USC gave Box Inc. Chief Executive Aaron Levie a spark, but it's Silicon Valley that's enjoying his success.
On Friday, Box went public, issuing shares on the New York Stock Exchange to raise $175 million for the young company.
Shares of Box, priced at $14 in the initial public offering, closed up 65.9% at $23.23, lifting the company's market capitalization to $2.8 billion. That's in the realm of tech companies such as food-ordering service GrubHub and game maker Zynga.
Box — an online file storage and collaboration system aimed at business customers — began as a part-time project at Levie's apartment north of the USC campus in 2004. A year later, the company moved to the San Francisco Bay area, eventually setting its headquarters in Los Altos in Santa Clara County.
Levie, 29, dropped out of USC midway through his junior year in 2005. He pushed Box north to his uncle's garage in Berkeley, where the then-20-year-old decided he needed to be to find investors, mentors and a deep supply of technical workers.
"It was less about leaving L.A. and more about the draw of the Valley," Levie said during an interview last fall at the SoHo House in West Hollywood. He wanted Box to be "immersed" in Silicon Valley culture, he said.
When Levie started creating Box in the wake of the dot-com boom in the early 2000s, venture capital investment in Southern California had plummeted. Although Silicon Valley wasn't immune to the post-bubble downturn, Levie reasoned that every tiny optimization could crucially affect Box.
"You can start a tech company anywhere, but the second we started thinking about dozens of employees and how do we get venture capital, it became obvious we had to go to the Silicon Valley for that," he said.
Two early Silicon Valley investors, venture capital firms Draper Fisher Jurvetson and U.S. Venture Partners, saw returns of 4,780% and 2,026% in the Box IPO, respectively, according to financial firm EquityZen. Levie's small remaining holding (he sold many shares earlier on the private market) was valued at $57 million.
Since Levie left Los Angeles, however, start-ups and venture capital are on a big upswing, largely driven by the entertainment industry's embrace of digital technology and Internet distribution.
Venture capital investment in Los Angeles and
Orange counties reached nearly $3 billion in 2014, the highest level since 2000, according to the National Venture Capital Assn. Major venture-backed technology companies based in Los Angeles County have gone public, including last year's offerings of the Rubicon Project Inc. and TrueCar Inc.
Expanding Los Angeles operations of Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. are also drawing more workers south. USC, UCLA and other universities have recently expanded programs to mentor young entrepreneurs and are forging relationships with Silicon Valley investors to make access to capital smoother.
Whether all that would have been enough to keep Levie in Southern California if he were seeking funding today is uncertain. Although he's enthusiastic about the growth here, "it's an individual entrepreneur decision," he said.
Rejected by USC's School of Cinema and Television, Levie, raised in suburban Seattle, arrived in L.A. anyway. He took classes at USC's business school while charging ahead in entertainment. Internships at Miramax and Paramount Pictures had him, among other chores, stuffing paper records into cabinets. Google Docs or Dropbox hadn't been born yet, and he was frustrated by the exchanges of thumb drives and the headaches of email attachments when completing group projects for class.
With some knowledge of how to make websites, Levie began building what would become Box.
He tapped the online poker winnings of his friend and now-Box Chief Financial Officer Dylan Smith. They gave up a quarter of the company to raise $80,000. And Levie sent an email (having never met him) to Mark Cuban, owner of NBA's Dallas Mavericks, that asked him to write about Box on his influential blog. Cuban replied by mailing a $350,000 check to Levie's apartment.
He moved to Berkeley as usage surged, taking a $750-a-month stipend for food and the occasional matinee movie.
Deciding to pursue Box and give up school couldn't have been simple at a time before Facebook's rise helped shower intense attention on start-up culture, said Andrea Belz, academic director for the master's degree in entrepreneurship and innovation at USC.
"You have to be extremely savvy and optimistic to be operating in an environment in between peaks of economic cycles," she said. "What Aaron has done is a real testament to his tenacity and persistence."
Nine years passed before Levie returned to USC. In October he accepted the alumni entrepreneur of the year trophy from USC Marshall's Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
Levie, known for his energy and self-deprecating humor, took stretch breaks on a ballroom stage to keep loose in his sneakers-and-blazer attire as he spoke to hundreds of students. He sipped from a bottle of water to maintain his voice, which was suffering from a day spent meeting reporters and customers.
Levie advised students to treat college as art -- "a four-year canvas" surrounded by infinite resources -- where anything can be built. As long as it's legal, of course, he cracked.
"My peers were not taking advantage of that," he said.
A dual-class stock structure keeps Levie, venture capitalists and other company leaders in near total control of the company.
Box's subscription business isn't yet profitable. And it faces competition from deep-pocketed stalwarts such as Google and Microsoft and a younger generation of upstarts. But Friday's performance suggested investors see strong potential in Box to persevere, analysts said.
The offering had been delayed 10 months amid a lukewarm market for technology IPOs and concerns from Wall Street that the company's aggressive sales efforts cost too much. But the shift to businesses storing data online -- enabling workers to access it anywhere -- has hastened, and investors have a big appetite for "visionary new vendors" in the growth market, said Daniel Ives, senior analyst at FBR Capital Markets.
In an interview, Levie noted that successful entrepreneurs never lose sight of their aim. Long removed from his days as an unpaid intern shuffling contracts, he seems to still not want anyone to endure a similar task.
"The odds are fundamentally against you already," he said of start-ups. "And you won't be able to work through the struggles if you don't have the underlying passion."