Let's Talk Box: Behind the Software with COO Dan Levin
Since its launch in 2006 Box has branded itself by taking the elegant simplicity of a Dropbox and translating it to the much wider world of enterprise data. These days Box is one of the top companies attuned to the relationship between enterprises and the cloud and the associated challenges. We talked to Chief Operating Officer Dan Levin about Box’s overall strategy and its view on the direction of the industry.
Why don’t we start with Box’s founding and how it became what it is today?
LOCATION: Los Altos, CA
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It’s a pretty extraordinary story really. Aaron, our CEO and co-founder, was a college student at USC in 2004. He had a project to look at file sharing and storage using the Internet. In the process of working on that project, he came to the realization that there was a lot of fragmentation and not really a great solution in the market; and so he reached out to Dylan, who had been a buddy of his from high school and was at Duke at the time. In the spring of 2005, they decided to try and tackle the problem themselves and come up with the proverbial better mousetrap.
What attracted you to Box in the first place? What convinced you to come on as COO?
I think we all want the same five things in a job basically. We want to play for the winning team, and even three and a half years ago, Box was really on a roll and showed signs of being a great company. We also want to make a difference and feel like we’re contributing. I originally came onboard as an advisor, and as Aaron and I got to know each other over the years, it became clear that there were things that I could do that would really help the business grow and develop. We want to learn and we want to have fun, and I am able to do both of those things every day at Box, so it’s really been a delight.
What do you think makes Box different from other platforms or cloud applications out there?
I think the most important thing about Box is the focus on the end user customer, like delivering extreme ease of use, no setup time, no training required, while at the same time delivering a product that really meets IT’s needs in terms of security, administrative controls, reporting, etc. So from an outside-in perspective, I think that’s the secret sauce–that combination of extreme ease of use and great support for the IT professional at the same time.
What would you say is Box’s approach as a company in making sure that you’re always delivering the best possible product to your customers?
I think there are two pieces to that. One is staying really close to your customer, listening hard to what they’re saying to you because they will say it in a lot of different ways. They don’t always just come out and say, “We wish you would change the font on that word,” or something, so being close to customers, spending a lot of time with them, making sure that the sales force and the technical support organization are very closely coupled with the product planning and product management organization, and then following best practices in Silicon Valley regarding rapid development, creating a very innovative culture, and leveraging both best of breed technologies that we create here, and also open source technologies that are being developed by the rest of the technology community. You put those things together–the idea of being very close to the customer to deeply understand what they need, then being able to solve their problems with real modern best of breed development methodology, and you have a pretty powerful combination.
Do you yourself spend time talking to customers about what they want and what they’re looking for? What sort of things do you see your customers asking for and how do you solve those problems for them?
I spend time with customers every week. In fact, when I was in Tokyo last week, one of the things I did was meet with three of our customers there to try to understand how their needs are different from American customers–what they see happening in the Japanese technology industry and what they see as the future needs of Japanese enterprises. Just today I will have met with two customers by the end of my day. I have one more meeting after our conversation, so it’s a very regular drum beat, even amongst our most senior executives of spending time with existing customers and spending time with prospects trying to understand the challenges that they face.
Those challenges are mostly rooted in the big trends that are driving IT globally today, like the consumerization of IT. This pull of consumer applications into the workforce, trends like bring your own device to work, which means that most enterprises around the globe have to deal with lots of different kinds of smartphones and tablets; and they need solutions that work on all mobile platforms, not just on one or two. These are some of the big trends that are driving technology worldwide, and our customers are pulling us to follow.
So how do you feel that Box is going about helping them with those challenges? How do you feel that businesses can overcome problems like that?
We believe that content information is at the heart of what businesses around the world do. People like you and me, and knowledge workers around the world, create, manage and share information. Many of the business applications that we use either have their foundation in or play a role in the sharing, managing, and storing of content; so the Box platform, both through our own applications and through custom applications that are developed by our partners and our developers and through integrations with other enterprise and fast applications, are helping our customers solve some of these difficult content related challenges.
On a slightly different topic, relating back to when you were talking about the different technology trends and open source software technologies–I remember seeing that Box is partnering with CodeAcademy to make the Box API more accessible to developers. What has been the response to that and what was the impetus behind getting that partnership together?
Unlike legacy enterprise software providers, Box has a very open model. We believe that the content that we help our clients to manage is their content. It’s their information; it’s not ours. So our job is to help them solve their problems in the way that they see fit, in the way that they want to, and for many of them that means leveraging our platform and our APIs to build custom applications or custom integrations themselves, or hiring third party developers to do it for them. Providing education about our APIs or SDKs is a critical part of enabling that third party ecosystem to solve content related problems by the Box platform, and the CodeAcademy relationship is just one of many avenues that we use to distribute information, documentation, training, and support about how to use the Box platform to solve content related problems and enterprises.
Is there anything that you’ve seen customers do with the Box API that you found really interesting or really intriguing?
Probably the most interesting and innovative development on the Box platform is happening on mobile devices, especially iPads and Android tablets, and those applications really span a broad range. A lot of companies are equipping their sales people with iPads and building custom applications to help display their products, video demonstrations, and brochures about their products to prospective customers.
We have a really interesting customer that’s one of the largest manufacturers of a certain type of construction equipment on the globe, and they use the Box API to create a publicly available iPad app that they distribute around the world. They’re a Spanish company based in Barcelona, but they distribute their products globally; and through this iPad App, distributors around the world can get access to their catalog information on their products, and see how the products are used. It’s really cool stuff.
The other place where I see a lot of really interesting work being done is integrating Box with existing enterprise applications. We have one customer–their business is telecommunications related consulting–and their customers’ telephone bills are sort of a critical piece of their infrastructure. They need to know how their customers are spending money on telecoms today in order to help them figure out how to do better in the future. They store all of those bills in Box, and they integrate Box with every other system that they use to run their business, like their customer relationship management system, their technical support system, their customer-facing web portal, everything. They’ve used a variety of different Box integration technologies to make that happen, so that’s another really cool example.
Changing tracks a little bit what other kinds of software do you use in the office besides Box?
We’re an entirely cloud based company, and we’re big believers in the cloud stack and the future of cloud computing. Our entire computing infrastructure is based on the cloud. Products like Okta, NetSuite, Zendesk, Salesforce.com, Zuora, Marketo, the list goes on and on. We use lots and lots of cloud based solutions everyday to solve our problems. We also use a bunch of mobile solutions. SlideShark is one of my favorites, Imitate, PDF Expert, DocuSign–just a broad range of forward thinking, mostly local companies, frankly, that are doing incredibly cool stuff.
What do you think is the most difficult thing about BYOD that’s tripping up companies? Is it just the access thing, not being able to control every device, or is it something else?
I think the most challenging thing about BYOD is security. Along with those devices that are owned by all of your colleagues come a lot of consumer oriented applications that were on these devices before they were brought into the workplace, and those consumer oriented tools are not always consistent or capable of playing in the way you would want them to in an enterprise environment. They are not always capable of delivering the right level of security and privacy administrative control. I think enterprises are challenged to allow users to bring their own device to work while still providing an environment that offers a suitable degree of security and privacy for business critical confidential information.
Tell me about how Box’s company culture is different. Because you guys have grown so quickly, how have you managed to maintain that culture even as you scale up?
I think the really interesting thing about Box is that on the one hand, we have just a tremendous amount of fun. It’s a bunch of people that really enjoy each other’s company and who love working together. We have a great physical space that’s designed to enable us to get our jobs done and have a great time at the same time, but that’s not enough, right? Business is about having fun together, but it’s also about solving problems, and the degree of rigor and thoughtfulness and discipline that Box brings to the operation of our business matches the thought that we put into making sure the slide is in the right place in the middle of the lobby. There’s a degree of relaxation and creativity and innovation, but at the same time, there’s a real focus on excellent execution and very, very disciplined operation of our business that I think is quite an unusual combination, and one we’re very proud of and that we put a tremendous amount of work in maintaining.
One thing that stood out to me when I visited was that the workspace is so open. Anyone can really walk up to you and ask you about something and it’s that openness that makes it different.
Yes, and I think Aaron and I both encourage that. Each of us, along with Joe and Dylan, meets with every new hire class at Box. My role here is to talk about our culture and our values and the kind of behavior that we expect out of Boxers. One of the things I say is that we are community–we are all trying to solve these problems together. Everybody has great ideas, and our obligation is to share those ideas with each other, and that goes for me and Aaron, too. I have a desk just like everybody else’s up on the third floor, and I keep a little chair next to my desk so if people want to drop by and have a chat, they can do that and be comfortable. I do think it’s part of what makes our culture wonderful, is that we take everybody seriously. We respect everybody’s ideas, we treat everybody the same, and we expect everybody to contribute to a very high level.
What makes you the most excited about what Box is doing and what the future holds for a company?
You think about the big changes that are sweeping IT globally today, things like mobility and bring your own device to work, the consumerization of the enterprise, the cloud. There’s a whole social trend in the enterprise. We really are at the center of all of this, and when you combine that with the fact that Box solves the problems of almost any business around the world, that adds up to a huge opportunity, and an opportunity that we’re very excited to be pursuing and delivering for our customers and we’re really looking forward to continuing to drive that forward in the future.
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