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Dropbox CEO: How to Succeed as a First-Time Founder

Drew Houston knows a thing or two about finding success the first time around. Here are the things that helped him along the way.
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Drew Houston, co-founder and CEO of Dropbox, knows that it only takes one great idea to start a successful company. And he believes being a first-timer isn't a bad thing--in fact, you have some inherent advantages over serial entrepreneurs. 

After writing the original code for his cloud-based file-syncing service at a bus station in Boston in 2007 after he graduated from MIT, Houston and co-founder and CTO Arash Ferdowsi have built a business with 200 million users who save more than a billion digital files, photos, and videos every day.

The MIT-duo, with only one degree between the two (Ferdowsi dropped out to start Dropbox), addressed an annoying pain point--needing a thumb drive or email attachment to share files between devices. They've even had the pleasure of saying no to a buyout offer from Steve Jobs.

Below, read the four tips he dished to First Round Review, a blog published by the VC firm of the same name, on how to be a first-time success.

Find a 'worthy' problem.

Houston says that the first step to founding a scalable company is to focus on one problem that many people have. Here's how he defines a "worthy problem."

  1. It must pull you: "Sometimes you just get this feeling--it's a compulsion or an obsession. You can't stop thinking about it. You just have to work on this thing," he tells First Round Review.
  2. It must be able to go far: "With something like Dropbox, it was immediately like, 'Wow, this is literally something that anyone with an internet connection could use.' Everyone needs something like this, they just don't realize it yet," he says.
  3. You must learn: "If you start your own thing, you can learn a lot really fast from doing things wrong," he says. "Ask yourself, 'Where can I find an environment where I can work really hard and learn the most?'"

Be proud that you're a beginner.

Being a first-timer gives you a fresh perspective, Houston says, so "own being a beginner." Some of the most successful tech companies, from Google to Facebook to Apple, were all started by first-timers. A wide-eyed, optimistic entrepreneur isn't as easily tainted by the it's-impossible-attitude, he says. "A lot of really great, innovative things have happened when people just didn't know it wasn't supposed to be possible," Houston says.

Don't assume incumbents can do it all.

If you think the tech giants are capable of solving every problem, you'll never start your own successful company. Sometimes, it doesn't pay to be the first in your industry. Friendster and MySpace were bested by Facebook. What if Sergey Brin and Larry Page didn't make Google because they thought Alta Vista and Ask Jeeves were good enough? "People make basic assumptions based on what they have now. But you have to ask yourself, is this really what people are going to be doing in five years? Houston says. "Very few people ask themselves what they would actually want instead if they could wave a magic wand. What if there could be this magic folder that you could access from anywhere and never need to back up?"

IMAGE: jdlasica/Flickr
Last updated: Dec 6, 2013

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported in the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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