Aaron Levie and how not to be boring

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan September 20, 2013
Summary:
"I get very bored at technology conferences." Box CEO Aaron Levie wants his own BoxWorks gig to be the tech industry's biggest conversation.

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"I get very bored at technology conferences."

A typically honest comment from Box CEO Aaron Levie when I caught up with him at the end of a week that saw him and his team host the third BoxWorks customer conference in San Francisco.

Technology customer conferences are tricky beasts. Some remain relentlessly and shamelessy multi-day product pitches. Others aspire to more amibitious goals. Salesforce.com's Dreamforce gathering, for example, is now as much a cultural and philanthropic conference as it is a cloud computing trade show.

This week's BoxWorks show is clearly in the Dreamforce camp with speakers ranging from Malcolm Gladwell and Geoffrey Moore through to politicians like Gavin Newsom and US army generals. Levie says:

"As with everything we do we try to do the conference with a different syyle. I don't just want to do things the way they've been done. There's nothing at this company that I don't enjoy and the conference has to be the same."

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What Boxworks sets out to be is a real world conversation:

"What we have are people taking different perspectives on the same problems: innovation, reinventions, technology tranformation. Those are themes that as an industry will always be there. So in five years time, there will be people still talking about industry transformation and BoxWorks will be a place where they can come. "

The trick of course becomes how to maintain a level of intimacy with delegates which can be challenging if you scale up to the size of audience of the likes of Dreamforce and Oracle OpenWorld. So for Levie, less may be more:

"It is an interesing balance to strike. If you have 100,000 people at Dreamforce, it can be hard to maintain that type of tone. So I think we may continue to keep Boxworks at a certain level. Insteaad of being the largest trade show, maybe we can host the largest conversation about technology."

Changed demographics

This week's event was the best one yet, says Levie, with a different demographic among the 3000 plus attendees:

"It's been exciting to see the evolution of the type of customers coming to BoxWorks. Two years ago it was mid-market companies. This time around we were bringing in some of the biggest companies in the world."

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The arrival of those enterprise customers must also mean the arrival more structured procurement processes and new demands on Box.

"With the larger customers there is much more of a formal or at least consistent prescriptive process for bringing us into the busienss. There's the business influencer, the CIO who's going to implement this, there's procurement, there's the chief information security officer, there's legal, So we are having to build up a lot more DNA just to have the ability to work with all those."

Based on a show of hands in one of the break out sessions, the balance of that audience was roughly 50% business, 50% IT which doesn't surprise Levie:

"That will probably always remain the same. We started out as a tool brought into an organisation by the business users. Now have made some great headway with IT. That's allowed us to be much more successful in larger deployments. But we still want it to be simple to use and able to be brought in by business people.

"Half of the people who come are thinking about their technology strategies while the other half might be sales people whose job is to think about technology."

With that in mind, I asked Levie for his thought on that Gartner prediction that posits that the IT decision making process will be usurped by the marketing department:

"The CMO is certainly more important from a technology standpoint. By definition the role of IT should be to make your business more effective through information and technology. The whole point of doing that is for the benefit of different parts of the business. So I don' t think you really break out IT spend by department and create that kind of differentiation.

"The IT influencer might change at a certain point. At the same time there are lots of other factors. Today I've been talking with a major retail store which is trying to make its internal store partners to be more effective with information. Now on the one hand that's a CIO problem, but on the other hand it's a head of retail problem. The biggest trend is that IT is more immersive and pervasive."

The vibe that came across to me from BoxWorks delegates - business and IT - was that it was the launch of Box Notes that caused the most stir among the attendees this week. Levie concurs:

"The reason that's caused more conversation is because it's the first time we've gotten into content creation. It's a transformative step in the direction we're going a shift from storing and sharing data to creating and working on data.

"We don't actually think of those activities as being much different. It's really not that that much of a leap to us helping people to create content. It's a big opportunity."

Verdict

I thoroughly approve of Levie's ambitions for BoxWorks. Having attended the very first Dreamforce all those years ago, the energy and the diverse content at the Box gig this week reminded me strongly of those days when Salesforce.com could fit its customer conference into a San Francisco hotel ball room.

Levie himself is an excellent host for his customers with a keynote that kicks off with a stand-up comedy routine rather than a hard sell and an informality that is endearing, such as sitting anonymously in the middle of the audience in order to wind up his own management team by asking awkward questions. (It's difficult to picture Marc Benioff or Larry Ellison literally hurling themselves onto the main stage as Levie did in his trademark sneakers. )

The contrast between this and the mighty and sprawling  Oracle OpenWorld this weekend will I suspect be stark. That's no criticism of OpenWorld which is one of the wonders of the tech world. But it's been interesting to bookend the week with the youthful energy and enthusiasm of BoxWorks.

Disclosure:  At time of writing, Box is a partner of diginomica.