Decked out in black jeans, a purple shirt, black jacket and orange Puma tennis shoes, Box.net co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie lived up to his billing as a rising star in the tech world at today’s Venture Alpha conference in San Francisco.
Interviewed by Alastair Goldfisher, acting editor of Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal, Levie was able to dodge some questions while giving humorous rapid-fire responses. When asked, for example, what he would have done if he had been approached with a $100 million-plus buyout offer from Steve Jobs – like competitor DropBox – he quickly replied: “I’d probably be being peeing my pants if I were talking to Steve Jobs. He would probably ask me, ‘Why is there urine coming out of your pants.”
Pressed on the issue, Levie said that Apple wouldn’t have approached Box.net, because it focuses on the enterprise. He deftly avoided talking about his company’s long-term exit plan.
When asked if Box.net – which provides cloud-based file storage services – raised $81 million in late stage funding last week because it knew that DropBox was raising a $250 million round, Levie said “We don’t raise money to counter other people’s raises. It [the size of Box.net’s round] is indicative of the space, size and scope of the market.” He later added: “Cloud is the final disruptive technology and paradigm.”
In the past year, large enterprises have started doing cloud deployments faster than Box.net expected, so it needed the new venture capital to keep up with the growth. “We’ve over-performed in selling to enterprises,” he said. For example, Procter & Gamble recently did a Box.net deployment with 18,000 users, Levie said.
Overall, Box.net, which was founded in 2005, has 8 million users in 100,000 enterprises, including 77% of the Fortune 500, Levie noted. The company has also grown to 300 employees and expects that number to reach 330 by the end of the year.
Always talking with his hands, Levie also shared an interesting anecdote about Marc Cuban, one of the first investors in Box.net. “He’s everything you see on TV and more,” he said. “He’s as erratic, crazy and visionary as his blog and TV make him appear.”
Cuban invested about $350,000 in Box.net after Levie sent him an email asking him to write about the company on his blog. About a year later, when Box.net indicated that it wanted to “go bigger in the freemium direction,” Cuban said he didn’t really believe in the model.
So when Box.net raised its next venture round, it used part of that capital to repay Cuban, who didn’t ask for a penny more than the $350,000 he put in. “He doesn’t act rationally,” joked Levie, who keeps a photo of Cuban on the wall in Box.net’s office in Palo Alto, Calif.
An audience member asked Levie if he could see himself as a venture capitalist down the road and what he would do differently. While Levie said that he could see himself in that role at some point, he surprised some audience members by saying he wouldn’t feel comfortable as an early stage investor. “I’d find it difficult to call winners from two guys in a garage,” he said. “There are so many of them.”
He said he likes the multistage approach, like Draper Fisher Jurvetson, New Enterprise Associates and Andreessen Horowitz. “There is a lot more data and metrics at the Series D stage,” he said.
Asked about the health of the venture business, which hasn’t performed well overall for the past 10 years, Levie had nothing but nice things to say. “The model is totally working,” he said. “I’m very bullish on the industry.”