51: The Cloud Wunderkind Turned Veteran: Box CEO Aaron Levie

 
Aaron Levie and his friends founded Box when he was a 20-year-old college student. He dropped out. It's now worth about $3 billion.

Aaron Levie and his friends founded Box when he was a 20-year-old college student. He dropped out. It's now worth about $3 billion.

It’s a familiar story in tech history: college friends stumble onto a big idea, drop out to pursue it, build a company, make mistakes, and eventually take that company public and make millions of dollars. That’s Apple, that’s Microsoft, that’s Facebook – and that’s Box.  

Aaron Levie is the cofounder and CEO of Box, a company founded at the dawning of the cloud era. The basic idea: Wouldn’t it be great if we could store all kinds of digital files on the internet and teams could work on them at the same time, instead of emailing them around? 

The answer is yes. That would be great. And Levie and his friends built a company now worth nearly $3 billion proving it. 

The cloud thing seems obvious now, but when Levie was 20 years old and co-founded Box 12 years ago, it was far from it. I started covering him and the company in the early years of that journey, and I sat down with him days ago at the Nasdaq MarketSite in Times Square to catch up. At the wizened old age of 32, Aaron’s got a fresh take on advice he should have heeded, and where Silicon Valley needs to go next:

Why He Didn't Sell

Before Box went public, the founders fielded some interest from companies that wanted to buy them out. They had to talk about how they felt about it, and whether they'd sell.

"That sort of forces you to have the conversation of, 'What are we really in this for?'" he says. "We did these brainstorms for a few weeks – my cofounders – and in the brainstorms it was like, okay, let's say you did this. What would we go do next if we ended up selling? And actually everything looked worse than what we were doing."

That settled it. Levie says they've never had that kind of conversation about selling since.

Silicon Valley's Identity Crisis

Right now Silicon Valley giants' motives are in the spotlight, as Congress and a special prosecutor look at how Russia used social networks to try to influence the electorate leading up to the 2016 presidential election. I asked Levie about how tech leaders are handling the issue, and to what extent it calls into question the industry's approach to technology itself as inherently good.

"The founding stories of these companies are these fun, social things that are going to help people's lives," Levie says of Facebook, Google and others. "What happens is as they scale, you start to see the more pernicious use cases and consequences of these technologies. There's a zero percent chance that in the founding of Google, Facebook or Twitter there was a conversation about what if a foreign nation decides to use one of these platforms to impact the flow of information in our country."

But we're certainly talking about it now – and Levie gives great insight into how tech founders continue to think about these challenges.