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Founder Interviews: Robert Vis of MessageBird

After struggling to find a reliable text communication solution for his previous startup, Robert and his team decided to build it themselves. They have since gone on to raise a $60 million Series A, and currently work with customers like Uber, Telegram, and Domino’s.

Davis Baer: What’s your background and what are you building?

The short answer is I’m an entrepreneur and founder from a relatively small city (Amsterdam) in a relatively small country (the Netherlands) who was always encouraged to think big.

The longer answer is MessageBird was a big idea that started small with just a handful of friends in a garage in Amsterdam. Before we founded MessageBird in 2011, we ran ZayPay — a payments platform that let users pay for goods through their mobile phone bills in more than 50 countries. To do that, we needed to verify phone numbers via text message, but the market leader at that time was unreliable. Messages were lost or not delivered on time, and it was costing us revenue. So, our team decided to build our own technology stack in-house and integrate directly with the leading carrier in the Netherlands. At the time, that was something only big companies like Nokia or Ericsson were doing. But, despite our size, we were really ambitious and, frankly, hell-bent on giving it a shot ourselves. It just seemed logical to us — if you really want to innovate, you have to own the base-level infrastructure. To this day, I think that’s the reason why engineers and developers are drawn to working for MessageBird — they get to roll up their sleeves and challenge themselves by digging into sophisticated, intricate, complex technology.

The technology we built worked so well, that former vendor became our first client. Flash-forward seven years, and now the business we launched with just a handful of employees and a couple of customers has grown into a global operation — with seven offices worldwide, more than 15,000 customers — including Uber, SAP, Google — and integrations with companies like WhatsApp and WeChat.

What are you working on now?

Today, we are building a platform that is modernizing communications and making it possible for consumers to communicate with businesses the same way they do with their friends and family — via their favorite communications channels, on their own timeframes, and with all of the context of previous conversations.

Apps, SMS, and messaging channels have come a long way in streamlining the customer experience. From alerts and notifications to two-factor security authentication, there’s so much we can do at our fingertips, at the touch of a button, whenever we want and wherever we happen to be. But, when we look at how communications is evolving, we’re at day one of what’s possible.

Today, we’re helping companies reduce friction between communications channels — so that consumers don’t have to move back-and-forth between texts, calls, apps and websites. That’s why we created Programmable Conversations, an API that brings together customer interactions across multiple channels into a single conversation thread — so businesses can connect with their customers on whichever channel the customer prefers, whether that’s WeChat, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, SMS and voice. It really makes for a better experience all around. And, with advancements in AI, machine learning and rich communications services, it’s only the beginning of what we’ll be able to do.

How have you attracted users?

We listen to our customers and work quickly to innovate what they need, both now and in the future. The way we look at it, the success of any enterprise hinges on the speed of communication. Our customers have to keep up. It’s our job to see around the bend to give them an agile platform that lets them prepare for what’s coming next.

We’re also mindful of the demands placed on developers today. We know how much is asked of them. So we’ve architected our platform with already-overburdened developers in mind — taking on the heavy technical lifting to free up their time and resources. It’s also why we’ve focused on the underlying infrastructure, instead of solely on features. As a result, enterprises Uber and Google rely on us as they go global. Our piping enables smooth in-app business communication. We don’t rely on a web of intertangled connections between carriers, gateways, resellers and aggregators to deliver messages. We own the full stack. Because we’re uniquely equipped to deal with geographic complexities, enterprises — and, by extension, developers — don’t have to rely on middlemen, or run into issues with communication, deliverability and cost at each handoff when they do business across borders.

How has your approach to growing the business evolved over the years, both in terms of revenue and scaling your workforce?

I think, for any founder, there’s nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of explosive growth. Especially in the beginning, when you’re bringing on new talent, inking new deals across the globe, and driving forward with new ideas, you feel like nothing can slow you down.

At MessageBird, I think we’ve done a good job of avoiding what I like to call the “too fast, too furious” approach to scale. Even as a company that did business beyond borders from the start, with customers and employees spanning the globe, we staffed and spent based on business need — staying as lean as possible for as long as possible, without sacrificing service and support. That’s how we were able to bootstrap profitably for six years before taking on any outside funding whatsoever.

When we decided to take on our first round, which turned out to be the largest Series A ever secured by a European software company, we weren’t just a crop of aspiring entrepreneurs armed only with an idea and opportunity. Our business was already battle-tested. We were ready, because we knew we had built a sustainable business model that would scale as we accelerated our adoption and revved up our global footprint even further.

MessageBird’s website

Many startup founders view proximity to Silicon Valley as a must, in terms of networking, funding, and exposure. But you were founded in Amsterdam. Would you consider your geography a challenge or an advantage?

It’s interesting. When it comes to tech, there’s this pervasive point of view that Silicon Valley is this mecca, way out in the distance, that everyone sees as the end-all, be-all of the tech ecosystem. And it’s easy to see why. Silicon Valley thinks big. It’s bold, It embraces ideas. And, all of that is supported by a depth of knowledge and a well of resources. It’s an incredibly inspiring place, but I can also understand how it could make some founders feel isolated. Especially when you’re based in Europe and just starting out, Silicon Valley can feel very far away and out of reach.

But, as the CEO of a company that has dual headquarters in both the San Francisco and Amsterdam, I have (forgive the pun here) a bird’s eye view of the differences between the two. And, from what I can tell, as the world becomes more connected, there’s less of a need for a centralized hub of tech power.

For MessageBird specifically, I believe we’re successful because of where we were founded, both in terms of our customer base and our workforce. We’re not “one-size-fits-all” because we can’t afford to be. For us, it’s not just about winning Silicon Valley. It’s about winning the world.

After all, travel two hours in any direction from Amsterdam, and you’re in a different country, with its own language, culture, regulations and policies. To gain ground and make any kind of meaningful traction, we had to do business beyond borders from day one. That means we’ve had to approach business with a global mindset from the start, instead of viewing it as an afterthought. We’re not just dealing with one country’s government and one language; we’ve dealt with fragmented regulations that come with the geographic complexities from operating in multiple countries from the very start. We’re also inherently diverse as a workforce, with nearly 200 employees from more than 30 countries who speak 20+ languages. It has made us stronger as an organization and gives us an edge when serving the diverse needs of our global customers.

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

Think big. Make sure you’re scaling your ideas as you scale your workforce and your business.

Where can we go to learn more?

Feel free to check out our website and have a look at our blog. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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