The Innovators

10 Up and Coming Leaders to Watch

The Innovators


Innovators push the boundaries of the known world. They're change agents who are relentless in making things happen and bringing ideas to execution.

Jeff Lawson, Twilio
Illustration (C) Brett Affrunti

Hands Off

Jeff Lawson, Twilio

Like other San Francisco tech startups, Twilio offers great employee perks: catered lunches, pretax commuter benefits, Kindles with a $30 monthly book allowance. But the best incentive CEO Jeff Lawson believes in giving his 250-plus workers is independence.

One motivator is passion for the product. Lawson can attest to that personally. His third startup was in sporting goods, but his heart wasn't in it. He found his passion in telecommunications, starting Twilio in 2007. The company's cloud-based communications platform is used by internet companies to route phone calls, texts and multimedia messages in 40-plus countries. Clients include the car service Uber, which uses Twilio to send its customers text messages announcing when their rides will arrive.Perks and salary go only so far in creating on-the-job happiness, he contends, but autonomy creates devoted employees. That's why Lawson divides his staff into small teams and lets them do their own thing. "They're centered around a customer to serve, a mission for how to serve them and the metrics of what success looks like," Lawson says. "Then they're set free to help that customer, make the right decisions and not be micromanaged."

Lawson believes Twilio should be as satisfying and efficient to work at as the products it sells. To facilitate this, he determined the company's core values, or, as he calls them, "Nine Things." "'Core values' are something you hang up in a nice frame," he says. "Tenets can't just be words on the wall."

One of the Nine Things is "No shenanigans," meaning employees should deal in a direct, honest and transparent way with everyone they meet. "Be straightforward; no politics," Lawson explains. "That's how we talk to customers and deal with each other--to their face and not behind their back."

"Start with why" means employees should get to know customers' pain points and needs. All new hires have to build an application using Twilio's platform--even if they haven't coded before--and must resolve 20 customer-service calls.

Upon completing those tasks, employees are presented with a Kindle. Then Lawson sets them free within the company. "A successful CEO lets people determine what they should do and how to hold themselves accountable," he says. "If they're having problems, they come to me, and we demolish them together. Otherwise, I just stay out of their way. You need the trust factor. CEOs need to come up with the right tools to create that trust." --Vanessa Richardson

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This article was originally published in the March 2014 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: 10 Up and Coming Leaders.

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