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Aaron Levie, CEO, Box: "We're going to compete aggressively with"

11th Oct 2012
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Aaron Levie, CEO and founder of content collaboration provider Box, explains how he grew his firm into a billion dollar business - and how he'll tackle's rival offering ChatterBox.

Ask Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to name his favourite entrepreneur and he’ll cite Aaron Levie for the simple reason that “He's giving options to folks that usually don't have any: enterprise... and he's funny.”

On the latter point, there would be little argument. A regular on industry panels and always decked out in sneakers with his suit, Levie has a reputation for endearing unpredictability that reflects his individualism. “I say a lot of things and don’t always remember,” he chuckles when asked what he meant by a particular remark he made last month.
Levie is the 27-year old CEO and founder of Box, the Cloud Computing content collaboration provider that reads like the archetypal Silicon Valley start-up story. Founded in a college bedroom in 2005 (allegedly on the proceeds of an online gambling win!), the firm has raised over $265m in venture capitalist funding, with analysts now valuing it at around $1.5bn.
Box has also gone from being perceived as essentially a consumer play to being a competitor in the enterprise computing market with Microsoft firmly in its sights. It’s also expanding globally with plans to expand its footprint in Europe next year. A head of Europe has been appointed and Levie expects to see up to 100 staffers join him over the next 12 months.
Box was initially promoted to both businesses and consumers, but with an eye on the consumer space. But enterprise customers found the product and began asking for additional business functionality that they were willing to pay for. So the shift towards the enterprise focus kicked in and Box can now boast more than 120,000 business customers, including P&G, Coca Cola and Pandora.
“We certainly woke up to the fact that we had a huge opportunity in the enterprise,” recalls Levie. “Customers were bringing us into their organisations but needed to become more methodical. We had some very forward-thinking customers and they showed us this amazing path. We didn’t think when we started that we were going to be competing with Microsoft Sharepoint, but the customers showed us that they weren’t going with those companies.”
The right platform?
But how easy is it to convince an enterprise CIO to take a Cloud start-up like Box seriously? A lot of successful Cloud firms – such as – have taken a ‘land and expand’ approach whereby a line of business person will download an instance at departmental level or for a specific project and the ‘installation’ grows out from there.
“It’s easy to look back and think that it was easier than it was,” admits Levie. “Two years ago it was still hard to convince CIOs that the Cloud was the best platform to have this sort of technology on. But if they looked out at the type of technology that they wanted out there in the hands of their employees, this was the best type of technology for them.
“We have a significant competitive advantage in that we focus on how to develop a product that users want to have inside an organisation, but which is secure enough for CIOs to meet their regulatory and compliance needs. It’s really two worlds. How do we solve end user problems, but still create something scalable and secure.
“We also benefitted from the success of firms like Workday and who have worked hard to educate the market about Cloud Computing. So if you fast-forward to today, we have a significant amount of traction now and we are able to respond to enterprise CIO demand.”
Co-opetition runs rampant?
Mention of brings up a new twist in the tale. The Cloud CRM market leader has been a great supporter of Box, to the extent of taking a financial stake in the firm. But at the recent Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, CEO Marc Benioff announced what can surely only be seen as a competitive offering to Box in the form of ChatterBox – an offering pitched by the firm as “Dropbox for the enterprise’.
All of which begs the question: isn’t that what Box is supposed to be? “There’s no law that says there’s only one Dropbox for the enterprise,” laughs Levie. “What Chatter offers is obviously very relevant for users who want to share files within the Chatter experience, but those files don’t synchronise with the desktop. We think that content management and collaboration around data need their own independent platform.
“So you might be using or NetSuite or any variety of enterprise software, but you want your content to be available across all of those platforms. It doesn’t make sense for the content to be locked in one specific application. So we work with all of the providers and all of the data. That’s our fundamental product strategy. As for ChatterBox, it’s 6-9 months away – and we’re going to compete very aggressively.”
Demanding more immediate attention are Box’s recent announcements regarding speed and security. On the first point, the firm recently announced Box Accelerator to improve the response times the Box users enjoy. “It’s been a pain point for years,” says Levie. “For everything in the Cloud, the one challenge is that you have to use the public internet to move data back and forth. So what we asked is how to get data from London or Australia to Box in the US as fast as is physically possible across the internet.
“So we’ve put up a bunch of edge nodes at various points across the world to accelerate the data back to California. As a result we’ve seen uploads of up to ten times faster than our competitors and that can alleviate a massive challenge to our customers.”
“Security tends to be a huge competitive advantage for us,” argues Levie. “So we’ve introduced two factor authentication for all of our customers as well as a new set of security APIs to allow customers to build their own security levels and needs into Box. Different sectors have different regulatory needs and customers tend to be very focused on and limited by the regulatory environment in which they operate. What we want to do is to make sure our customers can take advantage of the Cloud while best meeting compliance requirements. We’re enabling them to build integration with any other security technologies in such a way that make most sense to them their business.”

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