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Levietation: a believer’s rise to the top

Long before the internet became his stage, and his Twitter stream became the source of laughs and ironic truthisms, Box CEO Aaron Levie entered my consciousness. He did so by figuring out my AOL instant messenger nickname, pinging me in middle of the night and striking up a conversation.

At the time, Box was nothing more than one of the many wannabe storage service providers, with no distinct edge. Still, I liked this crazy kid (with a fro) who didn’t know anyone in Silicon Valley, someone who wasn’t from a hoity-toity Ivy League school. If he was a baseball player, he would be someone only Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, would truly appreciate.

Even then, Aaron was a lethal cocktail of ambition, doggedness and humility. Full of nervous energy and endless one liners, he is one of those guys who would embrace any opportunity as his last chance to win. Many have given him and Box up for dead — most famously Mark Cuban — but he keeps coming and coming.

Aaron Levie Om Malik

Gracious, charming and self-deprecating, he became a constant fixture on my IM window and through those weird exchanges began a friendship that has lasted more than a decade. He never pitched me once to write about Box, and for a long time I didn’t write about the company. We just talked about the business, the world and where we were all going. Of course, he talked and I listened; you know how it is with these motormouths.

Aaron is unconventional and ask anyone who has known him: he respects tradition and history, but is really keen on making history. With the Box public offering, he will write some of it soon. Both of us are a little older, grayer and wiser in the ways of the world, but over the years our professional lives have dovetailed many times.

Importantly, we’ve built a company that moves quickly. Our industry is in a permanent state of change. We’ve seen companies that were once wildly successful become shadows of their former selves. While you never know for sure what’s around the corner, it’s the speed with which you respond to changes that determines success or failure. At times, we may get some things wrong, but we respond quickly and “fail fast.” Aaron Levie, CEO Letter, Page 75, S–1 Filing for Box

Box is far from perfect. It moves fast, but Dropbox moves faster. And yet, what you read above is absolutely true — Levie is a man in perpetual motion.

Let me tell you a little story about Aaron. In 2008, soon after my heart attack, I invited him and bunch of other founders including my good friends Matt Mullenweg and Matt Brezina to come and talk to a group of senior executives from large companies. This onstage confab was in Miami and during the three-day gathering, Aaron networked with the grown-ups, learned all he needed to learn and by the time the summer of 2008 rolled around, he had started to refocus the company on enterprise storage markets.

In other words, he figured out that while consumers are great source of attention, companies spend a lot more money on even boring stuff like storage. (And in-between those conversations, he was trying to convince me to go to a nightclub, something my cardiologist wouldn’t have approved of. I said no, just in case you were checking.)

The rest is history: in six years the company has grown from next to nothing to almost $124 million in revenue for the fiscal year ending January 2014 (and even steeper losses at $168 million.) The S–1 does read a little bit like a Stephen King novella — there’s a lot of gore. The only number I would focus on: Aaron owns a mere 4.1 percent of the company.He has sweated blood, cried dry tears and all the time has conducted business with a smile and a quip.

The single-digit ownership tells one story — a story of grit, determination and ability to write his own destiny. I’m glad to see that one of the good guys is getting to do what he always wanted to do; build a company.

Check out Aaron Levie’s keynote speech about building an enterprise company that doesn’t suck below:

Cloud Week 2014 ticker

16 Responses to “Levietation: a believer’s rise to the top”

  1. I have a slightly different take primarily based on my preference for silent types. I am sure Aaron is a great entrepreneur, but he and Box indulge in too much PR in my opinion. Contrast this to Drew Houston and Dropbox. They seem to focus a lot more on results and product. I would prefer if Box and Aaron show up once every quarter or so and talk about results as opposed to putting something in the PR sphere every week.

  2. Mojtaba Tabatabaie

    I think in these situations people like Aaron don’t think about being a slave for others profits or why they should do most of the work and other people who don’t work and spend time take the profit. They see their work differently. I myself think about work and this journey as an investment, investment to myself and my personality. At the end of the day it’s Aaron who is used to work all day and has given up the laziness inside of him and his brain has gotten more mature. And that’s the real investment for someone at his age and will increase his chances of success dramatically in the long run.

  3. Matthew Olivieri

    Terrific article Om. Aaron and I have an interesting backstory. While my company was just launching and none of us where getting paid, my friend and co-founder needed to make some extra money on the side and began doing contractor graphic design work for this little startup in Palo Alto. Soon after our launch flopped (interesting side story in and of itself) my friend came to me and said this small startup operating out of an attic had raised some seed funding and wanted to offer him a full time position. Of course, I could not be selfish, as our company was going nowhere at that time. My friend left and took the position of lead graphic designer as employee number 8 or 10 (I can’t recall) That company was called (Now At an August Captial party, I saw Aaron and busted his chops a bit telling him, “Hey you’re the jerk who stole my co-founder!” He laughed, apologized and thanked me for letting them have him. I felt the same humility, drive and passion in his dialogue and demeanor as you describe and have no doubt he will make Box succeed. Of course, today I am very happy for him and my friend and wish them all the best.

  4. surya yalamanchili

    Good post, Om! I especially agree w/how you ended it…I was shocked to learn of his 4.1% and my respect for him def spiked up. Really interesting dude!

  5. Gabrial Harmon

    I watched an interview of him on the Charlie Rose show. He seems incredibly intelligent and you get the sense he lives it. I’d be so honored if he could be my Paul Allen one day.