The difference between large companies and large innovative companies might come down to how they listen to their customers, says Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO of Box. Founded in 2005, the file-sharing and content-management company now has more than 71,000 enterprise customers (and was Inc.'s 2013 Company of the Year). But size is more albatross than advantage when it comes to innovation.
"When we had a couple hundred customers, it wasn't a big enough base to tell us where they wanted to go, so we made big bets," Levie says. "The bigger you get, the bigger the instinct to listen to what customers want and to think customers have all the answers."
This can lead to incremental improvements on existing products, but few big, exciting innovations. To keep Box ahead, Levie regularly checks in with a small subset of a few hundred forward-thinking customers. That focus group has helped the Redwood City, California, company set itself apart in the crowded file-sharing space. Its governance and compliance offerings, especially, allow heavily regulated industries like health care and financial services to embrace the cloud. And a limited customer focus is driving Levie to pursue what he thinks all customers will come to expect in the future: machine learning. Box is now developing A.I. solutions to help customers get more insights from their data. "We have a very fast feedback loop with that small set of customers," says Levie. "And as they adopt the next innovation, it will ripple through the customer base."