This is the latest in a series of stories about startup culture. This week, our reporter popped into Twilio’s fast-paced offices, a stark contrast to Couchsurfing’s laid-back hippie culture.
Few other companies have internalized the “Lean Startup” movement — the rapid product cycles, culture of experimentation, and emphasis on customer feedback — more so than Twilio.
The San Francisco-based cloud communications provider is the quintessential “lean startup,” a term coined by serial entrepreneur Eric Ries. Spend a few hours at the downtown offices and you’ll step into a culture that is the polar opposite of Microsoft’s slow-moving, bureaucracy-laden culture that strangled innovation in that company’s heyday.
Twilio has stepped (or more accurately, sped) into its own renaissance. As Sandy O’Gormon, the vice president of talent, puts it: “Our philosophy is to ship, ship, ship, and stay ahead.” O’Gorman leads the team that can make or break the company’s sustained growth: recruiting and HR. “We hire, hire, hire. It’s a fast-paced learning environment.”
For Twilio, a startup that helps developers put phone communication features into their applications, the challenge has been to meet the internal demand for engineers. “We are small and new and finding our way in the world,” admits Lia Coniglio, Twilio’s human resources manager.
Shortly after I arrived at Twilio’s offices, Coniglio and her colleague in the marketing department, Michael Selvidge, gave me a tour. I had to ask Selvidge about Danielle Morrill, his former boss, who recently left to launch her own startup, Referly. Morrill was the company’s first non-technical hire, and had a major part to play in turning a nerdy tech startup into a recognized brand in Silicon Valley. According to Selvidge, her “be everywhere, be awesome” ethic is in DNA of the marketing team.
Twilio’s CEO, the high-energy, perpetually smiling Jeff Lawson dipped in and out of the offices, occasionally peering through the glass into a jam-packed conference room. At the end of the week, the product and engineering teams gather for “standups,” where every employee gets a few minutes to present their recent accomplishments, and brainstorm ideas.
To maintain its pace of innovation, the San Francisco-based startup is hiring engineers at an intractable rate of 20 per quarter. To meet this goal, they have 10 developer evangelists scattered across the country and a strong recruiting team. Given the technical talent shortage in the Bay Area, here’s how the company has won over engineers in record numbers:
- Unlimited personal time off: Working at a startup can be exhausting; people often complain about the unhealthy work/life balance. At Twilio, if an employee is feeling burnt out, they can ask for a few days to rest and recuperate. According to the recruiting team, those who would take undue advantage of this flexibility are probably not Twilio material. “We are more worried about making sure people actually take enough time off,” said O’Gormon.
- Learning opportunities: Every new hire at Twilio has to build an app. Got no skills? The first several weeks involve intensive training, so you’ll learn on the job. Read more about how Twilio teaches its employees to code here.
- Free Kindles: Every employee receives a Kindle and reimbursement for a book.
- Work from home: Employees can take meetings from home, which is a benefit for those who are commuting into San Francisco. It’s not a strict 9 to 5 — as long as they get their work done, employees have flexible working hours.
- Engineers can spent time on innovative projects: Similarly to Google’s policy in its early days, Twilio allots time for the engineering and design teams to work on their own projects. Essentially, it’s a week-long hackfest, where they have the creative freedom to build cool stuff with the API. From the most recent Tweakweek, the top three projects are already being put into construction.
What’s the culture like?
- Just in it for the cash? You’re probably not a fit: “We see compensation and equity packages as table stakes,” said Coniglio. Like any other well-funded startup, Twilio offers a competitive salary, but if you’re just earn a fast buck, other companies pay significantly higher salaries. Twilio’s recruiting team sells the culture and product to potential recruits.
- Everybody has a voice: Whether it’s a company outing or a minor change to the lunch menu, at all ranks of the company, employees are encouraged to speak up.
- A maker culture: Everyone has to code: At a startup, how often do you see an engineer setting aside an afternoon to teach a recently hired marketing analyst to build a mobile app? I was surprised to see it, too — but this kind of collaboration is a stroke of genius! It’s useful for anyone to develop technical ability, especially for marketers who will need to grapple with software and communicate with customers. But it’s a two-way street: marketing and sales professionals also have experience to bring to the table. I noticed that one developer received an impromptu Twitter tutorial from his colleague in the marketing team.
- We communicate in the language of apps: To stand out, Bessemer Venture Partners developed a Twilio app to present the term sheet for the startup’s recent funding round. The founders dialed into a Twilio-connected number to hear an automated voice message: “Press one for $5 million, press two for $10 million, press three for $15 million. …” Check out the full story here. Likewise, anyone smart enough to develops a Twilio app to apply for a job, would definitely be a stand-out candidate!
- Customers are king: The company is reliant on these third-party developers and the applications they create with Twilio’s open API. “The focus is on empowering and enabling our customers. It’s not on us; it’s what people do with our technology,” said O’Gorman. “On our platform, apps are being built that help people find sex offenders and veterans find jobs.”
You betcha! Twilio has openings in marketing and sales, customer support, and, of course, engineering. If you’re into Macbooks, automated testing and distributed architecture, you’ll fit right in!
“Startup culture” is a new series that highlights what it’s really like to work at a Bay Area startup. We’ll be profiling a startup every two weeks. Please send your suggestions for the most rockin’ office spaces, startup happy hours, or company perks via email (email@example.com) or Twitter (@chrissyfarr).
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