Interview: Box CEO Aaron Levie

Aaron Levie
Levie set sights on business market early

Cloud storage platform Box has attracted 15 million users since it was set up 2005. CEO Aaron Levie says it isn't just because it gives businesses more control than consumer-oriented services like Dropbox and Google Drive; it's a mix of security and extra services from partners that makes the difference in creating more value around data.

Box started out as just another cloud storage system when Levie was in college, where there were a lot of people with a lot of computers and a lot of places to work in. The original aim was to make it easy for them to work together, based on the question: "How do you make it really easy for individuals to store, share and collaborate around content – anywhere?"

Despite attracting major investments from, among others, businessman Mark Cuban, Levie realised the vision didn't really make Box stand out.

"We decided that the consumer marketplace was going to be commoditised by Amazon and others, so in 2007 we decided to focus the entire company on the enterprise market." That turned out to be good timing for Box, with the launch of the iPad in 2010.

"Suddenly there were all these new kinds of devices that didn't connect up to their enterprise system. Companies had people bringing in devices and their current system didn't work for that."

Agnostic platform

There are now 17,000 developers building value added services on Box, and it has helped that the platform is, as Levie describes it, agnostic. "Our mission is to work with every platform. We had a Windows 8 app on day one, we had an iPad app the first day there were iPad apps in the store, we have Android apps. We even support BlackBerry, although we're not sure what the future looks like for them."

In addition to security and manageability, an important element in the development of Box has been integration with other systems and third party tools such as note taking and archiving software Evernote. Levies says this is aimed at increasing productivity and savings.

"We're moving to a world where you use best of breed systems and open systems and cloud services that allow users to connect to information. It's a future where IT is no longer a scarce resource. Instead you have an infinite number of apps and platforms where you can access data."

Levie says that allowing users access might involve a change of attitude for some companies.

"Five years ago we thought security was about locking IT down and controlling data. But that means when someone needed to get their job done they used a thumb drive or a cloud service and you lost the ability to see what was being shared."

He says it is possible to provide that visibility, along with analytics - although it requires giving up a little control – and it is possible to make IT teams and users happy.

Levie is also bullishly dismissive of the competition.

"Traditional IT providers are building services; EMC and Netapp and Oracle and Microsoft, the traditional on-premise providers, see they have to move to the cloud.

"But it's a hard transition to go through. There's a DNA change required in the organisation to make that successful. We already have the ability to be agile and to support more platforms."

Tempting market

He expects consumer storage services to target businesses because the profits are tempting.

"Usually those consumer players also still try to maintain a foothold in the consumer market. To really support businesses in the way they need you have to be focused on the enterprise market."

That means Box isn't investing efforts in consumer services like media and photo sharing and video streaming, but focusing on building the controls for business customers. That requires a massive investment which may take it away from the most price-sensitive end of the market, but Levie says it will be better able to serve businesses with more complicated requirements, and emphasises that it has partners that can build apps for specific industries.

One example is Plangrid. "Their app is a nice way to view massive blueprint documents and handle concurrent editing on blueprints at a construction site."

A future update to Box is intended to make it easier to build specialised apps, with developers able to pull the pieces they need from the platform.

Updates aimed at users are also in the pipeline - to improve search, speed up sync, let you see notes that other people are making on a document in real time, and let iOS users preview documents. But the most interesting for businesses might be the new rules creator, making it possible to set policies for a file, a folder, a user or specific tasks.

The first 'triggers' will be for administrators. If someone uploads a file they're not supposed to in a public area, the admin could quarantine the file and warn them not to do it again. Or if someone downloads 100,000 files within an hour it will alert an administrator about the download.

Later on there will be triggers for Box users, so colleagues can let them know without sending an email that they have uploaded files for them.

Changes like these can help to increase productivity, and they could give Box the momentum to build on those 15 million users.


Mary (Twitter, Google+, website) started her career at Future Publishing, saw the AOL meltdown first hand the first time around when she ran the AOL UK computing channel, and she's been a freelance tech writer for over a decade. She's used every version of Windows and Office released, and every smartphone too, but she's still looking for the perfect tablet. Yes, she really does have USB earrings.