Twilio Helps Sharing Economy Workers Connect, And Retain Privacy

By Carolyn Said
San Francisco Chronicle.

When Brian Schrier calls or texts folks who hire him via TaskRabbit to do odd jobs, his actual phone number — and theirs — is masked. Instead, a proxy number appears on both phone screens.

“That way I don’t get little old ladies calling me at 2 in the morning,” he said.

Communications between customers and service providers are crucial for a slew of on-demand services like TaskRabbit, Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Handy, Washio, Postmates and more. But privacy concerns mean that neither party wants to share phone numbers with a stranger.

All of those companies, and many more, use cloud software from San Francisco’s Twilio to provide anonymized phone calls and texts.

“Twilio is one of the hidden giants of the sharing economy,” said Arun Sundararajan, an NYU business professor who studies the emerging sector in which people rent, sell or share assets with others. “They are a critical piece of the infrastructure.”

The reasons are clear, he said. Peer-to-peer marketplaces need to facilitate trust among participants, since their core businesses require people to get into strangers’ cars or stay in strangers’ homes, for instance. But at the same time, participants may want to shield aspects of their identity.

“There needs to be a balance between trust and privacy,” he said.

At the same time, communication to confirm logistics — a HomeJoy cleaner or TaskRabbit worker is en route, for instance — is crucial.

“These guys are the name of the game to make that happen,” said Scott Raney, a partner at Redpoint Ventures, which led a $70 million funding round in Twilio which has $110 million in total backing. “They’re also a key part of the success of a lot of these businesses that bridge offline and online, because absent communications, you don’t have that many reliable ways to interact with your customer.”

Twilio writes software that developers can add to their code to integrate communications into their programs.

Twilio CEO and founder Jeff Lawson is an entrepreneur who has created content company, ticket service StubHub and brick-and-mortar retailer NineStar, as well as serving as a product manager at Amazon Web Services.

“I love starting companies,” he said. “Every company I started had a need to communicate better with customers or vendors.”

That was especially true for StubHub, which facilitates ticket deliveries from sellers with extra tickets to buyers, often with little time to spare before an event starts.

But building a physical network was time-consuming and costly. “Legacy industry sells forklift solutions that cost millions and take a small army of contractors 18 to 24 months to implement,” Lawson said.

That experience, as well as communication needs at his other startups, was the inspiration for Twilio. “Software-powered communications is more streamlined,” Lawson said.

Several hundred companies, from startups to Fortune 500 enterprises like Home Depot, Coca-Cola and Walmart, are customers.

Twilio’s technology powers a wide range of communications: call centers and customer support; sales (“click to call” in an app, for instance); business collaboration (such as group conference calls); market and lead management.

The “get it now” markets are a fast-growing part of the business.

“The on-demand economy is all about using technology to connect buyers and sellers, or consumers and service providers,” Lawson said.

Brian Leonard, TaskRabbit chief technology officer, summed up the need in a blog post. “Someone needs something right now; there should be a Batsignal in the sky,” he wrote.
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