Every day, I see firsthand the power of a workforce driven by diversity of thought. Our global workforce is made up of nearly 200 employees hailing from 30+ countries, who speak 20+ languages. Every meeting, every decision, and every product is driven by people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. And we’re all the better for it. That’s why, when I think about building a powerful movement, I tend to think big about encouraging unconventional paths to success within our workforce. To me, success — particularly in tech — shouldn’t be cookie-cutter. Power and opportunity shouldn’t belong to a narrow pipeline of people who were fortunate enough to have enrolled in a handful of elite universities. In our growing knowledge economy, as the world becomes more connected, we need diversity of thought. And, I believe the only way to achieve it is by making education more accessible and equitable. The way I see it, access to knowledge should be open to everyone. That’s why I’m so interested in exploring a shift towards open-source education, where anyone, anywhere — especially underrepresented or non-traditional groups of students — has the opportunity to become lifelong learners.
I had the pleasure to interview Robert Vis. Robert is the CEO of MessageBird, the Amsterdam-based cloud communications platform that offers a suite of APIs to connect developers and enterprises with customers in virtually every corner of the planet.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
For me, the thrill of being a founder is recognizing an opportunity when you spot one, and putting together a team quickly to jump on it. That’s exactly what happened when we launched MessageBird.
Before we founded the company in 2011, I was the co-founder of ZayPay — a mobile payments platform that allowed users to pay for goods via their mobile phone bills in more than 50 countries. We wanted to verify phone numbers via text message, but the market leader at that time was unreliable and it was costing us revenue; messages were lost or not delivered on time. So, our team decided to build our own technology stack in-house and integrate directly with the leading carrier in the Netherlands — which, at the time, was something only big companies like Nokia or Ericsson were doing. Back then, I was thinking of solving my business problem and wasn’t focused on the longer-term opportunity. I didn’t know what we were building would morph into cloud communications — a space that is set to have an enormous impact on how businesses are communicating with their customers. We were just a young and scrappy team who saw a problem, and decided to fix it ourselves.
It turned out, the technology we built worked so well, we wound up taking our business away from that market leading vendor. And, weeks later, that vendor became our first client. That’s how MessageBird came to be. Flash-forward seven years, and now, that business we launched in a garage with just a handful of employees and a couple of customers has transformed into a global operation — with seven offices worldwide, more than 15,000 customers — including Uber, SAP, and Google, — and integrations with companies like WhatsApp and WeChat.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
At MessageBird, what excites me every day is thinking of ways to make communication more intuitive, convenient and streamlined, not just for businesses, but for consumers. I like to think we’ve created an environment at MessageBird where our team wakes up every morning, comes to work, and thinks, “wouldn’t it be great if …” and goes from there. That’s how our most exciting projects are built.
Right now, the top-of-mind question driving our work is “wouldn’t it be great if consumers could communicate with businesses the way they chat with their friends?” To make that happen, we’re breaking down the boundaries of mobile business messaging as we know it. Right now, consumers view the friction between communications channels as unavoidable. They sigh or roll their eyes as they move back-and-forth between texts, calls, apps, and websites, but they do it anyway because there’s no other option. To reduce that friction, we created Programmable Conversations API, which weaves customer interactions across multiple channels into a single conversation thread — so businesses connect with their customers via WeChat, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, SMS and voice. And, they do so with all the context of previous conversations. It really makes for a far better customer experience — the kind that builds brand loyalty and keeps customers coming back. And, with advancements in AI, machine learning and rich communications services, it’s only the beginning of what we’ll be able to do.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
MessageBird is based in the Netherlands, which is a relatively small country. Maybe that’s why I find myself most inspired by people who think big. Thinking back on it now, it would have been easy for our founding team to keep the business contained to our home country and surrounding areas. But, we thought global from the start — building a strong, sustainable business that extended beyond borders from the very beginning. Our ambition has connected us with some incredible people who also think big — like our venture capital partners at Accel and Atomico. They’ve been invaluable as we’ve scaled up from a startup to a global company.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In business, the quote that resonates the most with me is from Michael Seibel, partner and CEO at Y Combinator. MessageBird was the latest-stage company to go through the Y Combinator program. By the time we joined, we had already been bootstrapping, profitably, for nearly six years. We weren’t the usual crop of bright-eyed idealists armed only with an idea and an opportunity. Our business had been battle-tested already. That’s why it was so refreshing to hear Michael tell our class, “Ideas are one thing. Traction is another. It’s a myth that ideas are what’s important. You’re judged on execution. You have to be able to execute your vision.” Hearing Michael say those words to me reinforced that — even though our path to Silicon Valley as a startup wasn’t the most conventional — we were on the right track, and focused on the right things: building a business we believed in, that we knew could scale.
In business and in life, the quote I live by is “don’t be a jerk.” Actually, the language I generally use there is stronger, but since this is in print, we’ll go with “jerk.” Silicon Valley is full of incredibly smart, ambitious people with glowing resumes and infinite bragging rights. But that doesn’t mean that bragging, boasting or being condescending is the way to get ahead. Humility will take you further in the long run, every time.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Every day at MessageBird, I see firsthand the power of a workforce driven by diversity of thought. Our global workforce is made up of nearly 200 employees hailing from 30+ countries, who speak 20+ languages. Every meeting, every decision, and every product is driven by people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. And we’re all the better for it.
That’s why, when I think about building a powerful movement, I tend to think big about encouraging unconventional paths to success within our workforce. To me, success — particularly in tech — shouldn’t be cookie-cutter. Power and opportunity shouldn’t belong to a narrow pipeline of people who were fortunate enough to have enrolled in a handful of elite universities. In our growing knowledge economy, as the world becomes more connected, we need diversity of thought. And, I believe the only way to achieve it is by making education more accessible and equitable. The way I see it, access to knowledge should be open to everyone. That’s why I’m so interested in exploring a shift towards open-source education, where anyone, anywhere — especially underrepresented or non-traditional groups of students — have the opportunity become lifelong learners.
What do you think are the new untapped markets in China that may become the next “big thing”?
MessageBird was the first communications platform to secure direct access to Chinese telecoms carriers. Our technology provides connectivity to international companies and brands doing business in China, and also enables Chinese companies, such as WeChat, to connect with customers around the world. Like most ambitious international companies, we see the biggest untapped opportunity as breaking into China’s domestic market, both in terms of its market size and the potential for growth.
But, in the meantime, our priority in China is focused on ensuring reliable, speedy communication across China’s borders. It’s something MessageBird is uniquely positioned to do. Operationally, we’ve approached our business with a global mindset from the start, instead of looking at international expansion as an afterthought. That means we’re really good at dealing with geographic complexities, infrastructure differences, fragmented policies and the diverse needs of our global customer base. Being able to provide reliable, speedy service beyond borders is what gives us an edge over our competition. We’re optimized for globalization.
What challenges does that new market face? How would you address it? Can you share the top challenges of doing business in China and how you overcame them?
As the fastest-growing major economy in the world, China offers vast business opportunities for international companies. For businesses operating or growing their business in China, the most common hurdles are navigating the role of government in business dealings and negotiations; understanding cultural differences, especially related to business customs and practices; and being agile enough to adjust to the pace of business, including thorough vetting processes.
To make inroads successfully into China, international companies must be thoughtful and intentional as they navigate the complexities that arise from China’s unique political, cultural and business climate. During our travels to China over the years, I’ve come to realize our success there has hinged on the concept of guanxi. Translated to English, guanxi equates to the strength of your relationships, and the patience you have to build them. At MessageBird, we’ve invested in our relationships there by opening a global office and business entity in Shanghai, which will enable us to build a hub where we can cultivate relationships and integrate ourselves into the business ecosystem.
We keep hearing about the “Trade War”. What are your thoughts about it? Given the unknowns, how do you plan to pivot?
As a company based in Europe, with outposts in both the US and China, we are actively monitoring the ongoing back-and-forth between the two countries. So far, it’s a fluid situation that, for the time being, has far greater impact on hardware and consumer goods than it does on software. As a result, by and large, we view the current climate as a test of our platform’s agility and our ability to be flexible when unforeseen or unexpected challenges arise. Because we’ve dealt with highly fragmented markets and geographic complexities from the get-go, we’ve architected our business, and our platform, to be resilient.