Aaron Levie's Vertical Play at Box

In his unique way, the effervescent Box CEO is taking a classic software approach to build vertical industry support

Rather like a tour appearance by Bob Dylan, who he resembles in some ways, a visit by Aaron Levie has become an irregular event to be anticipated and enjoyed by assembled throngs of customers, peers, partners, press and others, many of whom gather, you feel, to touch the hem off the man’s garment as much as anything else. With stars like Jobs, Ballmer, Gates and Ellison having burned out or faded, Levie is perhaps the hottest tech leader ticket in town for entertainment value.

The Box CEO was in London again this week for Business Without Boundaries, an event that saw the collaborative sync/store/save/share platform company detail a big new deployment at Oxfam, and UK utility giant BG announce itself as an imminent new customer.

But Levie, as ever, was the star of the show. A Pied Piper for the cloud age, he was his usual study in perpetual motion, filling the milliseconds between rat-a-tat-tat argument with quips, asides and other filling devices while all the time performing a coruscating set of gestural and behavioural tics.

Into this category I counted: twisting his bird’s nest curls; fingers being jammed to the eyes as Optrex substitute; waltz-like circling of the floor; windmilling arms that would make him a liability in the glassware department  of a store; hands being stuffed deep into the drainpipe trousers that end with blue trainers; gum chewing; Red Bull and water alternate gulping; equally emphatic nodding and shaking of the head; nose scratching; shuffling of an invisible Rubik cube; casting a fishing line; hooking his finger in the style of cricket umpire Billy Bowden giving a batsman ‘out’; fingers sprawled downwards as if to make an incy-wincy spider; throwing a basketball dummy pass; the thumb extended for emphasis; holding a mic with extended arm like Jim Morrison, and many, many more.

All of this makes him a compelling performer and attractive personality. An Italian journalist even asks for a photo with him… has there ever been a CEO with such a fund of goodwill among the media? And even with that yearned-for IPO still in the future tense, Levie has lots to talk about in a Q&A session with journalists.

“There’s been a lot of interesting noise and craziness around our space a little bit,” he begins.

You could say that, what with the xBoxes of Dropbox and Box leading a cast of thousands attempting to reshape the way we share information. Box alone can now count 240,000 business and 99% of the Fortune 100. (He later jokes that when Microsoft signs on the dotted line the album will be complete.)

One notable recent push has been into verticals, an effort the company calls Box for Industries. This move was accelerated recently in healthcare with an agreement to buy HTML5/cloud-based medical imaging/workflow/annotation software company MedXT.

Levie said similar deals could follow as Box drives deeper into media, financial services and so on, backed up by system integrators and other channel partners who hold the calling cards to gain access to the biggest players. It’s an old enterprise software trick but building up a virtuous circle of customers across a vertical and then making your tools the de facto standard is a very sensible idea when the challenge is to achieve stickiness.

Box’s entry point to prospects is an interesting area. Should Box sales executives be selling to the CMO, CIO, CTO, chief strategy officer or some new-fangled role like the chief digital officer or, Lord forbid, chief innovation officer?

“The CIO role is having to evolve quite dramatically from managing core ERP, email and run-the-business apps,” Levie argues, “and all of a sudden you have a blue-chip customer where more and more of their business is being digitised and the CIO is the only role in the co that can build out the services and capabilities to support those [necessary changes].”

For those caught up in the maelstrom of change, it’s a case of do or die, sink or swim. If you’re selling cars then self-driving vehicles are around the corner; if you’re a retailer than omnichannel is for sale, and so on. So whether the role is “a layer on top of that” like a CDO, or just an extension of the CIO remit, the change in the air is almost palpable.

The headline ‘news’ of Dropbox login details being captured (Dropbox denied this, saying it was other login details being used on Dropbox accounts) on the day Levie is speaking in London appeared a gift but Levie spurned the opportunity for cheap knocks.

“The vigilance you need is incredibly important and Dropbox’s statement is pretty clear on the matter. With a lot of these services you’re at the mercy of the weakest link. [We believe users should] plug into single sign-on and encourage use of two-factor authentication.”

Finally, after a discussion that references Amazon’s “pretty horrible” Fire phone, to a response about competitors, he names Microsoft as perhaps his biggest foe as companies “re-platform” from old-school enterprise content management systems like EMC’s Documentum.

With Google that’s surely right. Having invested so heavily to give his company a shot at competing with the biggest companies in the world, it’s still too early to say whether Box will still be duking it out with these heavyweights in a few years’ time or whether it will succumb and become part of one of them. But the ride, 10 years in now, has been exciting and, at 29, Aaron Levie remains a luminous figurehead for the company he represents, pulling in support and faith from all angles in a uniquely distinctive manner.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect