Why voice and messaging specialist Twilio thinks communications should ‘disappear’

Jeff Lawson, co-founder and CEO, Twilio.
Jeff Lawson, co-founder and CEO, Twilio.
Courtesy of Twilio

When Jeff Lawson co-founded Twilio back in 2008, Facebook wasn’t foremost among potential competitors. He might want to reorder his list.

The social network’s strategy to turn Messenger into a platform for business communications echoes Twilio’s founding mission—to embed real-time texting, phone calls and (most recently) video communications into mobile apps and Web services.

Twilio sells application programming interfaces (APIs) that are the secret sauce behind the text messages that Uber passengers receive when their ride is nearby. It drives interactions handled by Home Depot’s 2,200-plus contact centers. Another recent customer is Nordstrom, which uses Twilio’s technology as the foundation for a “concierge” service that links sales associates with shoppers. Other prominent customers include Alaska Airlines, Box, Coca-Cola, Intuit, OpenTable, and Walmart.

“[We’re] reducing friction, using software to integrate the communication with the rest of the experience [customers are] having inside the workflow,” Lawson said. “When you do it well, the communication starts to disappear. You don’t even perceive it as a communication.”

In mid-April, Twilio added video to the list of communications methods supported by its platform. Customer Zendesk is already experimenting with the technology as a support option. Of course, Facebook is also moving into video calling. Mostly, this is considered a consumer play against services such as Skype or Google Hangouts but it could also be the foundation for next-generation customer service.

In its favor, Twilio has a strong following: more than 500,000 software developers work with its technology (and that’s just ones that are officially registered). The company employs approximately 400 people; its venture backing includes more than $100 million from investors including Bessemer, Redpoint, and Union Square. Traditionally, Twilio’s rivals have included Plivo (which claims 20,000 customers including Netflix) and Nexmo (which cites Airbnb, Expedia, Alibaba.com, and Zipcar as references).

In mid-March, Twilio added former Andreessen Horowitz partner Arthur Johnson as vice president of corporate and business development. Among other things, Johnson will be responsible for identifying potential acquisitions and forging additional strategic partnerships, Lawson said.

One area of focus: shoring up security. Twilio made its first acquisition in late February. It picked up Authy, which specializes in two-factor authentication, vitally important as the company seeks to build its following with larger enterprises.

Lawson hints at more news during Twilio’s upcoming developer conference on May 19 and 20 in San Francisco. Addressing a question about the potential Facebook threat, he said: “The innovations that are going on right now are fantastic. …For a long time, we will have many, many options for how we communicate. What’s driving progress is good for Twilio and good for developers.”

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