Image source: OfficeLovin
The man who enables Yelp to send restaurant reservation reminders and Uber riders to call their drivers is now a billionaire. Jeff Lawson, who cofounded cloud communications services firm Twilio and is still its CEO, is worth $1.2 billion, primarily due to his 5% stake in the company. His fortune has more than doubled in the past three years as the popularity of mobile apps continue to rise. Twilio, which raised $150 million at a $1.2 billion valuation at its June 2016 IPO, is now worth over $19 billion as its share price shot up 66% in 2019 and 146% in the past 12 months.
A serial entrepreneur, Lawson got his first taste of success in middle school, when he started an events video business that mostly filmed and edited footage of bar mitzvahs. By the time he graduated high school, the Detroit native was pulling in as much as $5,000 some weekends filming weddings. He launched his first internet startup—Versity.com, which provided lectures notes for college courses—while studying at the University of Michigan and later developed StubHub’s original ticket-selling website as the popular ticket reseller’s first chief technology officer.
After finishing college, Lawson interviewed at Amazon in 2004 for a fledgling division that was developing a cloud computing service. He spent 15 months working on what would become the e-commerce giant’s cash cow—Amazon Web Services (AWS)—and was inspired by what he saw there. “This whole idea that you can offer infrastructure as a service was kind of mind-blowing,” Lawson told Forbes in 2016.
Realizing that communication was essential to every business he founded, Lawson decided to apply the AWS model to a cloud communications platform, starting Twilio with friends Evan Cooke and John Wolthuis in 2008. (Cooke left the company several years ago, while Wolthuis still has a role and owns a stake worth more than $250 million.) The San Francisco-based firm provides tools that allow developers to build voice, video or messaging functions into any Web or mobile apps; its first customer, PhoneMyPhone.com, used its products for a website that lets customers input their cell numbers to ring their misplaced phones.
Other tech startups noticed the ease and potential of Twilio. When streaming service Hulu was preparing to launch its premium subscription plan, it used Twilio to build a call center to support its new customers. When file-sharing platform Box wanted to enhance user security, it used Twilio to implement a two-factor authentication system with text messages. Twilio has also diversified beyond Silicon Valley—Walmart uses its platform to send “Value of the day” deals to its shoppers’ phones, while the Philadelphia police department used its services to set up an anonymous text-messaging tip line.
Today, Twilio’s platform serves people in over 180 countries, from Swaziland and Azerbaijan to Switzerland and Brazil. The company’s revenue has grown from $88.8 million in 2014 to $650 million in 2018, and its active customer accounts went from under 17,000 to over 64,000 in the same time period. Between 2017 and 2018, Twilio’s revenue grew 63%, though its net loss widened from $63.7 million to $121.9 million. However, investors seem confident in Twilio’s future performance, as the platform charges its clients by usage, which means increasing fees as more people use apps to buy groceries, shop financial products and hail rides. “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity ahead of us to revolutionize one of the largest markets in all of IT communications,” said Lawson during Twilio’s first-quarter earnings call in April 2019. “It's still day one of this journey, and I couldn’t be more proud of our team and excited about the road ahead.”