Getting Developers to "Gush About How Much They Love the API"

Danielle Morrill, Twilio's API, and The Evolution of Developer First Marketing. (2009-2012) - ¡APIcryphal! 08

Today, most organizations selling software tools and services have some form of developer relations (or DevRel). However, in 2009, several interconnected industry shifts catalyzed an evolution of how software was marketed and sold to developers. At the forefront of this new approach was Danielle Morrill and her efforts to popularize the Twilio API. This is that story.

Occasionally, moments emerge in daily business, changing the course of entire industries. The API landscape is a space as molded by legend as any other. While their accuracy to actual events remains debated, these tales remain the cornerstones of hallway tracks and executive talking points. These are API's apocryphal stories - the ¡APIcryphal!

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Sometimes, there's a limit to how much I can gather while spelunking the Internet Archive. I want to thank some individuals for providing additional context to bring this piece to life. The first is Adam DuVander, who provided insight into Twilio and the role of developer evangelism in this timeframe. His book, Developer Marketing Does Not Exist, is available wherever you buy your tomes. The next thank you goes to John and Keith for their candid and clarifying perspective, without which this might have ended up being a very different piece.

Without further ado, let's move on to this month's installment.

Danielle Morrill at the 2009 Seattle 2.0 Awards, Photo by Randy Stewart, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 License


Danielle Morrill was born into a Seattle entrepreneur household and raised in what she describes as "financial precariousness". By the time she had completed high school, she had worked numerous jobs, including stablehand, McDonald’s employee, tennis club receptionist, barista, freelance website consultant, and data analyst for her father. 

It was a disagreement over how much her dad was paying her for her work that led to Morrill's first major company experience; her dad argued that she didn't have a college degree and was only doing data entry. Morrill felt that her programming wasn't being appreciated and that someone else would pay her more to do that. At an impasse over what her work was worth, Morrill searched her father's clients and landed a job with his biggest customer when she was 19 "just to make him mad". 

Shortly after that, Morrill joined a Seattle startup named Pelago. By Morrill's omission, Pelago was not good at marketing, so she jumped in to help by doing a variety of tasks. These included giving interviews to sites like Mashable and speaking at industry events. 

At one of these industry events Morrill met Jeff Lawson, one of the three Twilio co-founders. Launched in 2008, Twilio was still struggling to get traction. As Morrill tells it, she heckled Lawson as he struggled to apply a large decal to Twilio's trade show booth. Morrill then asked how much the decal cost, which Lawson admitted cost $45. Knowing that Twilio had yet to raise money, Morrill suggested that Twilio needed a marketing person to prevent Lawson from making a similar mistake in the future.  

In January 2009, after Morrill had launched a social media consulting business, Lawson asked if she'd be interested in becoming Twilio's community manager. Twilio's product was beginning to take off partly due to promises to "recreate GrandCentral's core functionality in 15 lines of code". The three founders found themselves inundated with hundreds of support requests and unable to continue devoting time to working on the core APIs. Morrill said yes, becoming Twilio's first non-founder employee.


In the 2000s, the way in which software developers learned about and obtained software was undergoing a seachange. Amazon Web Services (AWS) was formally launched in 2006 and by providing services via API, AWS (and others like it) shifted software accounting from capital expenditures (CapEx) to operating expenditures (OpEx). That is, rather than having to procure physical hardware to install within a data center (at significant, one-time expense) or sign large multi-year deals for implementation, companies launching a new software initiative could spin up a cloud-based offering, one whose monthly service fees might comfortably be covered on an employee's company card. 

Under the previous CapEx model, large enterprise software companies employed marketing and sales teams that used tactics like the "steak dinner" approach. There were also exclusive outings like rounds of golf, concert tickets, or prime seats at sporting events. During these activities, informal discussions about the organization's business needs would happen. These lavish methods created positive experiences with select points of contact within the organization -the executive leadership and contacts within the purchasing departments, not implementing developers - in an attempt to sway purchasing decisions. 

"-if you think about marketing as a big collection of people then they're barely even human, they're just a number in your database.They've got a unique identifier and you're like,'Great! That email address, I'm going to abuse the crap out of them until they pay me.' I'm serious, that's how marketers often think." - Danielle Morrill

When Danielle Morrill began at Twilio, she had much more on her mind than just answering support tickets. Morrill knew she had neither the budgets nor contacts to pursue the same enterprise software sales strategy as other larger, more established companies. Moreover, Morrill recognized that traditional marketing tactics would not work well for reaching skeptical developers who value technical accuracy above all else; inauthentic sales pitches would be quickly dismissed.

Subsequently, Morrill leveraged her previous social media marketing experience to develop an unconventional (at-the-time), developer-first approach to software marketing. This "go be friends with every developer” ethos perfectly fits with the shifting industry dynamics. Twilio's ability to bridge the software and physical worlds made for powerful experiences; someone trying Twilio for the first time would call an API, and a moment later, their mobile phone would ring. Practicing developers, newly empowered by the shift to OpEx, were now able to purchase after experiencing these influential demos. 

By taking an authentic, value-first approach explicitly tailored to developers' preferences and needs, Danielle Morrill built strong brand affinity and viral adoption. By 2012, Morrill was the Head of Twilio Marketing. With the newfound title came a dedicated DevRel team known for their iconic red track jackets - a symbol that became known as "the most trusted source of developer knowledge". As they continued the developer-centric efforts, Morrill shifted to more significant initiatives, like founding TwilioCon.

"My job is to tell a story and make sure that it resonates with people. And that story should be true. And that story is only true if it's true." - Danielle Morrill

Throughout this period, Twilio grew. So, too, did the number of companies scrambling to hire their own DevRel teams in an attempt to mimic Twilio's success. 


Apple is often credited as having the first DevRel-like program in the 1980s. However, the work done by Morrill at Twilio - alongside other companies like New Relic, EngineYard, and SendGrid - represented a significant evolution of the role. This developer-first approach included several notable differences from the traditional "steak dinner" marketing: 

Developer-Centric Approach

Focus on Developers: Traditional marketing often targets decision-makers such as executives and purchasing departments. Morrill’s focus on engaging directly with developers was unconventional, as developers were not typically seen as the primary audience for marketing efforts.

Technical Content: Morrill emphasized providing technically accurate and valuable content rather than promotional material. This approach was less about selling and more about building trust and community, which differed from the more sales-driven focus of conventional marketing.

Innovative Tactics

Hackathons and Community Engagement: Morrill’s participation in hackathons, use of developer forums, and engagement in online communities like Stack Overflow were innovative but seen as unconventional compared to traditional marketing channels such as trade shows, advertising, and direct sales.

Contests and Social Media Outreach: Using creative tactics like coding contests and leveraging social media for organic reach were less common in traditional marketing strategies, which relied more on paid media and controlled messaging.

"It's so amazing having people walk up saying they already use Twilio, and even more incredible when they gush about how much they love the API." - Danielle Morrill 

Frugality and Efficiency

Low-Budget Strategies: Morrill’s scrappy, low-budget marketing strategies might have been perceived as less professional or effective compared to high-budget campaigns typically employed by established companies.

Value-First Philosophy: Her emphasis on providing genuine value to developers without an immediate sales pitch could have been seen as lacking direct ROI, a key metric for traditional marketers.

Disruption of Established Norms

Challenge to Status Quo: Morrill’s success with her unconventional methods challenged the established marketing norms, potentially leading to resistance or skepticism from traditional marketers who were comfortable with proven, time-tested strategies.

Rapid Adaptation and Experimentation: Her willingness to rapidly adapt and experiment with new tactics contrasted with the more cautious, data-driven approaches of conventional marketing, which favored tested and predictable methods.

Cultural and Attitudinal Differences

Startup Mindset: The startup mindset of taking risks, embracing failure, and prioritizing speed over perfection often clashed with the more risk-averse, methodical approach of traditional marketing departments.

Informal and Direct Communication: Morrill’s informal, direct communication style, exemplified by her heckling of Jeff Lawson, could have been perceived as unprofessional, even brash, in more conventional marketing circles.


Event Interactions: At industry events, Morrill’s focus on direct, authentic interactions with developers might have seemed less polished than the orchestrated, formal engagements favored by traditional marketers.

Content Marketing: Her content marketing, which prioritized technical depth and developer needs over polished, broad-appeal content, likely stood in contrast to the more general and polished content typical of conventional marketing.

By making developers their primary focus, providing an excellent developer experience, and fostering a strong developer community, Twilio built massive adoption among individual developers before expanding into larger enterprise deals.


Early Twilio evangelists were generalists who were equally skilled in presenting at conferences, creating code, writing documentation, and rallying their local developer community. The functions and responsibilities were shared and ownership rotated through all of the evangelists. However, as Twilio grew, the work this group was called upon to perform also grew and that egalitarian approach proved untenable. That demanded additional role specialization and organization beyond just their stable of red jacket generalists - acute skills like Developer Experience Engineers, Developer Advocates, Community Managers, Technical Writers, and, yes, Developer Marketers. 

Further, as many companies mimicking Twilio's efforts have discovered the expensive way, 'showing up' is often not enough to build a strong developer relations program. By the time Twilio IPO'd in 2016, it was widely believed that the bottoms-up, product-led growth Morrill inspired was insufficient to achieve greater than $1 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR). As a result, even Twilio eventually embraced more traditional enterprise sales and marketing approaches.

"We invested in a sales function pretty late in the game, which I think was probably one of our biggest mistakes. Early on, I had much more of a belief that the developer and the self-service nature of developers signing up, getting started, building something, and pushing it to production was really the full extent of Twilio’s go to market. And the developer-first go to market is still the source of our strength.
"But I came to realize that you then follow it up with a more traditional B2B relationship. You want to get to know the many stakeholders inside the company, and you want to talk to them about the next problems they need solving. It helps with your cross-sell, and it also helps with your relationship as the account is getting bigger and bigger. And we’ve had to really figure out this hybrid, self-service, developer-first go to market coupled with a mature sales-driven motion. It is pretty complicated, and very few folks have done that before." - Jeff Lawson


In 2011, Forbes named Danielle Morrill one of its "30 under 30" in the Mobile/Social category. Shortly thereafter, Morrill left Twilio after being accepted into Y Combinator. While there, she worked on her startup, Referly. In 2012, Referly was funded, in part, by her former Twilio boss, Jeff Lawson. Danielle Morrill later shuttered Referly and launched Mattermark in 2014. At the time, she pitched Mattermark as "a TechCrunch killer". In 2018, Mattermark was acquired by Full Contact and Morrill moved out of the Bay Area. She currently resides in the greater Denver metro area where she continues to blog, angel invest, and work with startups, including her latest role as CEO of Groupthink

Morrill is often referred to as a member of the "Twilio mafia", or startup founders that spun out of those early Twilio employees. 

In 2021, Twilio CEO and co-founder Jeff Lawson authored the book Ask Your Developer. In the acknowledgments, Lawson thanks various people who both directly or indirectly contributed to Twilio's success. These influences range from his high school radio teacher to his various co-founders over the years. There are multiple Ashton Kutcher stories. And yet there is no mention of Morrill or her early DevRel team - those that significantly kickstarted Twilio's rise to prominence. Reading Lawson's account, you'd be forgiven for thinking Twilio's marketing story began with purchasing its first "Ask Your Developer" billboard along the San Francisco 101 - an event that didn't occur until 2015.

I started the ¡APIcryphal! series in an attempt to learn from and preserve the pivotal figures and personalities that made this space what it is. Founders are important, but they rarely operate in a vacuum. The danger of "founder worship" is that we lose insight into those that contribute critical pieces at crucial moments. History, as defined only by the "winner" (or founder, in this case), obscures the many, many people that created Twilio's early affinity. 

Twilio, with scale, changed its focus. However, that in no way should diminish the impact that Danielle Morrill and her cohort had on the Developer-First DevRel approach - an approach still practiced by many firms today. For that, she deserves more than a blanket "to all Twilions past and present" in Twilio's retelling. I can't rewrite Lawson's book. But I can use this space to highlight Morrill's story for the next generation of API developer advocates.

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