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Plivo’s CEO talks scaling a startup across continents, customer obsession, and addressing the growing but underserved business communications market

By Venky Balasubramanian

In a complex world made more difficult by constant global disruptions, business communication needs to be easy, reliable and efficient. And in a remote-first universe, such technologies are more important than ever before. 

Plivo, which began as an open source project in May 2011, is built on a straightforward ideal: Business communications should be simple. The lifeblood of all global business is the unfettered and real-time exchange of information, no matter the platform. At Plivo, we’ve scaled up over the past decade to offer technology users a variety of ways to connect and engage with their customers globally. From our early days graduating from Y Combinator in 2012, we set foundations for success that have served us well during these years of continued growth.

We’ve now expanded our core business from offering voice and messaging APIs to technology companies to an end-to-end customer engagement platform with this year’s launch of Contacto, a contact center solution that streamlines communications in the customer service function. This new SaaS offering (and more solutions to come) are part of our path to transforming and modernizing the entire spectrum of business communications one crucial function at a time. And to think it all started with a remote connection between two communications engineers more than 5,000 miles apart.

The beginnings of Plivo

I found my match on GitHub. I had an idea to disrupt the communications space by merging the worlds of web and mobile innovation with telecom and communications technology, and I wanted to see if anyone else did too. The match turned out to be Mike Ricordeau, Plivo’s co-founder and CTO, who lived in France, far away from my apartment in San Francisco. But we got to work immediately, connecting online via Gchat in early 2011, and began executing our ideas through weeklong sprints, each of us off in our own corner of the world.

We saw an opportunity to make embedded voice and messaging communications within the web and mobile apps accessible to regular developers. That’s how the open source version of Plivo started. Today, businesses use our solution for a broad range of purposes, from two-factor authentication and phone number verification to communicating with their customers through alerts and notifications. Retailers also use Plivo to create loyalty marketing campaigns, seamlessly checking in with their customers using our system. 

But in those days, Plivo had no use cases. We were selling the vision, but we hadn’t created anything yet. Many companies take a build-it-and-they-will-come approach to product development, which leads to their building features that customers don’t really need. Luckily, we never had that problem. At a communications conference in Chicago in August 2011 (where, incidentally, Mike and I finally met face to face), a prospective customer told us, “Put it on the cloud and we’ll pay for it.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Drawing on our expertise in the communications space, we were able to create a tailored solution to solve for the customer’s needs. Looking back, there wasn’t any other way to do it.    

Build a customer-first culture

Keeping customers at the heart of the business has been our policy from day one, but as a business grows and customers keep signing up, it gets exponentially more difficult. Maintaining a customer-first culture starts with establishing and reinforcing your values in the early days — from articulating to your workforce the importance of the customer to executing internally and externally, across all functions, with the customer top of mind. 

We were intentional about our customer-first culture, but we didn’t enumerate customer-focused values for Plivo’s first three or four years. It’s important, though, at some point to make sure everyone is on the same page, and writing these things down always helps.  

Customer is king, but pay attention to the business metrics

Another necessity for any successful business? Ensure that the business metrics and fundamentals are solid. Back in 2013-2014, Plivo was growing quickly. Mike and I had our heads buried in product and customer service. We were getting new customers and they were happy, so I assumed our finances reflected that. I was wrong. We missed the details on a critical financial metric, and we were so near failure that it took a vigorous 60-day plan to get things back on track. 

Over time, our customers owed us more than what we were paying our vendors, as a lot of customers were on postpaid plans. Nobody in the business was focused on ensuring healthy cash flow. I was focused on the product, and Mike was deep into the technology. That situation taught us that focusing on the customer didn’t mean we could neglect other parts of the business. We had to rearchitect the financial side of our business, convert our customers to prepaid, and renegotiate vendor payment timelines to make sure Plivo could achieve an optimal cash flow situation quickly.

While that experience is the most extreme example, Mike and I have seen a lot of ups and downs with Plivo, and that’s how we’ve learned what works for our customers, our company, and most importantly, ourselves as leaders of a business. I could not have foreseen some of these issues when we were at Y Combinator, fueled by bowls of ramen and dumplings as we wrote code late into the night to prepare for meetings early the next morning. That Y Combinator experience also taught me that you can have the greatest and smartest ideas and the skills to back them up, but you also need a great work ethic that helps you execute your plans to compete with the smartest folks around. You have to work both smart and hard — just one or the other isn’t an option.  

While we’re on the topic of finances, one of the most important conversations to have as founders is around capital to grow the business. Founders can either bootstrap their businesses or raise external capital. Plivo got to where it is today without relying on a lot of venture capital. This was not a personal decision on our part; it was more driven by our business goals and our execution plans. I’ve learned that, when deciding to take a funding round, founders should think about why they need to raise capital. If you have a path and a plan that you can achieve without investors, go for it. If outside money will help grow the business faster while still ensuring good fundamentals, then fundraising may be a good option. 

Simplifying business communications      

Over the years, Plivo has focused on the mission of simplifying business communications. We’ve been successful in executing that mission for thousands of happy customers across the globe, from Fortune 500 businesses to hobby developers. 

While we continue to grow our core business, which is an API platform for technical teams, we’re also pushing to innovate and identify other logical areas of growth. For us, that means packaged solutions for nontechnical teams that functionally challenge the status quo of their respective markets and are built on Plivo’s global communications platform. 

In mid-2021, we entered the $20+ billion contact center operations market with our first solution, Contacto. Contacto is an omnichannel, cloud-based contact center for the customer service industry built on our own platform, which handles more than 1 billion transactions per month. Contacto enables customer service teams to exceed customer expectations by providing a single pane of glass for agents, integrating with the technologies they already use.

Contacto is disrupting the space by providing B2C companies, like food delivery and ecommerce operations, with a customized yet powerful solution to challenge the status quo in a fast-growing space. For agents, that’s a unified agent desktop that allows them to see and manage the entire customer journey in one place with touchpoints and contextual timelines built into the UI. For managers, that’s full visibility into the productivity and execution from their agents in order to identify areas of opportunity and provide coaching. For customers, that’s a seamless, mobile-first experience that gets them what they need, when they need it, on the devices they require.

Following where the market is heading and meeting customer demand, we have two more solutions coming up for sales and marketing teams over the next 12 months. 

Profitable, customer-obsessed, and in control of our own destiny

Plivo has been profitable since 2016 and has grown to more than 250 employees globally. To get there, we listened to our customers, saw where the market was heading, and stayed true to the business life lessons we learned early in our journey. That’s worked for us so far, and we’re set to grow as the industry continues to expand, keeping our customers front and center along the way.