Cloud collaboration and sharing platforms are among the critical tools needed in the modern workplace. With the near-worldwide shift to remote work, companies like Box have become indispensable. In addition to providing tools that enable enterprise organizations to digitize more elements of their businesses, Box has also been an influential leader on remote workplace policies and, in May, announced its entire employee base would be virtual through at least 2021.
Box CEO and co-founder Aaron Levie sat down with Greylock General Partner Sarah Guo on Greymatter to discuss his company’s journey during the past decade leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, how it has changed their product roadmap, and where he believes the opportunities for innovation still lie. You can listen to the podcast here:
Below are highlights from the conversation with Aaron Levie. Questions are from Sarah Guo.
Box was among the first few large tech companies to officially shift to working remotely. How were you able to do that so quickly?
“We were right in that mix where we realized that there was just no sustainable way to have people come into the office every single day. Because then everyone is trying to figure out if someone else has Covid, and wondering who they are talking to and interacting with. There were these moments when we would get an email that said someone in our New York office was at a party with somebody who eventually got Covid, so we had to shut down that office and do a deep clean. That’s when we were just like, ‘Ok, this is completely unsustainable.’ Everybody just go home and work while we figure out exactly what this public health crisis looks like.”
“We’re really lucky that we’ve got a culture that was able to move very quickly because it’s a fairly agile organization. Everyone rapidly moved to this remote work environment. It’s probably going to be the case that it will be harder to go back to the office (in terms of the new work patterns) than it will to allow people to stay remote.”
“I see it as my job to make sure that we take as much off the plates of our employees and our leadership team as possible. And we stay highly, highly focused on just the two or three most important things: What are the few features that matter the most? What’s the go to market model that matters the most? How do we help support our employees and enable them to be successful in this environment? That means reducing the noise and the distractions that the company might normally be creating just to simplify everybody’s daily work.”
“The issues of remote work are interesting. People always wonder if companies don’t like people to be remote because they don’t think individual employees can be productive. But that is never really the issue. It’s a matter of whether the system allows you to be productive if the company already has a fragmented way of working. You have to have a digital-first system that everyone can always stay connected to.”
How has working remotely impacted the way Box interacts with customers?
“You can actually be more customer-centric by going virtual. I think it’s a huge boon to productivity. We’ve been able to reach much more customers than we ever could have imagined. As a sales rep or a sales manager, you can reach more customers – sometimes by a factor of five more conversations in a single day. Instead of spending all your time on airplanes and conferences and commuting around the country, you can just pack your schedule with calls with people in different regions and different time zones all throughout the same day.”
“There is this automatic filtering happening now. Nobody wants to join a video call just for the hell of it, so we are finding sales people are spending more time on the engagements that matter and customers are making decisions faster.”
How did the shift to remote work change Box’s product development roadmap?
“There’s this big question of whether you can only get sustainable innovation or breakthrough innovation in this environment. Can we come up with the next great idea in a fully remote and distributed way? There were a lot of things we took for granted about how we would communicate and how we would move projects forward, so we had to evolve in this environment. We had to go through each line item of the business and evolve each of those into a modern, digital-first way. “
“We went into this year with a few key principles of our strategy. One was doubling down in security and compliance. The second was just better ways of doing workflows in Box and easier ways to collaborate. And finally, deeper integrations with third party partners. As soon as the pandemic became very clear, we decided to basically take that strategy but tilt all of the specifics of that strategy toward things that would help customers in this remote work environment. So we launched a series of updates, such as new collaboration features like being able to annotate your files. This means you can streamline the business process and digitize more of it.”
As an angel investor, where would you predict we will see more innovation?
“In an environment where nobody knows what economic recovery looks like in terms of social distancing, the most predictable things are those that are digital-first and aren’t dependent on how the health crisis evolves. Software has held up strongest as a category because we’re in a moment where it’s the one thing that you can bet on from a predictability standpoint.”
“We’re all pretty clear on the “Future of Work” part of the software stack. The thing that I think is equally exciting – or more exciting – is the kind of innovation where an entire industry could be run differently because of the social behavioral changes that are now happening. For example, would you ever really want to do a virtual yoga or gym session before? You might do it as a novelty, but probably only a few people would actually do it full time. And now that is literally the only way you can do it. So I think there might be billions of dollars created in new ways to have consumer experiences.”
What advice do you have for new founders?
“In this environment, there is unlimited opportunity in creating new things that are 10 times better than the old thing. You have so many archaic incumbent solutions that will not be able to adapt to this new way of working or this new set of social behaviors. But [as a founder] if you’re not really clear on what fundamentally has changed about your market right now, or that you’re building a better solution for, it’s probably not a good time to start a company. So you really want to be crisp on what’s new and different, and know why it matters right now.”
What reading or listening recommendations do you have for entrepreneurs right now?
An oldie but a goodie I would recommend any entrepreneur to read – or re-read – is the Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen. Right now, in this particular moment in time when you have so much disruption and so much change, it’s important to really make sure that you hone the craft of thinking through new market ideas. You need to understand what’s sustainable versus disruptive innovation. I try to re-read that one every few years. I am also re-reading Dealing with Darwin by Jeffrey Moore, which is about product strategy and product reinvention and it is highly applicable to the current environment.