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Box's Aaron Levie on How to Land a Huge Customer

In the run-up to its IPO, the cloud storage company landed GE, its biggest customer to date. CEO Aaron Levie opens up about how the pieces fell into place.
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At more than 900 employees and on the verge of going public, Box isn't exactly a startup anymore. And with Procter & Gamble, eBay, and other familiar names on its client roster, Box is no stranger to landing large customers. Even so, when the cloud storage and file-sharing company announced recently that it had reeled in General Electric, it was a big deal. 

For one thing, it's a huge vote of confidence in Box's technology from a trusted brand--GE has more than 300,000 employees who will start using the company's app. For another, it was some positive news right around the time that many media outlets were reporting that Box delayed its IPO due to volatile market conditions.

But you should care about this development for an entirely different reason: It's a fascinating time to be watching and learning from both a company and a chief executive in transition. I recently spoke with CEO Aaron Levie about how Box landed the GE deal and what he's learned along the way. Here are the takeaways for companies hunting for big customers.

Infiltrate From the Ground Up

In recent years, the "freemium" business model has taken a drubbing in certain startup circles. Go ahead and offer a free version of your product, critics say--but good luck trying to get customers to switch over to paid versions. Maybe that's true for some businesses and brands, but it wasn't the case for Box. A freemium business model is what allowed Box to gain entrée to some of the big companies that eventually became paying customers, Levie says. Individual employees and teams embraced Box as an easier way to share and collaborate on files and helped spread the word. Then the company started to develop more official, strategic relationships with different GE departments. Eventually these relationships helped build the foundation for a deal to roll out Box to all 300,000 GE employees.

Learn How Big Companies Think and Operate

In a recent video interview on Inc.com, Levie emphasized how important he thinks it is for Box to remain a startup--at least in terms of how quickly it makes decisions and responds to market demands. And yet when it comes to landing big corporate customers, there is at least one way in which Box needed to get out of the startup mindset. 

"Really early on, you just expect that you know the right answer to everything and customers will just catch up--that's how you build your product in the first place," Levie says. "So we were not as thoughtful about the journey the customer has to go through" to learn about and adopt a new technology. 

With time, Levie and his team learned more about the pace of business at large companies. "Bigger customers take longer to decide," he says. So nothing can kill a big deal faster than trying to rush the process or radically change the behavior of a potential customer.  "It's about being thoughtful and sympathetic to what the individual on the other side of the table needs," he says.

It certainly helped that Box had at its disposal the perfect adviser for an eventual deal with GE. Nearly two years ago, Box named former GE CIO Gary Reiner to its board of directors. "He obviously has a good sense of how GE thinks about tech," Levie says. Reiner also offered deep expertise on what it means to deploy IT services in large, complex multinational companies.

Embrace Your Own Role in the Sale

As Inc. chronicled in a feature crowning Levie "Entrepreneur of the Year," the CEO has always been laser-focused on developing and refining his company's products. But there came a point at which he needed to play a bigger role in the sales side of the business--he needed to start making appearances. 

"In the past couple of years I've begun to spend more time with customers--with the GEs of the world. I've realized that relationship is meaningful to both parties and it helps establish the partnership," he says. 

Levie knows he must perform that function, but it's clear that the startup founder is still adjusting to the role of chief schmoozer, something he will undoubtedly continue to do once he becomes a public company CEO.

On one hand, it means he's getting more feedback directly from customers. On the other, it means he must grapple with the less glamorous side of being the public face of Box. "My feeling [about it] is directly correlated to the delay of the flight I'm trying to catch," he jokes. "When it's on time, I don't mind it at all. When I'm on the runway for an hour and a half, I start to question my life." 

A Day in the Life of Aaron Levie

From 10 am to 2 am, the Box founder has a busy day of meetings, e-mail and more meetings.

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: May 21, 2014

LINDSAY BLAKELY | Staff Writer | Senior Editor, Inc.

Lindsay Blakely is a senior editor at Inc., based in Los Angeles.




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