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Twilio talks about its API strategy, working with operators and international expansion

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with Twilio's Director of Product Management Thomas Schiavone

Thomas Schiavone 

Twilio provides simple APIs developers can use to integrate voice and text messaging capabilities into their Android and iOS apps. The company charges no upfront fees: developers pay solely for the traffic their apps generate. Developers useTwilio APIs, for example, to create voice- and messaging-enhanced group chat, appointment reminder and status update applications. The company has raised $34 million in venture funding and has more than 100,000 developers in its developer forum. FierceDeveloper talked with Thomas Schiavone, director of product management at Twilio, about the company's work with mobile developers, its perspective on mobile operator API programs and its plans for international expansion. 

FierceDeveloper: Twilio recently announced that it has 100,000 developers. How many of them are focusing on mobile applications?

Thomas Schiavone: Mobile is actually relatively new product for Twilio. A lot of the early growth for Twilio was from Web developers, but we knew we needed to get involved in mobile because that's how you can create a complete solution bridging phones and the Web. Twilio, to be very relevant, needed to have a mobile presence. This has been a focus of ours for the past six months. We launched our iOS SDK in February ,and we launched our Android SDK last month. You'll see continued investment from our standpoint in mobile because it's so critical.

FierceDeveloper: You've made your APIs and native SDKs really easy for developers to use.  Is this essential to your strategy?

Schiavone: Yes. When you think about how we do everything, whether you're talking about APIs or SDKs, we're trying to really make it intuitive and easy for developers. Developers shouldn't have to think too much, once they understand the Twilio platform. Their work should just flow out of their fingers. When I hear about people who start to use Twilio without reading the documentation, assuming that something should be a certain way because that's how it should be or that's the Twilio way of doing it, and it actually works, that's quite powerful. That's when I get excited.

FierceDeveloper: What types of innovations are you're seeing from mobile developers and what are these experiences are telling you about the future of mobile voice and messaging?

Schiavone:  One of the interesting things that we're seeing is that people will embed mobile voice as well as messaging into their applications. The service can be just another feature; it's not a whole separate application. If you look at the calling applications that there are in Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Play or the Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) App Store today, you'll see a lot of dedicated calling applications. We believe that calling is just one feature of an application, and it should be embedded wherever it makes sense and is best for the user. By making that easy for developers to do, so developers don't have to worry solving those challenges and they can focus on other things, you get some really interesting creations.

FierceDeveloper: Today you're supporting iOS and Android. Do you plan to support other mobile phone platforms, like Windows Phone?

Schiavone:  Definitely, from our standpoint, we want to be where developers are. For us it was very natural, obviously, to do iPhone first and then Android. That's how the world works today and where developer interest is. But definitely Windows 8 and Windows Phone are pretty interesting and I'm definitely keeping an eye on them. 

FierceDeveloper: Mobile operators individually and through the Wholesale Application Community are beginning to make APIs available to developers. What does that mean for Twilio? And what does it mean for them that you're in this business?

Schiavone:  I think carriers have been trying to do APIs for a while now, with limited success. I'd like to think that maybe some of their approaches more recently are influenced by the success we had and our approach to developers, because I think we took a very interesting approach. We figured out what developers want and then we went about building that, rather than focusing on what do we have and how do we expose it to developers. It's a very different paradigm in how we think about these things.

If you see the type of things operators are rolling out today in certain marketplaces, it is messaging and location APIs. I think when it gets to voice APIs it will be a bit more challenging for them. Having the whole suite in harmony and working right, solving the business problems as well as the technical problems, that's what Twilio has to offer. Any solution, to be interesting to developers, is going to have to be both easy from technical standpoint and easy from a business standpoint, and I think that's one of the things that gets overlooked.

FierceDeveloper: Does Twilio work with operators? Do you see value in working with operators?

Schiavone:  We definitely work with carriers. We need carriers for phone numbers, to send and receive phone calls, and to send and receive SMS, so definitely, a critical part of what we do is based on the relationships we have with our carrier partners.

You cannot be a legitimate company and just say carriers don't matter. Obviously they have great networks and there probably are other interesting things we can do together. I don't have anything specific to say with respect to that, but the clear thing is that we definitely respect mobile operators. If there are ways we can work together to make it better for developers, we'll figure something out. That's what our mission is and we're looking for other people to share our mission.

FierceDeveloper: How does Twilio make money and what is your strategy for driving revenues?

Schiavone:  Our business model at the core is a pretty simple pay-as-you-go, pay-as-you-grow model. There is no upfront charge to a developer. Developers create applications that make phone calls, send SMS and send some voice traffic to the native SDK via a phone number. We charge customers for each of those things. So that's the cost to the developer, it's a cost of running their business. Oftentimes it creates a source of revenue for them or cost savings for whatever their app or business is.

Obviously, we have to buy that from underlying carriers. We have relationships with many carriers, and those are costs to us. So the difference between what we buy these for and sell them for is where we make our profits. So that is a really simple business model. It is really just driven by usage, so the more successful we can make developers, the more transactions they drive through the system, the more revenues are driven.

FierceDeveloper: What are the general procedures for developers to use your platform?

Schiavone:  They need to create an account, and then we give them free trials so they can prototype their app. The goal is to get users in and get them developing. When I signed up for my Twilio account and made my phone ring with code the first time, I thought, oh my gosh, that's magic, because you don't often think of your code interacting with the "real world," you're just working in the virtual world.  Somehow making the phone ring seems like the real world, and that's just so powerful.

We really want to make sure that developers can get going easily with minimal friction, and just start kicking the tires and then let them decide if they like it or not. That's the thing. Don't put up any barriers. Let them figure out if they like it. Does it solve a problem? Is it useful? That's what's going to get you customers. 

FierceDeveloper: What are your international expansion plans and how important is this to your platform and business?

Schiavone:  It's critical to me--just from a very high level--because developers are everywhere, not just in the U.S., and because people have communication problems everywhere. We wouldn't be achieving our mission if we didn't go out and figure out how we can empower each and every developer in each and every nation of the world. Obviously that's a big and lofty ambition, but you have to start making progress somewhere.

Last year we launched in the U.K., and this year we launched in ten other European countries. What you'll see us doing is slow and steady progress. It may not be as fast as developers want, but to ensure a high quality experience everywhere, it has to be slow and steady. But each and every month we'll be making progress.