder, chairman and CEO of Twilio. Previously he was founder and CTO of both NineStar Inc and Stubhub.com.

Twilio was founded in 2008 and went public in June 2016.

A serial entrepreneur, Lawson is one of the select few founders who have grown a start-up through IPO to a market cap of more than $2.4 billion.

ET:                                       Who is your inspiration and why?

Jeff Lawson:                       My early mentor as an entrepreneur was a guy named Kevin O’Connor, he was the founder of DoubleClick. I learned a lot about what I know about entrepreneurship from him. He was a very early influence in my career as an entrepreneur.

ET:                                       How would you describe your leadership style?

Jeff Lawson:                       Trusting. I like to empower people and see what they’re capable of.

ET:                                       What are your personal challenges the next 12 months?

Jeff Lawson:                       One of the things I’m always trying to do is to balance how I spend my time between team, customers, and product. Every year, especially in January, is an opportunity to re-evaluate how I spend my time. How I make sure I’m balancing those three perfectly.

ET:                                       You didn’t mention investors.

Jeff Lawson:                       You know what, investors are important. But if you focus on customers, on team and your product, then you’re doing the right things for investors too. I do spend time on investors. It is probably more important that I focus on the first three because then all the conversations you have with investors are easier when you do the first three things right.

ET:                                       What was your darkest business day and how did you overcome it?

Jeff Lawson:                       That’s a good question. I think probably when I made the decision to leave StubHub. The challenge there was that I knew it was a great business opportunity. At the same time, I didn’t feel it was the right opportunity for me. I wasn’t passionate about the product. I felt that there were things that I could work on that I’m just more personally passionate about. It’s not dark in the sense of horrible things happening. It was a very difficult decision for me and ultimately one that I think worked out for the best.

ET:                                       What was your proudest moment?

Jeff Lawson:                       We have a Twilio.org customer called Crisis Text line. They’re a nationwide short-code that anybody can text if they are in immediate crisis, meaning they need help, they’re suicidal, they are being abused, they’re having some problem and they don’t know who to turn to. At our conference, in May 2016, Signal, we had the founder of Crisis Text line, Nancy Lublin, on stage presenting to a couple thousand of our customers. It’s not the usual business content, talking about suicide, people in dire need and telling a heart-breaking story. She brought the audience to tears with the story of what they’re doing.

I was so proud that Twilio was able to partner with Crisis Text line. Power this incredibly meaningful, incredibly important type of communication that exists in the world, people getting help. Every day, dozens of these conversations with Crisis advisors result in emergency services getting dispatched to save a life. That we’re able to power that, I was very proud of. I was also very proud of the fact that we were able to put the spotlight on this amazing organisation and this amazing woman who founded it. Bring an audience of developers and business people who are not coming to this conference to hear this story, but nonetheless, get so moved and literally brought to tears by the important work that they’re doing.

ET:                                       Can you share a tip for an entrepreneurial CEO?

Build something you’re passionate about. – Jeff Lawson

Build something you’re passionate about. That is the fuel that gets you through all the hard things you have to do as an entrepreneur and you have to do as a CEO. If you feel like at the end of the day you’re building something that’s meaningful, something the world needs and something that you feel passionate about bringing into existence into the world, that’s the fuel that helps you do everything that you do as an entrepreneur.

ET:                                       What was the latest business book you read, your favourite book or podcast?

Jeff Lawson:                       I’m currently reading, “Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street” by John Brooks. I saw an interview with Bill Gates. He was talking about the first time he met Warren Buffet and Warren Buffet recommended this book. I said, “Oh, I should probably read that book too.” First of all, it was written in 1968 or so, so it’s dated. But these are classic stories of business. They’re presented factually without a particular lesson or particular point of view.

There’s one about Xerox and just the rise of Xerox. There’s one about stock market crashes and the anatomy of stock market crashes. What I’m thinking about when I’m reading it, is I’m trying to get, “Okay, why did the author pick this story,” because it’s not obvious. It’s not like “Here’s the lesson.” A lot of business books say, “Here’s the lesson you’re going to learn in this book,” and then you’ve got a bunch of chapters about it. Then the last third of the book is usually just a filler. This was fascinating because each story is just almost like a business curiosity, so I’m enjoying it.

ET:                                       What’s the worst and best decision you’ve made as a CEO?

Jeff Lawson:                       I would say the worst and best decisions have been people who I’ve hired and people who I have had to let go. Those are the hardest decisions that you generally make as a CEO and as a leader, because you’re making a bet on people. You’re also making a bet on making a call when you made the wrong decision. People decisions are the hardest things for any business leader.

ET:                                       What is Jeff Lawson’s why?

Jeff Lawson:                       I would say the why behind me is I love the power that people have to create, and in particular, software developers. The things that generally drive me are enabling developers and creators of many types to be able to excel at their act of creating. Twilio helping people who are creators to do their job better, more easily, faster or to create more.

ET:                                       What’s on the radar in terms of future tech for Twilio?

Jeff Lawson:                       We’re very excited about the new avenues that are opening up for companies to communicate with their customers in new and interesting ways. This is a combination of things like apps that companies communicate with their customers in, like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. It is new devices like Alexa or Siri or Cortana or voice-assistance that enable companies to engage with their customers in these new mediums of communication like voice.

It’s also AI machine learning and opportunities that is opening up for ways in which companies communicate with their customers that get more and more intelligent. Bots automating some communications or routing and making communications more efficient than when human beings do them.

When you think about the notion of customer engagement, how companies talk to their customers. For a long time, it’s been honestly pretty bad. We feel this as customers of companies all the time. When we have to talk to a company, it’s disjointed, it’s broken. It’s not up to what our expectations are given the amazing experiences we have when we engage with consumer technology like our iPhones.

The opportunity to use all this technology to actually make it so that when people have to talk to companies, it’s as fluid and natural as when we have to talk to our friends or our family. These technologies are some of the things that are going to enable that.

ET:                                       You haven’t mentioned Blockchain is that something that’s on Twilio’s radar at all?

Jeff Lawson:                       It is. I think it’s early in the hype cycle. In particular today with Bitcoin prices through the roof. There’s a lot of interesting technology there. Where we’ve looked at with Blockchain in particular is our notion of identity. How do we provide a trust less notion of identity for communication? That’s a potential area for Blockchain to address.

There are a lot of areas that it could address but I also think the v1 implementations of Blockchain have their issues of scaling, energy use and things like that. As time goes on, if Blockchain proves useful, which so far it has in at least one application, we as computer scientists will solve those other problems and make Blockchain even more useful and more scalable to more applications.

ET:                                       What keeps you up at night?

Jeff Lawson:                       Something that Twilio and I focus on a lot a is how to continually drive a cadence of innovation while not sacrificing our ability to ship quality. That’s why we’ve invested in something we call agility with resiliency. How do we make sure as we grow we continually deliver innovation, continually ship product?

How do we do that with resiliency? How do we reject the notion that you can move fast and break things or you can move slow and have reliability? We believe that you can have both if you invest in the right systems. We’ve been able to deliver new business value to customers every two and a half business days on average in 2017. Do so with five nines of availability for our API for multiple years running. I’m very proud of that. I’m always asking myself how we keep scaling that. How do we keep scaling both the pace of innovation, increasing the level of resiliency and availability and all that with every improvement that we make to the system?

ET:                                       How has life changed for you as a CEO 18 months on from the IPO?

Jeff Lawson:                       Scaling as a founder and CEO through something like an IPO, is about having to communicate to a much broader audience. In the very early days of the company, we had a small team and a small number of customers. As you grow you have a bigger team, more customers and more investors, private investors or your VCs. When you go public, you have a very large group of investors and a very large public you are now talking to. The stage keeps getting bigger and bigger. I’ve thought about my job as the company has grown. It is about being able to communicate your vision and your goals. Where you are taking the company and where you want people to follow along with you. Communicate that at a bigger and bigger scale.

You have to think about different ways in which you’ll communicate and the different nuances. You also need different ways of telling your story that will resonate with a much bigger, broader, and more diverse audience as you keep scaling. An IPO is one aspect of that but even without an IPO, that’s the continual challenge as you grow and scale an organisation, communicating your vision to an ever-broader and ever more diverse set of people.

ET:                                       How have you approached the challenge of rapid growth while maintaining culture, because you have grown quite strongly.

Jeff Lawson:                       We’ve set a pretty solid foundation for articulating and explaining our culture, and bringing people into it. It’s not one thing but a lot of things. First of all, I’d say it’s articulating what our culture means. Culture is really how people interact, how people work and how they behave but that’s driven by your values. Your values are written words and whether or not they get lived out, that’s your culture. You can’t direct how your company will evolve if you don’t articulate your values. So we have our values, we call them our nine things.

We also have a set of leadership principles, which are really about how the leaders operate. We believe every Twilion is a leader. We developed our nine things in 2012 with the team. Our leadership principles we developed in 2014. It’s a continual process of articulating what’s important about the culture and what you want to scale. As you grow, what do you want to make sure you don’t lose? That’s what you articulate in those values. Then after you articulate them, you are constantly evangelising them.

Every employee that starts on their very first day, we’re walking them through those values. That’s how we hire people. That’s how we do performance reviews of people. Really articulating what’s important and the premier values, and they continually bring the company back to those values in everything we do. That’s what we’ve done to scale our company.

ET:                               What are they key challenges faced currently by your industry?

Jeff Lawson:               That’s a good question, so how would I define industry? We sit at the intersection of two of humanity’s most important things, building and communicating. Think about the two things that distinguish humans from other animals. Twilio’s at the intersection both from those things. If you think about the challenge from a communication standpoint, it’s our mission..

The challenge that companies have is that the world of communications is progressing so quickly in regards to the consumer world. Think about Facebook, Apple with iMessage, Google with Android or Amazon with Alexa. The consumer world is changing literally week-by-week. One of those major platforms is always adding some new capability that can change how companies engage with their customers. Companies struggle to keep up. It is an untenable roadmap almost for companies to figure out. “Hey, how do we talk to our customers in the most relevant way. What bets do we have to make on how consumers will be communicating with each other and therefore, will communicate with us in the years to come? How do we deploy our software engineering talents to actually invest in all these new platforms?

That’s one of the challenges that Twilio is seeking to solve for our customers with our engagement Cloud. Building a system of engagement that can give companies the ability to arm their teams with a platform that allows them to communicate over any channel. Whether it’s voice, SMS, video, chat, or third-party platforms like Facebook Messenger, Wii Chat or WhatsApp, or even voice systems like Alexa or Siri or Cortana. Any avenue that a company may want to communicate with its customers, we want to open up. Then also give them the tools to be able to build and iterate on rapidly what those engagements look and feel like. One of the things we launched recently, Twilio studio, is a visual designer for Twilio. You don’t even need your software developers to do all the heavy lifting.

You can empower many types of builders throughout an enterprise to be able to design, test, and iterate these ideas for how you want to engage with your customers. The pace of the consumer world is amazing but it’s presenting a huge challenge for every company to figure out how to leverage all this new technology to engage with their customers across multiple departments; sales, marketing, products, support, service. Twilio aims to solve that problem by making it easy for companies to embrace all those channels across all those departments.

ET:                                       What’s the one question you’d like to ask another CEO to answer?

Jeff Lawson:                       How much sleep do you get at night?

ET:                                       Can you answer that question yourself?

Jeff Lawson:                       I try to get seven hours. There’s definitely different schools of thought. Some people are big believers in like, “Yeah, sleep is really important to be on your game, to be sharp and to be rested. That’s how you can make best use of your days.” Then other people sort of have the always on, always going type of mentality. But as I’ve gotten older and as I’ve gotten more diverse in how I spend my days. I don’t write code professionally anymore. I’m starting to really value sleep. I’d be curious to take a poll. To find out how many people are in the same boat as I am about believing in the power of sleep.

ET:                                       Thank you very much, Jeff.

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