Aaron Levie knew before most forecasters: It's cloudy in Silicon Valley. As the co-founder of Box.net, a platform he built in college to share and access digital files in the cloud, the 25-year-old CEO has taken on corporate behemoths such as Amazon and Microsoft.
And business is booming. Since the start of 2010, the company's workforce has bloomed 85% to 120 employees; revenues are projected to triple from last year; and the service now boasts more than 4.5 million users and 60,000 client companies, including Dell, T-Mobile, Panasonic, and MTV. Currently, Box.net serves around 500,000,000 files annually—or about 600 terabytes of data.
We caught up with Levie, who discussed his inspiration from Steve Jobs, support from Mark Cuban, and why he dropped out of college.
What is your big idea?
The big idea behind Box is that sharing data in the enterprise is very, very difficult today. If you can think of all the people you work and collaborate with on a regular basis, and all the data you create, the software didn't make that very easy. We have things like Microsoft SharePoint, which is very complicated. But now with the cloud, we can solve these problems like never before. We can finally build really simple solutions for the enterprise that are incredibly cost-effective for any size business.
What was the inspiration behind your idea?
We were in college at the time—it was in 2005. It was very, very difficult even then to just share documents or PowerPoint presentations. It was very obvious that there had to be a better way to do this. That's when we decided to develop Box.
You were also interning at Miramax in college, right?
Damn, you know too much!
Ha, sorry. How did you turn from intern at Miramax to founder of Box?
I was initially interested in the cross-section of media, entertainment, and technology. I interned at Miramax and subsequently at Paramount because I was really curious about the future of entertainment—how were we going to get films online? While the inspiration for Box didn't come from that experience directly, it was very obvious that bigger businesses had a lot of slow processes and cumbersome technology.
My co-founder was at Duke at the time. I was at USC. We grew up together in Seattle. When we started developing Box, it just started to click. It's funny: We now actually have a large part of the entertainment industry using Box for media collaboration, from record labels sharing media assets to networks for television footage.
When did it click? What was the first milestone you reached when you knew that it was going to work?
It really clicked that this was a big opportunity when we received an angel investment from Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He was really excited, and that helped encourage us to become more serious about the operation—so serious that we left school to work on Box full-time.
My co-founder Dylan Smith and I left our junior year of college to move to the Bay Area. To the horror of our friends' parents, we actually had two other friends drop out of college to work on the product. The four of us were just working non-stop growing Box.
Dropping out of school to start one's own business is a complicated decision that many young entrepreneurs face. How did you come to terms with that decision? VC Mark Suster recommends JFDI. What is your advice to others facing this dilemma?
My acronym is WWSJD: What Would Steve Jobs Do? We realized that this was way bigger than ourselves. There is going to be a massive transition to the cloud. There's going to be so much opportunity in the enterprise. It really felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity.
As soon as we weighed that against, well, going to class every day, the choice was very obvious. At least for me. I was never the most studious person. I felt this was our time to capture the next computing wave, and I didn't want to look back and realize we'd missed that opportunity.
What do your parents do? Were they hesitant about you dropping out?
My dad is a chemical engineer, and my mom was a teacher. They were pretty serious about education, but I always thought about things a little bit differently.
Did you have a favorite class or professor in college, or was school just not for you?
I am pro-education, by the way. Let that be clear. But yes, there was a marketing class. It was great because one of its components was to do a research project on any kind of digital technology space. So I chose online storage and the cloud, and I actually ended up doubling up on work for Box.
Box has grown tremendously. Is there any other company or CEO you look to as a model to guide you?
It's hard to point to one single company or individual. Companies like DreamWorks for the products they put out. Steve Jobs is really great at delivering great products and experiences, too. While some of the business practices of Larry Ellison are obviously controversial, the sheer results and execution of Oracle is amazing.
For inspiration, I guess there's a little bit of Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison.
I don't mean to put you on the spot—
—I'm not single.
Ha. If you had 60 seconds with President Obama what would you tell him or ask him?
I try not to be too political because much of this feels out of my hands. The issues that face us that are politically relevant are education and immigration reform. We can't invest enough in education. I'm certainly no libertarian when it comes to this. It's not a cliché to say that we are absolutely competing on a world stage with countries that are way ahead of us in terms of science and research.
I think immigration reform is also important. We need to have more talented people able to come here. We do a lot of hiring—a number of our engineers are from France, India, and China. They work out of Palo Alto and get to come to school here. We want to encourage the best talent to come here as well as producing that top talent ourselves.
What would you be doing if you didn't start a cloud computing company?
Yeah, well, I'd probably start a cloud computing company.