How I Made It: Box CEO Aaron Levie learned to trust his friends and change directions
Aaron Levie, 31, is the co-founder and chief executive of Box, a cloud storage company for businesses. Since co-founding the company as a student at USC in 2005, he has helped grow Box from four co-founders to more than 1,600 employees spread across offices in Redwood City, San Francisco, Austin, New York City, Paris, London, Tokyo and Sydney.
The company counts Coca-Cola, General Electric and the U.S. Department of Justice among its customers, and some 65% of Fortune 500 companies use its services. Box went public in 2015 and currently has a market cap of around $2.5 billion.
Starting in Seattle
Levie grew up in Seattle, the youngest of three children. His mother was a speech-language pathologist; his father was a chemical engineer at a paper company. Levie initially had an interest in filmmaking, going as far as applying to film school at USC, but was rejected (“It turns out I was really bad at making films”). One of his other interests was problem-solving.
“I remember using the Internet when I was 13 or 14, and it was like this canvas where you could solve problems, and if you solved them well, you could have a real impact on how the world works and communicates,” he said. “It was a real eye opener.”
Throughout middle school and high school, he and his close friends Dylan Smith, Sam Ghods and Jeff Queisser built websites, briefly launched a record label that was more like a CD-burning operation, and made a film in their senior year.
Though they ended up at different colleges, they kept up this entrepreneurial streak with no real end goal in mind, launching companies that would fizzle after a few months, then doing it over and over again.
Right tech, right time
While at USC studying with an undeclared major, Levie came up with the idea for Box. He was an intern at Paramount Pictures in late 2004 and, between seeing how cumbersome it was for the film studio to share large files, and how rapidly the cost of online storage was coming down, he saw an opportunity.
“To share files, people had to email files to themselves, use thumb drives, use an FTP, and it was way too complicated and inefficient,” he said. “So we had an idea and launched it in early 2005: People would pay us $2.99 a month, we’d give them 1GB of storage, and they could upload their files to Box, and access them anywhere.”
Between Levie, Smith, Ghods and Queisser, the four friends had skills in software engineering, product design, marketing and operations — not enough to run a large company, but just enough to get Box off the ground.
The idea struck a chord, and hundreds of people signed up.
Running Box quickly became a full-time job. The team worked 16 hours a day, on top of their college coursework. Levie was answering customer support questions during his accounting classes. He had to make a call: He could focus on school, and let a business that had gained more traction than any of his past start-ups fizzle through neglect, or he could drop out and bet it all on Box.
“This felt like what a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity might feel like,” Levie said. “We had hundreds of users paying us. It wasn’t hundreds of thousands, but we decided to roll the dice. So Dylan and I dropped out, and we convinced Sam and Jeff to drop out too.”
Down to Berkeley
Levie had thought of building the business in Seattle, but in 2005 Seattle wasn’t yet the tech hub it is today, and funding was hard to come by.
“We were 19 or 20 at the time, and Seattle investors just didn’t believe in the idea or the team,” Levie said. “A lot of them were burned by the dot-com bubble, but we were also really on the young side. Dylan looked like he was 14 years old. We didn’t look like a credible founding team.”
Down in Silicon Valley, though, a young start-up called Facebook had just set up shop in Palo Alto, and, despite being ground zero for the dot-com bust, the Valley still had a far more robust start-up ecosystem than other parts of the country.
Levie and Smith drove a van to Berkeley, where Levie’s uncle let them stay in a renovated garage that had a bunk bed, a pull-out mattress and a yoga mat. Ghods and Quiesser joined them months later.
We had such a deep level of trust in each other, we knew we’d have each other’s backs no matter what
— Aaron Levie, Box CEO
Trust and pivots
The reason the co-founders were so willing to drop out of college for a nascent start-up was because they trusted each other, Levie said.
“I don’t recommend this to everyone, because the advice you hear is typically don’t do anything business-related with friends or family because it’ll blow up your friendship, but for some reason the foundation of our friendship and the trust was strong enough,” he said. “These were my best friends, and we’d known each other since middle school. We had such a deep level of trust in each other, we knew we’d have each other’s backs no matter what, and we could push on each other pretty hard and know it wasn’t going to be taken personally.”
So a few years into Box’s expansion, when the company realized that it would have to focus on servicing businesses rather than individuals, Levie trusted his co-founders when they insisted that the company needed to pivot.
“I thought building an enterprise software company was going to be really boring, so I didn’t get excited by it,” Levie said. “I wanted to stay consumer. But I came to the conclusion that they were right, it wasn’t growing fast enough.”
The writing was also on the wall: In 2007, when Box was preparing to pivot, companies such as Google and Apple were ramping up their cloud storage services, which offered free online storage to consumers. Pivoting to businesses allowed Box to differentiate itself.
It’s all about culture
After more than a decade running the company, Levie says the key to Box’s success has always been its culture.
“You always see posters with platitudes like ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ but when your company scales, you realize that culture eats everything,” he said. “It’s more fundamental than any other aspect of the business.”
Culture, Levie said, includes the way the company hires, who it hires, who it fires, how it rewards employees, and the way people interact with each other. When a culture is healthy, it will keep employees focused on the mission and help a company execute on their goals. “It’s the base of the pyramid,” he said.
Levie lives in Palo Alto. In his free time, he enjoys hiking with his fiancee, watching movies and reading.