Wed · Jul 13

Q&A with Aaron Levie

Aaron Levie, Box CEO, sat down with us before speaking at YC's weekly dinner.

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Aaron Levie

What do you believe that few people agree with you on?

This may be becoming less controversial, but I think AI will create more jobs than it destroys in the medium-term (short-term it will replace jobs, and long-term, it’s impossible to predict anything!). As with any technology transition, we’re chiefly focused on the immediate areas being disrupted. In the case of AI, because it’s so polarizing, it’s even more susceptible to immediate negative reactions.

But I’m convinced that it’s more likely that human potential is limited by our inefficiencies, and that AI can unlock a lot of this potential. Once ubiquitous, AI has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of healthcare, education, financial planning, life sciences, and nearly every other field. From there, we’ll begin to solve problems we didn’t even know we had, and this will lead to the creation of industries we can’t fathom today.

As with any other new breakthrough innovation, we not only tend to underestimate its direct impact, but ultimately the indirect consequences as well. It’s like going back to the early 1900s and imagining what the airline industry and the future of travel would look like, or going back to the 1950s and imagining how many jobs would be created by the internet.

What might the world look like in ten years?

Marc Andreessen famously said that “software is eating the world.” It’s undeniable that essentially every major industry in the future is going to be rewritten by software. Transportation, retail, hospitality, life sciences, healthcare, financial services are just a few industries where I don’t think we can imagine the world looking the same in 10 years from now as it does today or 10 years ago. As each of these markets are defined by companies that have software at their core, startups with zero baggage and no legacy assets and systems have the natural advantage in many cases. This is going to lead to tremendous opportunities for disruption in every industry.

Depending on the industry and its incumbents, one of two things will then happen. In some cases, startups will topple the leading companies in the traditional industry; we’re seeing this play out in media with Netflix and in taxis with Uber. In other cases, incumbents will have an opportunity to partner, build, and acquire their way into these new industries -- sometimes unsuccessfully, but attempted nevertheless. This will mean that non-Silicon Valley companies, or at least those sitting on large amounts of cash, could soon become the biggest acquirers in the tech industry. We’ve already seen this with Cruise being acquired by GM, Nordstrom buying various retail startups, and Monsanto buying Climate Corp.

This trend will only pick up in the coming quarters and years as we’ve had an influx of startups attacking these traditional markets, many of which will need new rounds of funding or the access and resources that incumbents can offer. And after that, I think you’ll see a redefinition of what the technology industry is -- it will no longer be the insular software ecosystem we’re familiar with, but instead, encompassing every industry with players as far-ranging as Walmart, Dow Chemical, and GM.

What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t hedge your bets. As a startup you have to really focus on whatever your core belief is. You can’t bifurcate your strategy to support a hedge on which outcome will work out.

You can pivot, you can test lots of things, but the second you’re hedging on very different market approaches, very different technology paradigms, you won’t be able to focus enough to actually win in the one that works.

Ten years from now, how have you improved yourself?

The list is pretty much endless. To name a few: I wish I were better at chess, I wish I could juggle five balls instead of barely four, I wish I were better at piano, I wish I were a speed reader, and I wish I could sleep fewer hours.

If you weren’t working on Box what would you be working on?

Maybe working in robotics and, in particular, robotics coupled with AI. Of course I’m woefully under-qualified to even get close to those fields, but it seems like it would be a lot of fun.

What book has influenced you most?

The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
It teaches you how to optimize your strategy to the greatest degree to compete with incumbents. We tend to think about the innovator’s dilemma as technology disruption when it’s really business model innovation and business model disruption. I re-read that book every few years to clarify my thinking, ensure we don’t have any gaps in our strategy, and make sure to exploit any gaps in competitors’ strategies.

I’d also highly recommend:
Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey Moore
Inside The Tornado by Geoffrey Moore
Blue Ocean Strategy by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim
Positioning by Al Ries
Only The Paranoid Survive by Andrew Grove

What’s something you’d tell your younger self?

In a non-business sense, spend more time with your parents.

In a business sense, spend more time with your customers. There were plenty of times where we could have figured out a way to solve a customer’s problem that allowed us to stay focused on what we were good at while still solving their problem. Instead what we usually did was not pursue what the customer wanted. By getting really close to your customers you can get very good at helping them understand how you can solve their problem in a different way than they imagined and in doing so you can create solutions that allow you to still accomplish your goals.

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