aaron-levie-headshot-crop
Cloud Computing

Martin Veitch (Global) - Box CEO Aaron Levie Is Building an Enterprise B2B Powerhouse out of Cash and Chutzpah

Aaron Levie sits at the centre of the table in a private room of a smart London hotel, encircled by a congregation of press. His hair, a mop of curls that brings to mind the young Bob Dylan, gets a regular further twisting from his fidgety hands; he is rake thin, laughs easily and often, and he looks like his smart shirt and jacket wouldn’t be his regular choice of attire if he had his druthers. Despite this possible coercion in dress, he is, for now at least, on the road to becoming one of the new Silicon Valley masters of the universe, cushioned by about $300m in VC funds.

As with others that are feted, rumours, myths and half-truths swirl around Levie. He is 26, 27 or 28 depending on to whom you listen. He sits neither drinking nor eating while journalists fork down expensive food at the Cumberland Hotel in central London where his company is running a user conference; the whispered word is that he hardly eats, or at least not during the day. It has been said that he rises at 10.30 and sleeps at 3am but your reporter is breathlessly informed by a peer that he only sleeps two hours per night. During the course of the discussion he casually refers to having run startups since he was 12; yes, 12, an age where most boys are thinking more about girls and games than enterprises and entrepreneurialism. All of which is just fluff and peripheral to the central fact that Box, the enterprise storage and collaboration software company he founded and leads, is very hot and getting hotter.

Box is relatively mature, given the tendency of Valley startups to become part of the furniture by the age of about three years old. It was founded in 2005 as a consumer-grade service but made the switch to focus on enterprise a couple of years later, since which time the company has raked in investment left, right and centre. Its mission: to build a cloud content management system that lets corporate users share and swap documents regardless of the computing platform they are on. It’s a concept that is slap bang in the buzzword-crammed zeitgeist that Levie describes well:

“We’re moving from a world where you have monolithic systems to a world where you have best-of-breed systems, and open systems and cloud services let them work together. Imagine a world where IT is no longer a scarce resource but instead you have infinite capacity and ability to support and integrate vendors that don’t usually work together.”

At a time when platform wars are raging between Apple, Microsoft, Google and many others, Box wants to be Switzerland, a neutral state that offers free passports out of incompatibilities and versioning hell without users needing much if anything in the way of formal training.

Conveniently, Box has a living case study present: Herve Coureil, CIO of French energy management company Schneider Electric, which is embarking on a 50,000-seat Box deployment.

“Consumerisation of IT was happening to us with people bringing in all sorts of systems from the consumer world and we had very little control over that and all the usual concerns,” he says. “What happens if the person leaves the company? What happens if you delete the document, and did you really delete it? We’d done a lot of acquisitions so we were trying to make all the systems work together without having to replace everything.”

Coureil found Box to be “federated without being too heavy” and a way to ensure flexibility without compromising security or order. Fast-forward to today and he says that ‘Box’ has become a verb at Schneider. “People say ‘I’m going to Box that in the morning’.”

From Hoover to Xerox to Google, you know that you have something when that happens…

Create a Venn diagram of what’s hot in tech today - cloud, social, collaboration, mobile – and Box would be in most of the overlaps. Levie sees Box as part of the new wave of companies with NetSuite, Salesforce.com, Workday, Tibco and Jive, providing flexible, user-centric services. Just like those companies (at least when they were starting out), he knows that if Box isn’t satisfying the customer then the customer can quite easily bin the supplier, so a key metric to measure Box’s progress is growth in number of seats. Currently, he says, Box is seeing year-on-year growth of about 40 per cent in companies where it has established a foothold.

Of course, as with any company that is gaining traction with customers such as P&G, the BBC, Telefonica and EMI Music, Box is under siege. The threats come from the industry heavyweights such as EMC, Oracle, Microsoft and NetApp as well as the consumer players. Perhaps the most discussed challenges come from Dropbox and Salesforce.com’s Chatterbox (due to pilot in the next few months), creating a battle of the ‘xBoxes’, if you like.

But Levie thinks that by staying focused, he has the best possible chance of defending his turf.

“Marc [Benioff] doesn’t email me on the latest details of Chatterbox but now they’re a ‘customer company’, this is a lower priority,” he says, referring archly to Salesforce’s latest rebranding.

Signs of Levie’s vaulting ambition are everywhere. Box is already taking stakes in companies it sees as promising and complementary via a relationship with Seedcamp. It is growing its EMEA power base with a central London office that will eventually house 150 staff, opening a datacentre in Dublin and planning for more in Asia with Japan a possible site. It's talking to the likes of Accenture, Capgemini and Appirio about deployment services and hiring rising stars of the industry like Sam Schillace of Google Apps fame. And of course there’s the eternal question of when Box will stage an IPO: it’s a few quarters away seems to be the answer.

Will Aaron Levie be an overreacher who burns through a vast cash hoard or the Next Big Thing in business tech? The jury’s out but if he fails it won’t be though lack of chutzpah, and even then you suspect he’ll be back, starting over again.

PREVIOUS ARTICLE

« Martin Veitch (Global) - Bromium Interview: A Security Bromide from the People Who Brought You Xen?

NEXT ARTICLE

Martin Veitch (Global) - Interview: NetSuite CEO Open to Partners as He Swings for SAP and Sage »
author_image
Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

  • twt
  • twt
  • Mail

Poll

Do you think your smartphone is making you a workaholic?