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Transforming The Box: Aaron Levie’s Mission To Show It’s More Than Storing Files In The Cloud

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The world of cloud storage has certainly heated up over the past couple of years, let alone months. Nary a day goes by when we’re probably reading news about the latest service to increase storage capacity. Just this summer, Microsoft did just that with its OneDrive service, giving free account holders 15GB of storage and 1TB to Office 365 users. This was in direct retaliation to what Google did with Drive in March — the company decreased its monthly storage price, providing 15GB for free and 1TB for $9.99. Of course the other shoe fell when apparent market leader Dropbox consolidated its paid pricing tiers into one and offered more storage. Now users receive 1TB of storage for $10 per month.

As you can tell, there’s a lot of back and forth going on between these various cloud services. And there are many more to include, such as Hightail and Box. But the latter choice seems to be deviating away from this storage paradigm. It’s seeking to break itself apart from the bickering between all of these services and reshape the way people think about their files online. This “transformation”, if you will, became much more apparent during Box’s customer conference this week in San Francisco. In short, the story is no longer “a place to store information in the cloud”, but rather “what can the cloud do to make you better.”

It’s time for the cloud to get a life.

Proving Box is what the world needs

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Box CEO and co-founder Aaron Levie is rather boisterous and passionate about the cloud and you can hear it in his voice anytime he’s on stage. After all, he’s been at this for the past ten years when it was rather difficult for people to share massively large files with one another. Often, it might involve having to mail a CD filled with content via FedEx or UPS to the other person, or store it on a server and provide that URL to them. However it was done, the whole method of sharing files was not native — it just wasn’t meant to be done that way. At Box’s customer conference this week, Levie said that in 2004, the idea behind the company was to make it “easy to access and share data from any device and any platform.”

It’s probably safe to say that a decade later, that mission has been accomplished, but not only by Box, but also its competitors like Dropbox, Google, Microsoft, and Hightail. So when everyone is the same, how do you differentiate yourself? Simple: transform your mission.

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Some interesting statistics about Box’s performance thus far: there are more than 240,000 businesses using the service, with over 27 million users worldwide. An astonishing 99 percent of Fortune 500 businesses have accounts. Its platform has a considerable audience as well with 47,000 developers leveraging Box’s API and producing 1,200 apps for its OneCloud offering.

And while this is good, there’s a giant elephant in the room that Box needs to get rid of: its pending IPO. In January, the company reportedly filed paperwork with the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) confidentially to go public. Several months later, it was confirmed that the public market is where Box was headed as it looked to raise $250 million from the initial offering. But it wasn’t a pretty picture inside its financials. TechCrunch notes that while it had $124 million in revenue for the full-year ending January 2014, it had a net loss of $168 million and it was hemorrhaging badly.

As my former colleague Alex Wilhem noted at the time:

Box recently raised $100 million more to fund its operations. That round, taking place in December of 2013, came not a moment too soon: Box ended the period concluding on January 31, 2014, with $108 million in cash and equivalents. You can infer a timing period in late 2013 when Box was short on available funds.

$108 million sounds like a towering sum, but for a company as unprofitable as Box, it isn’t. With a net loss of $168 million in its most recent fiscal year, Box would presumably burn through that sum in less than a year. That would put it back in the same spot it was a year ago: Looking for new capital.

So Box needs to shake this off and show that it’s more diverse than a one-trick pony for the enterprise space. Yes, Box appears to dominate this sector more than any of its other competitors and even was one of the first to launch a developer platform, which one would think would be great. After all, the enterprise, albeit not the “sexiest” of areas, is where much of the money is made, right?

Your cloud can do what?

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This is what made Box’s announcements at BoxWorks a bit more interesting to pay attention to. Instead of rolling out this new “cool” feature, it appears that the company has decided to put all the pieces together and show how the cloud can work for everyone. A good place to start looking is how Levie framed his keynote at the conference: instead of focusing on individual products, he focused on the ecosystem, specifically how Box works for individuals, organizations, and industries.

Yes, the updates for individual users was interesting (unveiling of Box in Office 365 for desktop and updates to BoxNotes and BoxPreview), but they weren’t the significant push that the company needs to move the proverbial needle. Rather, it’s with the business and industry areas that could be the key to Box’s next evolution. Specifically, it’s the introduction of Box Workflow and also Box for Industries — two potentially major pushes to show users and stakeholders and Box is more for just storing files — it’s to transform the way people work.

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In the “Bring your own device” age and with the way we work in today’s society always evolving, companies are looking for new solutions to help their employees be productive while also giving them the freedom to have a balanced life. Whether working remote, attending meetings off-site, or just because they’re lean and mobile, businesses have to recognize that having antiquated legacy systems in place just aren’t going to cut it anymore. Employees are probably growing frustrated with trying to share files with not only their colleagues, but their vendors and clients using systems that can only be accessed via a 20-step process (yes, it’s a bit of a gross exaggeration). This is one of several advantages of cloud services — it’s accessible anywhere and everywhere while also conforming to the ways users are most familiar with.

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With Box Workflow, Box hopes to create a smarter and more powerful platform. The desire is to make work more efficient so that users can spend more time on that which is more important, such as customer relationships, product development, design, etc — basically your job. This offering gives businesses the ability to leverage Box’s metadata and collaboration capabilities with new automation protocols to help move things along. Here’s the “three tenets” of Box Workflow:

  • Rules-based: Admins can drive specific tasks and actions based on a set of rules that touch actions, events and objects in Box. These rules are fundamental building blocks to building better business processes.
  • Intelligent: Because process is about the content, not just filenames and folders, you’ll be able to use Box’s machine learning algorithms to intelligently classify and recommend related documents with little to no manual intervention.
  • Open: Get direct access to content, collaboration, and metadata events through the Box V2 API. Enterprise developers, architects, systems integrators and ecosystem partners can build custom processes and products on top of the Box Platform.

One could probably say that this is the introduction of IFTTT (“If this then that”) to Box’s platform. And while Box has shared some examples of its usage on its blog post, it might be interesting to see whether Box is moving further in the background to be more tightly integrated with a company’s back-end technology to be a critical part of its infrastructure (think a more expansive integration beyond Box Embed), as opposed to just some third-party service that only some employees use.

But just helping companies to evolve isn’t enough for Levie and his cohort. The company is so invested in the power of the cloud that it has set its sights on entire industries. With Box for Industries, the company is approaching this in a “one Box doesn’t fit all” manner. As Box explains, this new initiative will help “accelerate business transformation in every business by combining talented solutions leveraging Box’s metadata, workflow, compliance, and platform capabilities; industry-specific applications from curated third-party developers and partners; and world-class implementation services from Box and key system integrator partners.” In essence, Box is providing custom solution kits that any company can pick that best works for their industry.

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Levie says that these best-of-breed type solutions will be available for all of the industries that it serves, but as of right now, it’s focusing on those in retail, healthcare, and media & entertainment. It’s worth noting that Box has paraded its client list recently, talking about its integration with legal, healthcare, and other industries, probably in an effort to show potential investors and shareholders that it isn’t just being used by a niche market. But now instead of showcasing its customer companies, it’s showing that Box is a powerful resource for any industry.

ZDNet’s Rachel King talks more about this in her post about Box for Industries:

Levie explained that Box looked at how other software companies attempted to go down this road, and observed how their core businesses suffered at the expansion to these other verticals.

The biggest difference with Box, according to Levie, is Box’s focus on establishing its horizontal platform that can be tailored at the feature or platform-level to different verticals — not to build in vertical-related technology into the platform itself.

In looking at Box’s moves over the past few years, it seems that the company is certainly maturing and trying to avoid having itself by typecast as simply being a cloud storage service. As more business is being done on the “information superhighway” (remember that phrase?), it may be detrimental to some businesses to have to slow things down to a crawl just to get business done. Today’s work society is one where people are constantly on the go and want things to be readily accessible, editable, and viewable at a moment’s notice just by flipping on their mobile device, tablet, laptop, or personal computer. Storage will always remain Box’s key component, but perhaps companies are expecting more out of their information.

Cloud may be used to store, but maybe it’s time to push the boundaries?

Photo credits: BoxWorks 2014 stage via Box, Aaron Levie via Forbes, Aaron Levie at BoxWorks 2014 via Box, Nokia Lumia smartphone photo via SplitShire/Pixabay, laptop and notebook photo via TheAngryTeddy/Pixabay

Published in Cloud Computing Enterprise Featured Headline