Decoding Digital

Decoding Viral Enterprise Growth: Aaron Levie on SaaS Simplicity

By Ideas @ AppDirect / March 1, 2021

Aaron Levie on Building a Brand

Aaron Levie started Box, a content management and collaboration platform, intending to simplify online collaboration and file sharing. Fifteen years later, Box is one of the industry leaders in simple but highly effective SaaS technology – and listed as a $3 billion company on the New York Stock Exchange.

Aaron's vision for building products that enable people to achieve more is inspiring and has driven both him and his business to success. In 2013, Inc. magazine named the CEO Entrepreneur of the Year.

In this episode of Decoding Digital, Aaron joins Daniel Saks to share his thoughts on SaaS technology's future and decode viral enterprise growth.

How Aaron founded Box

Like many Silicon Valley founders, Aaron's entrepreneurship has a textbook origin story. It all started in his USC dorm room.

The idea for Box came from the personal challenges Aaron was running into at college. In 2004, file-sharing and collaboration were mostly a lengthy process using email or USB drives, and managing data involved setting up lots of server infrastructure.

Aaron felt like there had to be a more straightforward way to access files from anywhere. He did some market research and discovered a far bigger market for file-sharing software than he expected. So, with his childhood friend and Co-founder, Dylan Smith, he built Box.

“The idea was, let's go and solve a really big problem, one that we personally were running into, but ultimately one that ended up being much bigger than we ever imagined.”

The software struck a chord in the market. People quickly started signing up and actively using the product. This led to an angel investment from fellow entrepreneur Mark Cuban, allowing Aaron and Dylan to drop out of college to continue building and developing Box.

Fifteen years later, the software reaches more than 95,000 businesses globally and is publicly listed. At the time of writing, Box is worth $3 billion.

At the forefront of SaaS branding

SaaS and cloud computing were still in their early evolutions when Box first began. Aaron knew that they had to make enterprises understand what the future of work would look like. It was the only way to compete with the bigger incumbents.

“We realized that the only way we were going to actually turn that around was by trying to get people to imagine a different way that work could look in the future.”

This idea formed the foundation of their brand. Box set out to redefine the future of work by getting people excited about a simpler way of working together and collaborating more effectively.

Box's core brand message is that work shouldn’t be complicated. This ideology is now shared more broadly across the industry, with companies like Zoom and Slack perpetuating the idea that software can be easy and enjoyable to use.

The future of SaaS businesses in the workplace

Aaron considers his original mission to make enterprise software better for end-users complete. But he sees many more opportunities on the horizon. The remote-working era suggests that collaboration is going to continue evolving as companies are more distributed.

“Even though we're 15 years into this, we actually recognize how early we are in the broad-scale transformation that's going to be happening in business.”

Aaron believes that for the next 10-15 years, the big question to consider is: can we change the nature of work? Aaron thinks that SaaS companies should be aiming to make work faster, simpler, and more enjoyable. Software should help people out of their existing challenges around real-time collaboration within their companies.

The most exciting opportunity, according to Aaron, is rethinking how Box is disrupting the industry. It all started with changing the collaboration and file-sharing software's delivery model, but now Aaron wants to disrupt what work looks like.

Aaron's approach is to find out the pain points or "what sucks about work" and work out how software can solve those problems. He often sees issues with speed, bureaucracy, and a lack of agility within companies – but he also sees the potential for software to solve these problems and help move businesses forward.

How to make SaaS technologies easier to adopt

Over the last 20 years, there’s been so much innovation within the software industry that there’s a SaaS product for almost anything. Aaron believes that while it’s incredible that thousands of companies are working to help businesses move faster, generate more revenue, save money, and become more autonomous, it also presents a lot of work.

With software available for each function within each role of every organization and industry, there’s a lot to navigate. Aaron notes that you need to choose software that’s right for your business to give your employees the right tools for success.

But Aaron does caution that a lot of software is still harder to use than it should be. In Aaron’s view, there’s still space to simplify enterprise software and make it more enjoyable.

“We should all be building software that doesn't require training or change management because it's either so simple, delightful, or obviously necessary that it's a better way to do things, that we just want to adopt it right away.”

Simplifying software means more users will adopt it to immediately solve their problems, but Aaron believes the SaaS industry still has work to do on that front.

How to keep SaaS technology simple

Aaron designed Box is with simplicity at the forefront. There's no complexity within the technology, and even the clean, straightforward user interface reflects this. But it's not always easy to achieve.

Often, SaaS companies can be victims of their customers' requests. Saying yes to every feature and capability drives up the product's intricacy. Aaron says that knowing too much about what your customers need is a classic challenge. To avoid this, you have to build your software with discipline and intention.

“The only way that I know to build really simple software is to be hyper-focused. Say no to more things than you say yes to. Then hold the line when you start to see that you're losing that focus or that simplicity.”

How Aaron overcomes the challenges of running a SaaS company

Box has had its fair share of challenges since its launch, from funding falling through to economic crises. Aaron’s had to develop a thick skin when it comes to hearing bad news. What helps him is taking a step back and looking to the future.

Even companies like Oracle and Apple have a history of being close to bankruptcy or being outcasts in their industry. But, through perseverance, they've grown to be industry leaders and seen as the future of technology. For Aaron, these companies remind him what you can achieve when you keep your mission in mind.

“In this industry, if you have the patience and the vision, you can ultimately get through almost any difficulty that you're dealing with.”

To hear more about Aaron’s thoughts on overcoming challenges and the future of digital software, listen to the full Decoding Digital interview.

Check out more episodes of the Decoding Digital podcast series for more insights from inspirational thought leaders and digital innovators. You can listen to the podcast on your favorite podcast app, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.