James Parton, Director Twilio Europe, Twilio Inc

If you use Twilio today and then stop using Twilio tomorrow then we don’t have any revenue. So that really incentivises us because that means we wake up...

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If you use Twilio today and then stop using Twilio tomorrow then we don’t have any revenue.
So that really incentivises us because that means we wake up every day thinking about how we keep our customers happy. So there’s no complacency. There’s a lot of sense of urgency. And there’s really a kind of willingness to see our customers succeed.

James Parton is Director of Twilio Europe, for, you guessed it, Twilio Inc. Twilio has been named as One of the bay area’s 10 most in demand startups, a CNBC Top 50 Disruptor and has been blazing a trail on the slow moving Telecoms sector, with it’s disruptive API based cloud communications platform.

As James works for one of the hottest global tech companies, (can we still call a 7 year old company a startup?), is somewhat a marketing rockstar and an active contributor to the wider tech and marketing community, we invited him to be our guest on The SaaS Revolution Show Podcast in the hope to get some insights into Twilio’s, and his own, success to date that we can share with you. Below is an edited transcript. You can listen to the full conversation on iTunes

HI James, I know that there’s been a big Twilio conference this week, the Signal Conference, and that was in San Francisco. Were you there?

I wasn’t, actually, but we still managed to bring Signal to Europe. So we had a viewing party for Signal in both London and Berlin. So we brought together the communities that we have in those cities just to sit and watch the keynote from Jeff our CEO and we had some good times. So I stayed at home.

What is it like working for one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley?

I mean, I think it’s a little bit of a kind of cliché answer, but you can imagine. It’s hard work, it’s long hours, obviously working for a Californian-based company you have the time zones to deal with working from Europe. But we have such a sense of purpose of shaping the future of telecommunications that really drives of you and gives you the energy to succeed. Of course we have a lot of fun along the way.
But I think it all starts really with the people and the culture. I don’t know if you’re aware of the Twilio company values, but we have these things called the 9 Things, which really set the tone for what it’s like working inside the company and our philosophy.
So I’m sure you can link to these from the posts and stuff, but if you go to Twilio.com and click on the company section of the website you can see those values. They really, like I say, shape what we’re all about.

I think I can remember, two: “No shenanigans” and “Draw the owl.”

Yeah. If we’ve got time I’ll very quickly run through them.
So live the spirit of challenge. Empower others. Start with why. Create experience. No shenanigans. Be humble. Think at scale. Draw the owl, and be frugal. So I think when you’ve got a company that takes people and culture so seriously it’s just a great experience.

draw the owl

What does “Draw the owl” mean?

The origin of Draw the Owl was actually like an internet meme from a few years ago. I think everyone has a slightly different take on it.
But if you Google “draw the owl meme” you’ll see basically there’s a two-stage drawing. The challenge is draw an owl and it’s a two-stage process. One is two circles and then the second picture is a perfectly drawn owl.
I think, my interpretation of that is there is no instruction book. You just got to use your judgment, your skills, your gut in order to get to the kind of the end goal and the right answer.

How did you get the gig at Twilio? 

Yeah. I’ll tell you my story and then we’ll talk a little bit about recruitment at this point in time.
So as you mentioned in the introduction, I’ve spent pretty much my entire career in telecommunications. I also spent a lot of time at the intersection of telecommunications and the internet. So when you think about mobile data services coming into mobile, so think about things like mobile content downloading, mobile music services, mobile video, picture messaging, these were all products that I kind of touched during my time at O2 and Telefonica.
But what became evident to me was the telecom carrier producing products and services was challenging. Time to market was slow. We weren’t as particularly innovative as an organisation. So to me, the obvious solution to that was how can the carrier open up and embrace software developers? And if you like, rely on the skills and the creativity of the crowd to really set the direction in a way telecommunication should head.
So with that in mind, I embarked on a program of creating a developer program for Telefonica. Originally that was called O2 Litmus which was just for the U.K. customers of O2. And then that developed into a global proposition for Telefonica called BlueVia. So myself and two colleagues developed that and ran that for a couple of years.
But I think we started to change perception of telcos because, as you’re probably aware, telcos certainly in the developer industry and the applications industry have some what of a negative image. But we were starting to change perceptions.
But then Twilio reached out. They said to me that we’ve seen what you’re doing in Telefonica. We kind of like what we see considering you’re working within the constraints of a telco. They were looking to launch into Europe and the conversion started from there, really.
Looking back, I think there’s a lot of kudos should be given to Twilio. I think a lot of U.S. startups when they come to Europe they typically parachute in a U.S. team to establish the organisation and to lead the business. I think it took some courage there to gamble on a relative unknown from the U.K. to lead the European business.
I mean, I think that’s kind of paid back, but there was a degree of risk there for Twilio so I think they should be congratulated for that knowing that to really cut through in a local market you need to have people that have the connections and the understanding of the local markets.

And how would other people get to work at hot Silicon Valley startups?

Well, certainly for the roles that I tend to hire for, what we typically avoid, the traditional recruiters and that kind of channel to find candidates. We much more take a look at how people are actually practitioning. So as you can imagine, and I’m sure this will come out in the conversation as we talk, we spend so much of our time engaged with the startup ecosystem around Europe. We’re looking for people that are actively engaged in that community and actually giving something back to that community.
So for example, people that are organising Meetups or people that are organising hackathons or people that are out there sharing best practices or mentoring. So it’s easy to have a very impressive CV on paper but what we tend to look for is actual, real evidence of people engaging in the community, bettering the community.
So it’s all really about what you’re doing not what you’re saying.

Jeff Lawson, Twilio’s CEO often talks about doers. So I guess Twilio is probably made up of a whole bunch of doers?

It is. Yeah. Obviously, you like to get different personality types and different skillsets, but I think the common thing that binds us altogether is that sense of urgency and the sense of just take control of the situation and go get stuff done. I think that’s where that kind of doer mentality comes from.

What cool things did Twilio announce at Signal Conference this week?

I think there’s a number of things. We announced it just before the conference. Of course video is going to be huge for us. We’ve made access to telephony and messaging very democratic by opening up those capabilities to developers. Video is the next major step change in what we’re offering.
And also IP messaging. So we’ve now just introduced a suite of IP messaging that’s going to make it really easy for mobile and web developers to embed instant messaging capabilities into their mobile apps, their SaaS products, their websites.
We’re really starting to bring together that multi-channel communication and making it super powerful through the use of the APIs that we have.

Did you also announce a $50 million development fund?

Yeah, we did. So this is really exciting especially for Europe, I think, because when you look at Europe it can be a little bit more challenging for startups and early-stage companies to raise capital.
So personally, I’m really, really excited to kind of work with the European startup scene and get them involved in Twilio fund. So it was announced at Signal. There’s going to be more information coming and if anyone is interested in, please reach out and we can tell you more.

Twilio is often described as reinventing what is something like a $1.6 trillion communications market, taking it from its legacy hardware to its future in software. You’ve had this experience working with telcos and mentioned about some of the challenges and constraints about the pace that telcos move. Are telcos your friends or are they your foes?

There’s no doubt that they’re friends. I think Twilio is sometimes incorrectly grouped with the OTT providers, the Over-The-Top providers. So those guys are out there building data services, like WhatsApp as an example, which run over the top of the carrier’s network, the customer uses the app on their smartphone, and the carrier sees none of the benefit of that. They don’t get any revenue share from those services. In fact, it’s just a burden because as more and more people use those data services they have to invest more and more in their infrastructure to carry that traffic.
So Twilio is not an OTT provider. I think that’s a really important point. So we actually partner with the telcos. We have direct relationships with carriers all around the world to access their network services, like the ability to purchase phone numbers, to send messages, to make phone calls. And of course, we generate traffic.
So every time Twilio app is using the network, the carrier benefits from that. They’re seeing traffic, they’re seeing revenue. So it’s really a mutually beneficial partnership.
Also I think you’ve been talking about some of those comments I made about where the telcos’ focus is. Historically, the telcos have struggled to engage with that kind of startup community, the kind of app economy. So I think you could argue that Twilio is also opening up new revenue streams for the telcos because we’re engaging and onboarding a customer base that’s been traditionally quite difficult for the carrier to engage with.

Let’s continue on the Twilio rhetoric. We mentioned doers. Twilio also talks about software people. So what is a software person and would you say that a SaaS person or SaaS people are the same thing?

Yeah, we should start copywriting some of these soon. So a software person doesn’t mean that we only talk about coders or developers to be a software person. We kind of define the software person as anyone that sees the world through the lens of software and believes that any problem can be solved by software.
Take Uber as an example. We don’t see them as a taxi company. We see them as a software company. They’re using software to solve a specific problem.
So you could be a Product Manager, you could be a Project Manager, you could be a marketing person, you can really be anyone within an organization, and obviously SaaS applies as much as anything as well to be a software person in our eyes.
So if you take a specific example, think about something like call centres, which is obviously close to our business. If you think about the old way of doing things it was about buying and maintaining physical boxes, physical hardware that you would either put in a data closet somewhere and have someone maintain them for you and have to upgrade it every 12 months. You’d be paying license fees for features you never used, you’d be having to buy your peak scaling for your kind of predicted call volumes even though you can’t really put a finger on that. And for the rest of the year it’s wasted money because you’re paying for that unused capability or capacity. So that’s kind of the old world. That’s the hardware world. That’s a hardware person.
If you think about the future and what software people think about, all of that is now virtualized. It’s all about software. It’s all in the cloud. It’s all incredibly scalable. You only pay for what you use. You’re not tied into maintenance contracts. You’re not tied into fixed fees or recurring payments. All of that kind of stuff is gone. It disappeared overnight effectively.
So that’s what we mean when we talk about software people versus hardware people.

You mentioned Uber there as an example. They’re, I guess, one of the many cool brands that are customers of Twilio, such as Airbnb, Box, and Zendesk.
How did Twilio initially win those customers? And how could other SaaS startups potentially win such customers?

I think what connects all of those companies is they’re great examples of builders. They’re all building experiences from scratch.
Essentially, Twilio provides tools for builders. So many of those relationships has really developed via those company’s developers picking up Twilio. They might have seen us on Hacker News or TechCrunch or they might have bumped into us at a hack day, or they might have just gone to Twilio.com and experimented. Because one of the secrets to our success is the low barrier to entry.
So we’re seeing those relationships really developed by the engineers inside those organisations just wanting to work with great tools. So as they grow, we grow. That’s our business model so that’s a mutually beneficial situation.

So you didn’t have to sell into Travis Kalanick but actually the developers did the selling themselves?

Yeah. I think it’s an evolving story for Twilio. This is one of the really fascinating things as we grow through our development as a company.
Certainly from formation through to relatively recently, the developer outreach led by our developer evangelism team and our marketing and our events has really driven that grassroots swell and you see a really powerful referral effect. And people just discover us. Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on where or how they’ve done that.
As the company matures, obviously we are now looking at more traditional sales approaches where we carry on with that kind of developer outreach and nurturing the startup ecosystem where the Ubers and the Airbnbs come from. But in parallel, also looking at how we also develop channel programs to work with partners and how we kind of do direct selling into more traditional enterprise, either directly or indirectly.
So that’s a really interesting point of our evolution as a business which we’re going through right now.

Could you give us some examples of mentoring that you provide to startups and entrepreneurs?
Also, what advice would you give to entrepreneurs who don’t have mentors and are not in accelerators or incubators?

Yeah. That’s a good question. I think first of all, both myself and Twilio take our role in helping to grow the European startup ecosystem really seriously. So you talk about Twilio fund as a clear example of that at a Twilio level.
On a personal level, the kind of mentoring stuff, anything I can do to help I’m always happy to do that.
So I guess in terms of what I tend to do in mentoring, it typically falls into two broad buckets. Obviously the key to good mentoring is matching the mentor with the company because certain situations wouldn’t be right for the skillset I’ve got, obviously. So I think it’s always key to make sure you find mentors that really have the experience or the kind of contacts that you’re looking for to grow your business.
But essentially I tend to work with a lot of companies that are thinking about growing or building a platform and how do they build a community around that platform. So there’s been a couple of example from TechStars that are looking to do that challenge. So that’s where I spend some time.
And then the other thing is just networking. It’s just opening up the address book and offering to connect people to other people because you wouldn’t believe just how important networking is in the industry.
I think that sort of like leads onto your second question, which is if you’re not in an accelerator what do you do? I think my advice there will be just get your face out there. There’s so many events every night of the week, and weekends of course. Many of those are free of charge. So you don’t have to be spending money to go to these events.
And really that’s the way to start to build momentum for your business and for your personal brand. So it’s all about socialising, evangelizing, and connecting. I mean, I haven’t kept an exact count as you can imagine, but I just did flick back through my…
I don’t know if you’re aware of a service called Lanyrd, which is like a social events planner. So I just had a quick glance on there and it looks like over the past 8 years I’ve been through an event every 2 weeks. So that’s the kind of level of investment to build your profile and build your network.
So it takes time. It’s disruptive. You kind of lose that line between private life and work life. But don’t do something if you don’t love it, I guess, is the mantra of that.

Twilio has got great brand and has done some really great marketing. You seem to have got it really right. What insights can you give us into Twilio’s marketing strategy?

That is a big question. We could probably spend a couple of hours going into that. I’ll keep it broad and high-level.
But I think two things that are really important to me, which are the secret of… Well, lets put success in quotes yet because we’ve still got a lot of work to do.
So the first of all that we know that we’re not successful without our community. I think that’s really fundamental. That really sets the tone for everything we do because if you’re not familiar with Twilio our business model is simply a pay you go business model. So you just pay us every time you make a phone call or send a text message or make a video call or whatever that might be.
So there’s no recurring contracts, there’s no fee, you’re not committed to paying us for services you don’t use. If you use Twilio today and then stop using Twilio tomorrow then we don’t have any revenue.
So that really incentivises us because that means we wake up every day thinking about how we keep our customers happy. So there’s no complacency. There’s a lot of sense of urgency. And there’s really a kind of willingness to see our customers succeed.
So when you look at the kinds of marketing that we do, it’s very much around telling customer stories. It’s spotlighting our customers, giving them as much support from our marketing muscle that we can give them especially for the earlier-stage companies. It’s also the things like participation in community, making sure we’re sponsoring events so they can happen so the community benefits from those events.
I think that sense of urgency and that willingness to help just seems to build a lot of brand equity and a lot of, like I said, referral, a lot of loyalty. And it seems that enthusiasm is really infectious because it spreads really, really quickly.
That said, that stuff is so easy to lose if you’re not genuine. So it’s difficult to win the hearts and minds of this community but very easy to lose them. So not only do we have that sense of urgency but we also have that sense of we’re on a mission and we have no divine right to succeed, so we take that stuff really seriously.

Would it be fair to say that because of this bold business model that you have that Twilio is effectively one big customer success organisation not a customer success department? So you just wake up every day and you’re thinking about, well, we’ve got to make our customers happy but with integrity?

Yeah. Exactly. When you look at who we’re competing against in the hardware world, you can imagine what the product life-cycles are of those hardware products. The products that are sitting in people’s call centres today were probably designed 10 years ago, maybe even longer. Maybe 15 years ago. And you have that typical, small, incremental change once a year, maybe if you’re lucky, once every 6 months. But you only get access to all these features if you’re paying your big fat maintenance fee and all-year license fees.
So Twilio is deploying new features to our platform everyday of the week. It’s constant innovation and that’s really at the heart of everything we do because we are in a situation where we can listen to and react to what our customers need from us. So, yeah.

What 3 marketing tips can you give SaaS startups that they should be doing yesterday?

I’ll give you 4:

First of all, product. I know it depends on your organisation. Some organisation’s marketing is not directly involved with products. In other organisations they are. Certainly within Twilio product and marketing are hand in hand. So it really all starts with the product. If you’re not solving a hard problem, why are you bothering? You got to make it easy to use.
And I touched on this earlier in the conversation. I think a key cornerstone at where we’ve been successful is our low barrier to entry. So if someone cannot come to your website and sign up and start using your product within 5 minutes, you’re doing something wrong. So that whole self-service funnel is so, so important for growing these kinds of companies.
The second would be connect. We talked about the networking stuff. So I think you need to be seen as part of a community. I think the important thing here is, again we’ve touched on integrity, but I think it’s give many, many, many more times before you attempt to take from the community. So really establish yourselves that you’re serious about the community, you’re in it for the long gain. Because people quickly see through you if you’re just a sales guy out there trying to make a quick buck, and you’re very superficial and two-faced.
So it’s all about giving before taking, because you just won’t get a second chance if you screw it up.
Third one would be measure. So it would be very data-driven. Know how your marketing playbook affects your business and the satisfaction of your customers. Don’t be afraid to experiment, because obviously you’re not going to get it right all the time, but you need to have a handle on what those experiments are doing to your business so you can double-down on the things that succeed and you can drop the things that don’t work.
And then my cheaty fourth one is people. So you’re only as good as the people around you so don’t fall into the trap of hiring people because you have to under pressure. Hire people because they’re amazing and that’s going to save you a whole bunch of pain further down the line.

Who are your Top 3 influences?

I’m terrible at questions like this because I’m not sure.
The only person that immediately springs to mind is Gary Vaynerchuk. Do you know Gary?

Yeah sure, please elaborate.

Well, so I think certainly for the British people listening to this he’s very much a marmite type character You either love him or hate him.
But I think when I look back at my kind of career inside Telefonica or in the telcos it was the point where I started to read Gary’s books and watch his videos where I suddenly switched on to this whole concept of personal brand and really being in control of your own destiny. If you’re not happy with something go and make an opportunity for yourself.
So I’m going to give all of my 3 slots to Gary Vaynerchuk because I love him so much.

Has software eaten the world?

Yeah, I think, well, it’s certainly starting to fill up. So everywhere you look. Just I mean, I wouldn’t say I’m a super, super early adopter but I look around and my car has an app and WiFi. I can control my heating from my mobile phone now. We talked about companies like Uber. I just came back from Rome this weekend and used an Airbnb in Rome, which was like a third of the price of a hotel and the whole thing was done through the mobile app.
So when you look around all your touch points, you know I pay for my parking at the train station via mobile app so I no longer need my coins in my pocket for the parking meter. Everything is being software-driven.
So I think we’re pretty much, yeah, certainly getting there.

Okay. And the last one. When is HashBang.TV coming back?

I’m not aware of any demand for HashBang.TV to come back. I’ve met Chris actually a couple of weeks ago and my co-presenter on hashbang.tv  so we’re still hanging out. But at this point I think we’re a little bit too busy and too bad at the whole podcast thing to come back with that.

James Parton was a guest on The SaaS Revolution Show Podcast, brought to you by SaaScribe Media. Alex Theuma asked the questions.You can follow James Parton on twitter and check out his wonderfully titled blog, I Beg your Parton

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