Box Has Always Been About Reshaping Enterprise Software

One of Box’s earliest marketing stunts was a series of billboards on California’s Route 101 in which it made no bones about going after enterprise content management (ECM) big shot, Microsoft SharePoint. While many would like to pigeonhole Box as storage or sync and share, Box has always had other ideas.

From the earliest days in its transition from a consumer to enterprise company in the 2009/2010 timeframe, Box telegraphed who it was targeting, and it wasn’t on-premises storage vendors like HP, EMC and NetApp. It was Enterprise Content Management brands like SharePoint, EMC Documentum, OpenText, Oracle and IBM.

In a 2010 One on one interview with FierceContentManagement, CEO Aaron Levie outlined his vision for the company. “Initially our core mission was — and still is — to make it easy for people to access, collaborate and share all their content on the web. But our customers’ usage of Box prompted our shift from online storage for consumers to a Cloud Content Management platform for business.”

What that means in practical terms is that even at that early point, Levie recognized that he didn’t want his company lumped in with the online storage/sync and share pack. By tying Box’s destiny to ECM, he was moving into far more sophisticated enterprise software territory where companies needed a range of services including security, governance, workflow, metadata libraries and so forth. This was a far more sustainable to place to live and grow than cloud storage, which as we’ve seen has been commoditized to the point being almost worthless.

That could explain why when Box wanted attention back in that early 2010 timeframe, it focused on content management events. In fact, I met Levie for the first time at an AIIM/Info360 Conference, which in those days was a huge deal, and the premiere conference for content management vendors.

I suspect Levie and his team chose AIIM/Info360 because he had big ambitions even then to redefine content management and to take on the industry titans like Microsoft. From the moment I met him, it was clear he wanted to be more than cloud storage. That was simply a starting point, a means to an end. Today, many analysts and journalists still tend to typecast Box in that early guise.

But Box has been building a content management platform from its earliest enterprise days. It’s not a coincidence it hired Whitney Bouck, who worked for years at another big ECM vendor, EMC Documentum to run its enterprise marketing in 2011, or that at its most recent BoxWorks conference it really took aim at filling some of its biggest content management holes by offering workflow and metadata tools that larger customers have been clamoring for.

As Levie told me at the conference, this wasn’t about conforming to a 1990s version of content management, so much as using his company’s platform to bend content management to Box’s vision. “We think content management is changing and the nature of content management is moving more toward Box, than we are building something that looks like [a ’90s] content management system,” Levie told me at BoxWorks.

Further, Levie also rejected the idea that his company was purely about storage. As he told me, “Storage is just a piece of the content management puzzle, not the business model.”

Box also recognized early on that it couldn’t be a simple service, it needed to be a platform. To that end, it built APIs to connect to other enterprise software, but it didn’t stop at being a connector. It exposed Box’s services to embed in other software, and it attracted tens of thousands of developers to build applications on top of Box, something many companies aspire to do, but have found difficult to pull off. Developers want to build things on top of popular applications. By building a popular service, Box laid the foundation for the success of the platform.

Box may deserve to take heat for its sky-high marketing and sales costs and its astonishing customer acquisition costs as reported on its S-1 form, required before an IPO. Perhaps as a result the company has taken its time going public since filing last March, but this week as it finally pushes the IPO button Friday, it’s probably at least worth understanding its business model.

Tonight at the market close, Box will announce its opening price, and after all the years, tomorrow morning at market open, it will be game on for them.

I am not in a position to predict how Box will do when the bell rings on Friday, but I know this. It’s probably a mistake to underestimate them. Box has never been shy about going after giants.