How Jeff Lawson Built a $64 Billion Company By Focusing On Developers

Aug 29, 2021
Edited by the author — original image from Flickr


Software companies often forget about the humble developer. I know this too well as a former tech consultant.

The big companies focus on how to impress execs with flashy features but the product is a shambles under the covers. It’s left to developers to deal with all the bugs and somehow still deliver the requirements within the deadline. You’d be surprised how many famous products have defects that never get fixed because developers aren’t prioritized.

Jeff Lawson’s mindset is different. He’s an angel for the tech startup world. His company Twilio has gone from 0 to $64 billion in 13 years by concentrating on the problems developers face.

Do you know when you get an SMS update about your order? The developers probably used Twilio to set up the connection.

Jeff is a guy doing what he loves and changing the way businesses contact their customers. Here’s his story.


He’s a strong independent developer

At his core, Jeff is a problem solver. As a five-year-old, he would build robots out of cardboard boxes with his dad but was frustrated that they didn’t move. This led him to code at a young age because he wanted to make things work.

Jeff worked at many great startups and learned how crucial communication was to success. Yet the options to connect with users seemed primitive and it bothered him. He was told he needed to talk to communications giants like Cisco for a solution.

But these companies had no idea how to do what he wanted to achieve. They talked about installing underground wiring and three-year projects which didn’t make any sense for a fast-changing startup.

No one else seemed to be willing to take on the issue he kept facing so he decided to do it himself. The communications world was too hardware-based and slow but he came from the speedy software world.

His idea created a new business category.

“I started Twilio to solve a relatively simple problem: How do we bring communications into the realm of software and enable every software developer in the world to build out their ideas quickly and easily? That’s where we started.”

Engage in your own community

The problem with many entrepreneurs who create products to meet their own needs is they fail to check if anyone else has the same problem.

Jeff didn’t fall to this self-centered attitude.

“I know a customer segment that has a problem and I’m going to go solve it.”

He was already an active member of the software developer community so had rich connections with his potential customers. He didn’t give people a sales pitch but fed them enough to trigger their curiosity. Everyone Jeff told about it could think of ways it would make their job easier.

35% of startups fail because there is no market need for the product. If you have the contacts in an industry you care about, use them! It’s far better to find out no one cares early on than wait until you’ve sunk time and effort into building a fancy prototype.

This doesn't apply only to tech startups. Jesse Enkamp is a world-famous karate instructor who was frustrated at how hard it was to maintain the uniforms. He asked around and everyone said they had faced the same difficulty so he built his own brand. It’s grown exponentially!


Empowering the disempowered

Venture capitalists weren’t hot on Jeff’s idea. They wanted him to make an app rather than a platform because it’s what managers look for. They thought no one pays attention to what developers want anyway.

Jeff faced a difficult choice whether to build what he knew the community needed or to take the simpler path to funding. He did what he believed was right and the VCs came running to him once he’d proved them wrong.

Jeff promotes the idea of following your customers rather than your investors. Many companies get VC backing but go nowhere so it’s not always best to trust them.

Twilio’s slogan is “Ask your developer”. It works because developers will always seek out the tools that help them do their job to the best of their ability. They don’t need to have adverts shoved in their face but they do need their bosses to listen to them.

Twilio has 10 million developers in their ecosystem now. They are being listened to. By valuing the opinions of the people who will use their software, they have created a strong sense of goodwill.


The dirty secret

“The dirty secret of every startup ever is that when you look at companies with these big, world-changing missions…those are usually retroactively put in place.”

Anybody else sick of billionaires preaching how they made money by focussing on a holier than thou mission? Jeff Lawson doesn’t do that and I love him for it.

Jeff was one of the first Amazon Web Services product managers and joined without knowing what it even meant. He was interviewed by the current CEO of Amazon, Andy Jassy, who told AWS was a secret but that “it’s really cool”. Jeff doesn’t pretend he joined for anything other than excitement. He didn’t know it would be worth $500bn someday.

Likewise, he built Twilio because he was a nerd who loved building stuff. He enjoyed the process itself rather than thinking about anything bigger than him.

Be honest with yourself, are you the same? I enjoy helping people but I love the challenge of what I do the most. I might not be changing the world but I am having a lot of fun.

Based on interviews with Secret Leaders and NFX.

Amar's Letter

Real talk on driving impact as an imperfect human.