Sam Ghods is Co-Founder and Services Architect at Box. He attended the University of Southern California, where he studied computer engineering and computer science for two years before dropping out to start Box with Aaron Levie, Dylan Smith and Jeff Queisser in 2006.
How did you get to where you are today?
Box started with three high school friends and myself [Aaron Levie, Dylan Smith, Jeff Queisser]. Instead of playing video games or getting drunk, our fun thing to do was to hang out in Aaron's hot tub and geek out about tech startup ideas. We had a lot of fun working together and trying out all kinds of crazy ideas - like starting a record label, installing antivirus and removing spyware from people’s computers, and, at one point, attempting to create a Hulu and Netflix before there were iPhones.
When we got to college, Aaron was having a really hard time getting his essays from his computer to the USC library computers for printing – and so the idea for Box was born. Aaron found some contracted developers to build the initial prototype, he got some traction, he got some revenue – and he convinced Dylan, Jeff and myself to drop out, join the company, and move to Silicon Valley.
How did Aaron first approach you to join Box, and what was the thing that made you think, “I'm going to do this”?
He actually approached us a few times, and we said no a few times. He had to convince us, for sure, because at the beginning it was just file sharing - until it became more of a vision for enterprise content management, which is really the pain point that we ended up solving.
I think he eventually convinced us because we all realized how exciting it would be to work together on this idea. And I say over and over again, when it's an early company, the most important thing is the people. You cannot start a new company with someone that you're not 100 percent aligned and locked in with and ready to go for the next who knows how many years. In fact, I think that's probably the most important thing, much more so than the idea or the situation. The idea is going to change and evolve a bunch over time.
When you guys first got started at USC were you balancing Box with your courses? And at what point did you decide to make the move to Silicon Valley?
Aaron and Dylan were balancing for about a year before they both agreed to drop out. Then Aaron recruited me and Jeff and convinced us to join. Aaron and I, we’d go back and forth for hours, often deep into the night, about different things… designs and mock-ups. I was actually working with another startup at the time and almost left school just to pursue that startup – but working with the guys was so fun that I decided to pursue Box instead.
When you first got started in 2005 it was difficult to convince people that the cloud was the future. How did your team overcome that challenge, and go on to become so successful in the space?
The key to major disruptions, like the cloud or the switch from mainframe to PCs, or any of big technology transitions - the real key is that a tremendous amount of pain exists; it's all just really broken. So usually the next wave is something way more efficient or easy to use, easier to work with – but it's also a very immature.
Here’s a good example: Smartphones existed before the iPhone but they were all very clumsy to use. Remember the Windows phone or you BlackBerrys? They had big plastic keyboards, a stylus - they had multitasking… but everything was difficult to use. The interface was generally not that great. So, when the iPhone came out and it was a totally different user experience. It was easy. It was sexy. It was beautiful. It was everything you'd wanted – but it was still immature – the first release didn’t even have many apps and couldn’t do something as simple as copy-paste. On the other hand, the Windows Phone and Blackberry all the “right” apps – and still, the iPhone still attracted a ton of people. Despite that, everyone, the status quo, called the iPhone a toy that can’t do everything you really need it to do – that it can’t do the real job of a smartphone. Fast forward two or three years, and of course it has all the functionality it needed – and all the users.
I believe “the cloud” happened the same way: We would go to [our customers] and say, “look you're spending thousands of hours and millions of dollars trying to get like SharePoint to work on your hardware - but with [Box] you sign up and you're done – you have unlimited storage forever. It's a completely different way of thinking. It’s a different foundation, a different philosophy. Even with our early product, early adopters were able to start using the platform right away and get a lot of value. And with larger customers that initially rejected us saying we don’t this feature or that feature – we’d be able to come back six months later we go back with a more mature version and they take us seriously. It moves fast. When there’s so much pain in a market, it’s easier to get people to make that leap onto something less secure, less proven, or less feature-rich.
And I just want to backtrack a little - so was Box your first "real job?" Or did you work somewhere before that?
Yeah and I would say actually for the first years it wasn’t even a real job. It was me and the three of us basically working in a cottage; 16, 18 hours a day on random schedules so it didn't feel like a job for two or three years when we actually had employees. But yeah, I never really had a conventional job before that it was always side jobs for money and other projects.
What was it like watching something grow from "working in a cottage," as you put it, to this giant empire of sorts in the cloud space?
It's the kind of thing that happens one day at a time. You don't really notice it - you just deal with the struggles and challenges that come up each day, each week, each month as they come. It was a lot of long learning a lot of growing the whole time.
What advice would you have for someone who's looking to start a new venture?
People are so important. A lot of young companies that I talk with you have a good team on paper – maybe a technical person has partnered up with a sales person, for example - but they're not really clicking from a personality standpoint, or maybe have different visions or priorities. That’s not a great foundation. A company a journey with your co-founders for probably five, seven, maybe 10 years minimum for a successful company. When we started out, we all didn't know very much but we all knew that no matter what happened with the company, we'd be able to all work together and stick together and get through it. We knew we could work as many hours a day or week as it took because we still chose to hang out together even if we weren't working.
I feel like finding co-founders is kind of like dating in a way. And I feel like you guys kind of got lucky in the sense that you had four extremely driven people who were already friends. Based on your experiences, what advice do you have for someone who doesn't have a group of best friends and is looking for a co-founder?
It’s really hard, but don't try to “find” a co-founder; don't go to a founder dating thing and or one of those kinds of events - finding someone is super super hard and very high risk even if you find someone whose skills complement each other perfectly. Instead, make a list of every single person in your life who you've known for more than a year - look at potentially unconventional places as well - and even if they don’t have all the right experiences but they're extremely driven and willing to learn -- reach out to that person and you both work on developing skills in areas where you might have less experience. On the whole, it's generally considered that that approach has a higher likelihood of success than finding someone randomly who you're going to click with.
What actionable advice do you have for someone who might not know that much about business and someone who just has a great idea and is looking to get it off the ground?
My advice would be to just try and get it off the ground - by themselves or with a friend or someone they know. Learning to code or build a product today is so much easier than it's ever been. For us to host a modest website with a thousand words on it, we had to buy servers - rent out space, go drive to the data center, mount and rack servers ourselves, all before you get any software – we had to figure out our own ways to do load balancing. Now, deploying almost everything technical for building an MVP or a basic product or business - the bar has been lowered so, so far. It’s so easy to build mock-ups – instead of having to describe it, you can just show it. There are cool tools that allow you to do mocks and in building a product, it’s a great first step. You can quickly have something to actually show people.
Do you think it's a good time to be starting a startup right now?
Yeah, I think it always is. Some of the greatest companies come out of the worst possible times so it's just about the right idea at the right time and to some extent it's the right trends. I wouldn't really worry about macroeconomics very much.
What is your key to staying focused and motivated?
Just find something that’s all you want to do all day long, right?
I really like this idea of systems versus goals thinking - it's out of the recent book by Scott Adams the creator of Dilbert. But his idea is to worry less about the outcome or the accomplishment you’re trying to go after and think more about what are you doing each day and what's the process you're following to get to where are you going. For me, it's like writing code. I just love writing code and I don't care about much else besides doing that right. And so, if I focus on that, all the benefits that come from that whether it's accomplishing something, putting out this product, or whatever happens is great but that stuff happens and then it kind of goes away. But writing code I can go back to every day. And even if you don’t have something like that, pick something you’re not very good at and just start doing it - start spending an hour a day on it. You will learn to love it just by virtue of starting to get good at it and having spent all that time on something, you'll start to really enjoy it.
Is work life balance thing for you? It sounds like you're really passionate about what you do - but what do you do for fun? How do you relax?
Yes. I’ve been into salsa dancing for a number of years. I really enjoy cooking. I like playing music. Usually when I get into something, it's a very intense thing for a very intense period of time.
Do you find that among you and your colleagues, particularly founder friends, that work life balance is generally something that people are able to manage? Or would you say it's difficult?
It really comes down to this: is it just a job or is it something that you're really passionate about? Is it your life's work? It's always a struggle and everyone's different – for me I don't get too hung up on any one thing. Keep the big picture in mind and just keep going at it.
It's really cool that your first venture became such a success. Throughout this process, what challenges have you faced personally and how do you overcome them?
The biggest challenge for me was to manage conflict with people who didn’t work or think like me. When I had disagreements or debates with my co-founders or early employees, they were easy to work through because we were all good friends and intrinsically knew we all had each other’s best interests at heart. We worked very hard to keep that culture at Box, but with every time you bring someone new to a company, you’re bringing a very different context and set of experiences that can lead to constructive conflict. I used to think it was just about whoever argued their point better had the best idea – but I learned that debate environment wasn’t necessarily the most productive, and if you don’t have a trust built with someone it could lead misinterpretations or unexpected reactions. When I recognized that I needed to grow my approach as the company grew, I got an executive coach who was really helpful. The book “Crucial Conversations” – it was extremely important to my development as a leader and helped me get through the biggest obstacle personally. I’d highly recommend the book.
How do we get more women leaders – particularly in tech?
Teams are better with more diversity. It’s something we've also been working a lot on at Box. What’s helped me personally is immersing myself into new perspectives - blog posts and stories – plugging myself into the conversation. I'm really excited to see and hear from women leaders because a lot of people, you know especially men in tech, just don't have the perspective, they don't see what's going on. It’s really important and helpful for this conversation to continue and to have this information more widespread. Let’s keep the ball moving on such an important topic.