Aaron Levie, the 27-year-old CEO of Box, is on a mission to double annual sales and get stuff done--even if it means long hours and no vacation days.
Aaron Levie started building websites when he was 13 and was 20 when he co-founded Box, a Los Altos, California-based company that provides online file storage for businesses. While attending the University of Southern California, Levie launched the company out of his dorm room with friend Dylan Smith. Seven years later, Box stores several thousand terabytes of data for more than 100,000 companies. Box, which employs about 600 people, has more than doubled sales every year. After raising $125 million in funding this year, the company is valued at $1.2 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Levie, 27, is in constant motion. When staff members need the young CEO, they have to search Box's three-story office building to track him down. They might find him in one of the kitchens, mainlining caffeine. Or maybe running up the stairwell in his bright blue-and-orange sneakers, flashing peace signs at passersby. Or presiding over a meeting, where he flip-flops between roles as the stern principal and as the kid who won't stop whispering to the guy next to him about today being Atari's birthday. He spoke to Reshma Memon Yaqub.
My main goals are to innovate and to disrupt. I want to disrupt the marketplace and to disrupt the old model--the way traditional software companies have created and sold their storage products and interacted with customers. Also, I want to avoid being disrupted. I have a lot of paranoia and anxiety about who could attack from where and what we need to do to be more competitive. My paranoia is a mixed blessing. It can come in handy, but it can also be extremely annoying.
My workday begins around 11 a.m., with a cup of black coffee in each hand. If I had more hands, there would be more coffee.
I head straight into the first of half a dozen daily meetings. I have an open calendar system, so anyone can put a meeting on my calendar. I meet frequently with sales, marketing, product design, engineering, recruiting, finance, and customers. And less frequently with investors and the board. That said, my ideal day would have fewer meetings.
I have a lot of faults. I often interrupt in meetings. I talk too loud. I talk too fast. Sometimes, when it comes to making a decision, I don't really communicate all the reasons why we should be doing something, because I have already thought about it so much in my head.
I don't have an assistant. I use a yellow pad of paper to keep track of what I have to do each day. The most important things get written on the back of my hand. I also keep a 70-page PowerPoint full of all the big stuff I'm working on. I don't show it to anyone. I just use PowerPoint because I haven't advanced to anything more modern. It's basically a diary of the entire business. For example, it outlines our international efforts: product launches, rollout strategies, the regions we're going to hire people in, the partners we're going to have, and the new offices we are opening. We just opened a London office in June.
Nobody here has a private office, including me. The 44 rooms that would be offices are all conference rooms. A lot of them are named after Internet icons and early investors, such as Cuban, Jobs, and Moore. The conference rooms' glass walls are meant to be written on, and a lot of the regular walls are painted with IdeaPaint, so you can throw your ideas on the wall.
I'm obsessed with speed. I'm always asking myself, Why can't we do things faster? Why can't it happen more efficiently? Why is this requiring three meetings instead of one? What steps can we cut out of this process to automate it? Speed and efficiency are crucial, because we have about 600 people, and we're competing against companies that have tens of thousands of people.
Our big goals for this year were to more than double our sales, to go international, and to shift from only direct sales to also working with partners to sell our products. We are on track to meet these goals, and we're hoping to overachieve on sales growth.
Probably the biggest value that I add to this company is reminding people to constantly push on the scale of opportunity--to realize that they can do something 10 times bigger, 10 times better, 10 times faster. That's why "10X" is another one of our core values. It's also one of my favorite conference room names.
One of the ways we accomplished that early was by switching from a pay-only model to one in which we gave away 5GB of online storage space to individuals. Our user base grew by about 100 times overnight. When enough individuals are privately using our product at work, then a company eventually sees how it makes sense for it to buy in. Recently, I brought in a chief operating officer, which created immense leverage for me personally, in terms of what I can spend my time on now.
I get very involved with product design--anything the customer touches. I spend about five to 10 hours a week on that. I care a lot about micro details. How does the button on the screen look and feel? We want to get as much clutter out of the way as possible, so the customer can use an application without having to look at a complex interface. We want the site to be simple, consistent, and easy to use. And as frictionless as possible.
I've been building websites and taking things apart since I was 13. So I've been doing this for 14 years. That's about as much experience as you can get on the Internet. Also, I grew up in Seattle, very close to Microsoft, and that's why I know all of its weaknesses. I may be young, but the good news is I am getting older.
I'm also very involved in hiring. We have about 15 recruiters, and I talk with them two or three times a day. I personally interview a lot of candidates. We have a lot of employees with amazing skills. Some of them also have special abilities. We have one of the world's best jugglers and one of the country's best baton twirlers. Circus skills are a pretty important quality around here. I can balance a soda can on its edge. But I definitely wouldn't hire someone like myself, because I'm too difficult to manage.
One of our core values is "Get shit done." We have a very execution-oriented culture. It's kind of the opposite of a culture that has lots of process, lots of bureaucracy, slow decision making. Another one of our values is "Take risks. Fail fast." If we fail fast, we can correct mistakes quickly.
We've focused the culture on velocity and how much we can get done in as little time as possible. People are held accountable for the goals they set, and we set very high goals for everything we do. When you are doubling revenue every year, the amount people have to be able to do--and succeed at doing--is critical. Our culture is motivated to solve whatever problem we're working on. And every employee owns stock or stock options.
Another one of our company's core values is "Make Mom proud. (Unless she's evil.)" My mom is proud of me. But she might not be too happy about the hours I keep or how little I eat. I wake up so late that it would be inappropriate to have breakfast. At most, I will have a snack in the day and dinner. I realize that it's not the healthiest way to live, but it's all I really have time for.
I don't work out. But I do so many loops of our three-story office every day that I probably end up walking a couple of miles. The only time I knowingly spend more time on anything than I have to is taking the stairs instead of the big yellow slide that extends from our second floor to the lobby. I'm paranoid that that thing will break sometime, and I don't want to be on it when it does. I refuse to sign the waiver.
Around 8 p.m. every day, I take a nap for about 25 minutes. Sometimes 18 minutes, sometimes 23. I'm experimenting to find the optimal rest time. I sleep on a big, electric-blue couch, in a quiet conference room called The Rock. I wear earplugs. People usually know to leave me alone during my nap, but cleaning crews have walked in on me twice in the past three months.
I wake to an alarm on my iPhone. Then, my second day begins--five hours for me to get stuff done and strategize. This is when I reply to emails and go over the metrics of the day. I also analyze the day's headlines to see what is happening in the competitive landscape. I need to know, What is Facebook doing? Spotify? Pandora? Pinterest? I have to know what happened in the world before I can possibly complete my day.
A huge part of my job is to collect and piece together all the different data points of what's going on in the world and then lay out a strategy to take Box and our technology into the future. The companies that win are the companies that guess the future right and take their vision to the world.
At night, I also read a lot of business books. In the office, I keep a big bookshelf stocked with copies of the few dozen books that I think are most important. Some of my favorites are The Innovator's Dilemma, Crossing the Chasm, and Blue Ocean Strategy. They're free for anyone to read and keep.
I usually leave the office around 2 a.m. There's almost always someone still there.
There's no such thing as being caught up. There's lots of stuff to do, and you just keep doing it forever. I haven't taken a vacation day--the V-word--in the seven years since I started this company. I recently went on my first vacation, but it wasn't technically a day off. It was just a long weekend in Mexico with my girlfriend. She and I met a few years ago at a nonwork party that I really didn't want to go to, because I don't understand the point of such things.
My downtime tends to resemble my uptime. Weekends are workdays, but toned down. Over the whole weekend, I may have five meetings, as opposed to six on a weekday. I used to play piano for 30 minutes at night, but I had to pull that out of my schedule. I don't have time for nonwork stuff.