Aaron Levie, the CEO of Box, could help reshape how we function at work

Until 20 minutes ago, I had never heard of Aaron Levie. In some ways, i.e. for my sense of self, that’s probably a good thing, since he was born five years after me and is already worth significantly more than I ever shall sniff. But at the broadest level, not knowing this guy was out there is a detriment, because he’s doing some pretty interesting stuff with his crew over at Box, a cloud-storage solutions company.

Here are the basics: Box bills itself as “simple, secure sharing from anywhere.” It was founded by Levie and Dylan Smith, friends from Mercer Island, WA (who were attending USC and Duke at the time, respectively) with help from (a) Smith’s poker winnings and (b) Mark Cuban. Levie is 28 now; at 26, he turned down a $550 million offer from an unnamed company. It wasn’t, apparently, about the chance to get a bigger offer later — it was about a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to build something new, and create products that no one had before. He was named Inc. Magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year and Fast Company did one of those “tell-us-about-your-day-so-that-normal-people-can-try-to-mimic-your-patterns” pieces on him, too. CNBC is writing headlines like, “Don’t bet against Aaron Levie.” Just to reiterate: the young man is 28. He also loves to fire shots across the bow of big companies; you can see the video embedded at top for examples of that, or you could check this out:

What got me interested was actually this profile in MIT Technology Review, and specifically this quote from Levie himself:

“The cloud is going to drive a new way of working. The ability to deliver medical research from a lab to a doctor in seconds, or from an educational publisher to a student—it’s about real-time, collaborative, synchronous information sharing. It’s going to change work. Not just the technology of work, but work itself.”

The arc here, as defined in this story, is that IT departments of large companies started to lose some control of their company’s resources when mobile, personal e-mail, and things like Salesforce and cloud-based options arose. Box was actually designed to put the IT departments back in control; they’re doing well on that front, as they’re used by 97 percent of the Fortune 500. The simple idea is that orgs can store and share documents and those documents can be accessed anywhere, from any type of device. If you move a file into Box, it can be accessed by anyone with those permissions; change the file, and everyone sees the changes. Box charges somewhere between $5 and $35 per user.

Right now, Box has about 20 million users. Dropbox, the behemoth of that industry, has 200 million. Microsoft, which has storage options, has 385 million. Still, Levie thinks companies like Microsoft are poised to fall, mostly because of their intractability with regard to the “new normal” of things — i.e. operating in the cloud. He’s tweeted about this too:

He also knows the works of Biggie, which is impressive for a tech kid, even a young one (Levie was 12 when Big died):

There are a couple of different things I find interesting about what Levie is doing. First off, the central idea of Box is tremendous. If you were to enter a simple, 1,000-person company and go around and ask all 1,000 people, “What is the biggest thing getting in the way of your productivity?” I’d reckon that over 900 people would say something about communication, or deadlines, or communication as relates to deadlines and changes to things without being able to get ahold of others. (Some would probably say “politics,” which is a shit answer since that will never change until robots take over the workplace; and some would say “people showing up at my desk and telling me to do an assignment I had no knowledge of before,” which, well, ditto.) If there was a simple way to access and search in-progress documents from literally anywhere, and it was simple enough that the oldest generation of the workforce and the youngest generation of the workforce could both do it, that solves a ton of issues right there. (There’s still human limitations everywhere, but it solves some base issues.)

Firing shots across the bow of big companies is interesting too. This is going to sound overly melodramatic, but it’s almost like Levie is a business voice of his generation; millennials (I think he’d qualify there) are more about interesting experiences and less about the cheddar (reference his $550 million turndown) and want to change the fundamental way things are done (others just want to look at Instagram, but in every generation there’s doers and there’s chillers). Microsoft is huge and Windows is still dominant, but it’s good that there’s a voice coming from a place with 20 million users and growing who is saying, “Well, you know, you guys are a f’n dinosaur.” I appreciate that.

Here’s another thing I’ve always thought about, but it’s probably just me: every job I’ve ever had has been populated with people telling me how busy they are, and how they can’t possibly meet or talk or take on anything else, or whatever. Being busy has become almost a commodity in and of itself (yet, when you walk past a lot of these people’s offices, they’re taking personal calls or shooting the shit with a co-worker or whatever). I always find this interesting. The technology that surrounds work has become so advanced, you would think work would be getting easier — but to hear the people in the offices tell it, it’s getting harder. Now, this could be because of the emergence of other economies around the world that people need to capitalize on, or it could be that because base work abilities (even the use of Excel, or Google) are available readily now that weren’t available readily 20 years ago, managers feel they can pile more work on. I’m not sure, and I’m not smart enough to know the answer. (This article discusses the idea a bit.)

Now, at the middle-middle-class level and above, Americans tend to be a very work-focused, almost work-defined people. But there’s almost a cultural cache to being able to present yourself as busy all the time. What I love about Box, and similar technologies, is that in addition to changing how we do the work, they also present a mechanism to change how we discuss or conceptualize the work. If you can access a key document from your iPhone, your tablet, your office computer, your laptop on vacation, etc — there goes, out the window, a bunch of different things you would have claimed were making you super busy. Now if we could just find a way to eliminate the meeting, or train people in corporate America as to what needs a meeting vs. a phone call vs. a series of e-mails, we’d really be on to something. And then maybe we’d create a world where people work, are productive at work, but have time to notice others, learn from others, and give back to their families and their communities. I’m now associating Box with the beginnings of corporate Shangri-La, so I’ve officially gone too far.

The fact is, work is changing. An office in 1990 and an office today are separated by 23 years — and literally would seem like they were crafted in different solar systems. 23 years from now, the same will probably be true — and it’s possible that a company like Box will be at the forefront (of course, it needs to reinvent itself again once the cloud gets overtaken by a different concept). Side note here because it interested me as I wrote this: this guy is generally believed to have invented the idea of cloud storage.

I like Levie because he seems to understand he’s at the forefront of a rapid shift in how people work, how people value work, how people process work, and when you get right down to it, because of the time people spend doing and thinking about work, Box is at the forefront of how we live our lives. That’s super interesting to ponder.

Ted Bauer