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How Aaron Levie Spots Opportunities and Seizes Markets

Box Cofounder and CEO Aaron Levie provides us with the classic David vs Goliath story.

The company was started by him and his three friends. Here they are, just a few kids in their 20s trying to compete with Goliath players like Microsoft and Oracle.

Few thought they could pull it off. Levie, the energetic CEO, and his three cofounders (two developers, one finance guy) were told by countless investors that it couldn’t be done. They’d never compete in enterprise.

Fast forward to today, and Box is one of the big players in the enterprise software market. They have over 240,000 businesses using their product, 27 million users, and dominate 99% of the Fortune 500 market. And in January 2015, they became a public company.

Levie, who owns 5.7% of the company, recently gave a talk at Sam Altman’s How to Start a Startup class at Stanford University. There he discussed how Box got started, some challenges along the way, and the patterns he recommends for spotting new opportunities as well advice for building a company.

This blog post serves a synopsis for the talk. We’ll first discuss the background on Box, then get into the eight patterns for opportunities and how you can capitalize on them. Each of the eight tips contain tweets from Levie that are relevant to that specific tip. A link to the video, slides, and recommended reading are at the bottom.

The Startup Days

When they started out in 2005, they didn’t know they would become an enterprise company. They first launched as Box.net, with the goal of making it really easy to share files. They leased server space in Houston to hold all their user’s files.

In September 2005, Mark Cuban provided their initial angel round after Levie sent him a cold email. After they secured the $350k, they dropped out of college and moved to the Bay Area.

They offered 1GB of free storage ($4.99 for 5GB), and soon after were receiving hundreds of thousands of sign ups every month. But they ran into a problem – it was a good product for consumers, but “too insignificant of a product” for enterprise companies. They had over-functionality for the consumer side, and not enough for the enterprise side.

They had to choose – do they focus on the consumer or focus on the enterprise?

The Challenge of Deciding to Build for Consumer or for Enterprise

Consumer looked like fun, while enterprise looked more challenging with some large incumbents already in the space. But on the downside, the consumer product constantly faces the challenges of how to monetize. There’s only two ways to make money – charge customers or provide advertising on the application. Even if you charge customers, larger companies will eventually enter the market and offer the same thing you do, but for free. Google was already rumored to be launching their Drive product.

On the other hand, enterprise presents a much different challenge. These companies don’t care about saving money on IT; they’re trying to increase productivity to get more performance from their company.

Consumers want to conserve their money, and B2C companies have to fight just get a couple dollars from them every month. Enterprise looks at what they can get out of technology, and how valuable it is for them. It also presents it’s own unique challenges. Levie explains:

“The problem was that enterprise software was very unsexy. Very competitive, very hard to build a business. It wasn’t something you shot out of bed in the morning saying, ‘I’m super excited to build an enterprise software company.’ And the reason for that was actually very straight forward at the time. The way that you built software was very slow. You had to be very slow because you couldn’t break anything for customers, the sales process was very slow because customers take a long time to purchase technology. So I think everyone is used to this concept that when you try to sell enterprise software to a company, it could take up to a couple years for them to actually just buy the software. Then it could take even more years for them to implement the technology in the first place. So a lot of companies are around for a few years without having their technology even used in the enterprise, that felt like a huge problem and not like something we wanted to be a part of.”

There were more problems – the technology was complex, making the UI very difficult. And of course, you would have to sell the software to these big companies. This usually required companies to hire salespeople across the globe, and having them go around trying to sell the product to companies.

They didn’t like this sales intermediary. They wanted to use the power of the internet and get their technology out to people directly.

In addition to these challenges, they faced another big hurdle – getting money. Investors told them they’d never make it in the enterprise. They were too young, they’ve never been in the enterprise, and bigger companies (Microsoft, IBM, EMC, Oracle) would crush them. Luckily, the found an investor in Josh Stein who believed in them and provided them with a $1.5 million round. At the time of IPO, Stein and his company Draper Fisher Jurvetson own 25.5% of the company.

They got the money, and decided they needed to take a new approach to enterprise.

Building For The Enterprise

Box built their business model, software, and solution to work in one version of the world. A big decision they made was to prioritize mobile clients. Many businesses use the iPad, but they need a way to manage all their content and coordinate everything. This is where the Box iPad app came in, which was available when the iPad launched. This focus on mobile has helped Box’s sales.

To hear Levie discuss why now is a great time to build for the enterprise, go here and select “Everything has changed for enterprise software”.

1) Spot Technology Disruptions

This goes for any business, whether it’s a consumer or enterprise product.

Levie advises entrepreneurs to look for new enabling technologies that create a wide gap between how things have been done and how they can be done.

With Box, Levie and his co-founders saw three things: storage was getting cheaper, internet was getting faster, and browsers were getting better. Yet despite this, many people were still sharing files through a very archaic system. The technology was ahead of the systems people were using.

So when looking at enterprise, what about the cost of computing dropping so rapidly changes what enterprises can do with their data? What was previously impossible is now possible?

When you can spot a disruption like this, you have spotted an opportunity to build new technology that solves a problem.

2) Intentionally Start Small

Levie says that this is true in a lot of companies, but particularly true with enterprise.

When you start small, you want to create a wedge that is a natural place to create a product that will slip in between the gaps of other existing products, but is something that overtime expands and becomes a part of enterprise.

Start with a little sliver of a problem, create an amazing user experience, change the business model, and create the technology that makes a previously really difficult problem really simple.

You need to start small because there are incumbents in the market that go for the full solution. Find the gaps in the full solution that are significant enough where a customer is going to want to solve the problem with your discreet technology, but overtime that discreet technology will expand to larger customers and/or more use cases overtime.

When you execute this way, many incumbents will look at your business and see it as a non-threat. What they don’t realize is that it’s just a start, because once you have a wedge in the market and overtime will expand with more services and capabilities. The key is to find that exact wedge where you can start.

3) Find Asymmetries

Do things that the incumbents can’t or won’t do because it’s economically and technically infeasible.

For technically infeasible, Levie gives the example of “suite players”. These are the companies that have everything integrated with itself (known as vertical integration) because there is more value with that vertical. In this case, the disruptive company can become platform agnostic, where technology works on all platforms. This helps you work with many different customers and allows you to become an ally with many different platforms.

We’ve been seeing this recently with Microsoft. Under Nadella’s leadership, Microsoft has made their products on a range of platforms. For example, Office 365 now allows customers their customers to save their documents on a range of platforms, such as Dropbox, Box, Salesforce, etc. In addition to their cloud partners, they also have Office apps available on iOS.

When discussing how some incumbents are stuck to their economics, Levie says:

“You can look at the cost structure of an incumbent company and discover where they are not going to be able to drop their prices, because that business model is fundamental to the company. Or where can you find ways of monetizing the customer that are unusual or unique that no one has discovered before, thus making impractical for anyone else to do.”

4) Find the Crazy, But Somewhat Reasonable Outliers

Find the customers that are at the edge of their business model (they are working in the future, but haven’t lost their minds), find the unique characteristics about them, and utilize them as your early adopters.

Levie recommends an article written by Paul Graham where he discusses living in the future, and building what’s missing when you’re living in the future. This makes it a little easier to spot trends and patterns about disruption that’s playing out.

If you find these types of customers that are living in the future, you’ll be able to work with them and find what’s missing when you’re working in the future. From that, you can figure out how to build new technology that supports all the new use cases that will emerge.

Go look at your market, find the customers that are at the bleeding edge of the market (who use technology to get ahead & for performance advantages), then go work with them to discover how your product can evolve.

5) Listen to Customers, But Don’t Always Build Exactly What They Tell You

Your customers are going to have a large number of requests, your job is to distill those requests down into the ultimate product. This doesn’t mean to build what they tell you to build. Listen to your customers problems, but translate it into the best and simplest solutions to those problems.

6) Modularize, Don’t Customize

This means building a platform as opposed to building a customized technology. Every customer will want something a little bit different. Don’t make your product suffer because of this. Use openness and APIs as a way of delivering vertical or custom experiences. Don’t build it directly into the product. The APIs and integrations should sit “on top” of the product.

7) Focus on the User

Keep “consumer” DNA at the core of your enterprise product. This makes adoption easier, gives your product a better chance of going viral, and it makes it easier to sell into the organization because you sold a few employees within that organization on your product. Box has recently done this by offering free 10 GB of file storage to consumers. If they focus on the user and make a great product for them, those users become evangelists for Box in their own company. This is why you need consumer DNA in your product development process. Levie says:

“In an IT world, incumbents generally win because they have the existing relationship with the IT organization, with the CIO, with the spending power of that company. In a user lead model, users are bringing in their own technology. They’re bring it in in the sales team, they are bringing it in in the marketing team, they are brining it in in finance and you can build software around that user. Which means they can bring the enterprise in and you can sell to the enterprise when they want to have better control, better security, better scalability. So you still have the same model as a business software company but the way to get into the company is now through the end user.”

8) The Product Should Sell Itself

This does not mean you do not need a sales team.

You need to leverage the internet and users to get to customers, and the sales team can help customers navigate the product, the competitive landscape, and the ecosystem. The salesperson should serve in a consultative role, where they help the customer deploy your product in the organization. But you need to keep the product at the center of all of that.

Video, Slides, and Recommended Reading

View the slides

Recommended Reading:

Aaron Levie featured as Inc Magazine’s 2013 Entrepreneur of the Year

How Levie works

For the nerds: Read Box’s S-1 Filing (or read some highlights)

Follow Levie on Twitter

About the Author: Zach Bulygo (Twitter) is a Content Writer for Kissmetrics.

  1. Really inspirational article. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Food for thought! Aaron Levie has built a thought process around the concept of disruption! “Find out who’s compromising on a product or service in the marketplace, and that compromise becomes a disruption opportunity.” The only thing I’d add is that a person has to absolutely know their market and its technology before even understanding what gaps need to be plugged. It’s amazing! He and others like him think in terms of how to tap into narrow tech corridors that can blossom into wide applications. Good sharing! I’ve got some major work ahead of me in changing how I approach business opportunities.

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