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Box CEO Aaron Levie: A client call a day keeps cluelessness away

aaron levieAaron Levie, the voluble, vivacious 29-year-old co-founder of Box with an estimated worth of $100 million, spends 50% of his time on the road meeting with customers. He’s been to construction sites, movie studios, GE, Toyota, Eli Lilly. “I was at Sea World a couple of weeks ago,” said Levie at the recent EmTech conference, where he was interviewed on stage.

His nine-year-old company had trained itself to be more customer-focused about four years ago, Levie said. But his own intense customer focus was fairly recent, started about a year ago after he met with people he considers mentors — “my enterprise software heroes” — in what sounded like a taking-stock exercise. These heroes, as the story goes, asked to inspect his calendar then told him he wasn’t spending enough time with customers. He should be doing at least a client call a day, if not more.

“We started out as a very product-focused company,” Levie said of the cloud storage company. All the company’s time and all of his time was spent on product innovation, on perfecting the underlying stack of the Box service. Then a funny thing happened on the way to doing business with the likes of Disney. A “robust and differentiated technology” gets you in the door at the Fortune 500, he said, but unless “you spend time with them and know their environment and can work at their level,” you won’t become one of their trusted vendors.

User-centric or bust

What has Levie learned by spending time with his customers?

“The single most important feature of this next-generation IT is that it is user-centric,” Levie said. The CIOs he meets with are asking “‘What is the problem the user is trying to solve — with technology to do that,’ as opposed to ‘Here is my existing set of technologies and what can I cobble together?'” The old “system-centric” approach to solving business problems is no longer viable, or shouldn’t be.

Keep in mind that Levie, whose wild-and-crazy-guy coif is going gray at the temples, is a good talker (and very conversant in IT-speak, too). He also likes to drop names –.e.g. “What we saw happening with a lot of leading CIOs at companies like Netflix and Procter & Gamble and ….”

In addition, the company’s IPO, which was filed last spring but delayed because of a weak market for technology stocks, is expected to launch later this year or early 2015. So, whatever he’s learned by spending 50% of his time with customers is also what he thinks investors want to hear. Indeed, an important feature of the “next-generation IT” these big-time CIOs are using are best-of-breed tools like Workday and MobileIron and Box.

All that said, who can argue with the idea that in order for IT organizations to solve business problems, IT organizations must look at the problem through the lens of the business customer?

Nimble and able: Bring on ‘nimbility’

Levie was asked one hard question by his on-stage interlocutor, Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief and publisher of the MIT Technology Review. Box does business in a very crowded market, Pontin said, competing at one end with the likes of Google, Amazon and Microsoft on storage and at the other end with startups such as Quip, a cutting edge collaboration app that is getting (mostly) rave reviews.

“Where does Box fit into that? And how can it compete with these big-ass companies offering free services on the one hand and a lot of very nimble startups on the other?” Pontin said.

The question seems particularly relevant this week, with the news that HP has decided to split off its consumer and enterprise businesses in a bid to become both a more able and more nimble enterprise IT services provider.

For the record, Levie gave the right answer. The company aims to outdo the big guys on nimbleness and partner with the up-and-comers. “We have to balance user experience and security and compliance in a way that few of them can.”

Email Linda Tucci, executive editor at SearchCIO, or find her on Twitter @ltucci.

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Linda, this was a good read, thank you! I wanted to pass along a thought perhaps for a follow up piece. Getting closer to clients is something that's been talked about for a long time. Your article touches on one way to do so which is a solid suggestion. Perhaps going one step further by discussing how one should prepare for client interactions would be helpful. For example, we do reviews with clients frequently and have a process by which we use to prepare for those conversations. In that process we also have key information categories that we focus on so that clients not only get updates and current state reviews, but they get insight into where we feel they could be going to accomplish their desired goals. An article on that sort of information would help, I believe, someone properly and strategically prepare for client connections. We all know the better prepared the better the conversation and outcome. Thanks again Linda for touching on this topic.