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How Box created and led the Cloud Content Management category

This article is part of François Dufour’s “New Category or not?” series on Positioning and Category Definitions in B2B. There, founders and CMOs reflect on their positioning and category-naming journeys and decisions. They share advice for those embarking on such a project.

When Jen Grant joined Box as SVP of Marketing in November 2008, after four years at Google, Box was not well known. If anything, it was known as a “pretty consumery” backup and storage tool.

Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO, wanted Box to be known as the file server in the cloud for business. Cloud was very new then and such a concept was far from established. Aaron wanted to win Enterprise customers and compete head-to-head against Microsoft SharePoint. But that was not a fight a tool seen as consumer-first could win.

Jen kindly agreed to relate the journey of positioning Box as the leading cloud content management platform and share her key learnings with us.

Key Takeaways:

  • Box decided to create a new category instead of trying to fit their product into an existing category that didn't suit it.
  • They heavily invested in Analyst Relations to win over large enterprises right away.
  • They chose "Cloud Content Management" because it was simple and descriptive. This allowed them to challenge Microsoft Sharepoint, the leader of the legacy category "Enterprise Content Management," which was on-prem.
  • They resisted the urge to add "collaborative" or "social" to the name so that it remained simple and focused on the massive shift: Cloud.
  • By defining the rules and requirements for the category, especially around security, they were able to differentiate themselves from Dropbox, which they depicted as consumer-first and "not enterprise-security-ready" enough.
  • Don’t create a category that is only your company.  You need to let other people in or it’s not a category.
  • Buying a billboard is an excellent forcing function to refine your messaging - and a source of crunchy founder stories...

Why did Box decide to try and create its own category?

We looked at analysts and their existing categories. We quickly realized why the Gartner category wasn't right for us. It was all on-premise, no cloud. They published a Magic Quadrant for Content Management, but none of it was cloud-based.

So the key question we had to answer first was: “Do we try to change the Enterprise Content Management magic quadrant or blaze a new trail? And if so, which one?”.

At the time, there was momentum around social enterprise (Yammer) with activity streams.  Should we tag on to that social enterprise momentum or select something else?

One day Aaron, who would never sleep and read countless business books, came barging into the office and told me: “I read this great business book! (Blue Ocean). And I answered, smiling: “Great! And I have an MBA.” We both laughed!

Aaron covered the concepts and summarized: “You want to swim in a blue ocean and not swim where all the sharks are (the red ocean!). We need to define the criteria of our game and category instead of fighting it out in a crowded space.”

That is when we decided to create a new category. And I was tasked with leading that initiative.

Three days later, Aaron came back to see me and asked:

“Did you come up with a name? Defined how we will create our category? When will Gartner come up with our own MQ?”

Again, I smiled and answered, “Aaron, We can’t just create a new category with a press release and be done. It takes much more than that”

What did you name your category and why?

We came up with a new category name: Cloud Content Management.

The existing category was Enterprise Content Management. But that wasn't in the cloud, and there was no cloud content management category.

“We came up with Cloud Content Management.
With hindsight, it was the right category from Day 1 because it was boring and descriptive.”

Content management is very descriptive. So that simplicity is what made it a good name.

Over time, however, it was hard to stand firm and stick to a name as simple as cloud content management because they were aspects of what we were doing that were missing from that descriptor. Especially collaboration. So we tried cloud content collaboration and we also tried to include mentions of social or connected. But that was too much. We also resisted the temptation to add Enterprise to that name because the shift to Cloud was everything.

“After many years of working on this category, Gartner launched a new category for our space, but named it the File Sync and Sharing Magic Quadrant. So small and limiting - that was exactly the type of name we were trying to avoid.”

Did analysts matter to your strategy? If so, how did Box win mind share with them?

In most cases, especially when your business does not target the enterprise, you want to create your category first in the minds of your customers. Convincing the analysts can and should come later when your customers will do it for you. In the case of Box, however, winning over analysts mattered a ton. Aaron wanted us to make a titanic shift and sell to large Enterprises right away. Not just to Small Business or Mid Market, where many new companies start.

Aaron never did anything halfway; he was all-in and committed, which was inspiring. All he talked about was selling to the Enterprise and how we had to move faster to win the market. He inspired all of us to focus and execute - what became known as our value of “Get Shit Done” or GSD. And to win the Enterprise market, we needed to be seen as competing with Microsoft SharePoint - the old Enterprise Content Management magic quadrant leader. And we needed to start showing up in any analyst report we could.

Back then, it seemed easier to engage and convince analysts. The shift to the cloud was so huge that they were looking for those breakout companies to learn more about how it’s done.

We started showing up in their reports earlier than most other startups - although it still took years. Later, we realized the benefit of this focus when Dropbox started to try to move into the Enterprise.

“We had already established with analysts what was required to be business software and had repeated ad nauseum that we were for business, were secure, and Dropbox was for consumers. That forced them to play a reactive game.”

We had managed to define the rules and requirements, especially regarding security, and had already insisted to analysts that Dropbox did not prioritize Enterprise-level security. And that branding truly slowed them down.

How did you validate the category name or gain confidence that it was right for you?

We went first to smaller boutique analysts to work on how to describe the category, what are the requirements, and much of the initial research. But we definitely could have done more.

When we met with the Gartners and Forresters, we pointed out how there was a new category that didn’t fit in their current structure anymore and then asked them what they thought. We didn’t say “we have decided it should be called…” but instead, we are thinking it may be this or that; what do you think?

“Then it was just repetition. In all our marketing, our speaking, or anytime we talked to the press we repeated the name again and again and again, even when we were so tired of hearing it.”

What did you learn about creating and naming a new category?

Don‘t try to cover everything in your name.

Pick a simple and descriptive name. Then, you can define the requirements and list of things that category participants should offer to qualify. For cloud content management, for us, it was Enterprise-grade security, collaboration, ease of use,  administrative and management options for multiple teams, and more.

Don’t create a category that is only your company.

You need to let other people in it otherwise, it’s not a category.

It’s easy for a founder to say everything we do is in our category. You should not do that.

When a VC or board member asks you the question “who are your competitors in that category?” you want to show that there are others, because that proves the category is getting traction. If you end up being there by yourself for a long time, it may just be a small market and not big enough to get VCs excited.

“Analysts are looking for a trend, and multiple companies trying to solve the same problem in a given way is definitely a trend.”

Pick a name that is descriptive in a B2B context.

There will always be a CFO, legal leader, or economic buyer who will ask “WHAT exactly is this?”. They may not need to understand exactly what it does for their business, but they need to understand the broad strokes.

“So don’t get fancy. Think of the category name as the answer to WHAT are you?”

Any other fun Aaron Levie stories to share?

Of course!

“My favorite memory (of many) was when Aaron came running into the office and said “let’s do a billboard! Let’s all pool our salaries and we’ll have a big billboard that says ”BOX” and will have a glow behind it. And we’ll put it close to the TechCrunch office so they write about us”.”

This was in 2008 and 2009, so he had found out that you could get a billboard on 101 for $8k and $9k / month (vs. what’s normally $20k+ / month).

“My first instinct was; this guy is nuts. A billboard for a small start-up? That’s a waste of money and you can’t just put your logo on a billboard. You have to communicate something: “What are you and why should I care?”.”

But Aaron’s excitement was infectious and I thought at least we do the work to come up with something we would put on a billboard.

So we engaged in a full company brainstorm. At the time it was possible because, with 40 people, we were still small. We did breakouts and this is where we came up with:

“Box vs Sharepoint -  Sharing should be simple.” I think it was Aaron Dunn that came up with Box vs. Sharepoint, and Amy White blurted out “Sharing should be simple!” It was one of the great memories I have of those early days.

Aaron Dunn, who is a very clever guy, also came up with the majority of our funny billboards. Especially those claiming:

Box is like Microsoft SharePoint, except for the…

Followed by this long list with the font getting ever smaller:

  • Set up costs
  • Manuals
  • Downtime

And if you read it carefully, the very smallest read “hair loss”  and other similar things

So they were all about simple, secure sharing.

We had the same billboard for about a year, then prices came back up and it got expensive. It wasn’t practical.

For six months, we didn’t have that one billboard anymore until Aaron couldn’t take it anymore. He begged me to get it again. And not just any billboard THAT specific billboard.  Even asked if we could buy the billboard itself so we could have it for all-time. “

“It hurts not to see it.” And to be honest, I missed it too.


“While we loved the billboard in general, what was most impactful is that it forced us to define our message down to what fits on a billboard. “Sharing should be simple” which evolved to “Simple secure sharing”. A message that challenged Microsoft SharePoint at the heart of its biggest issue.”

And people noticed, especially right in the middle of a recession: who was this company with the funds to do a billboard on 101 - and compete with Microsoft?

Aaron gave us a big idea, pushed us to think bigger, and we were inspired to figure out a way to make it awesome.

But that was something that Aaron always did. His ideas were so big, so crazy, but he believed so deeply in them that everyone around him started to believe as well. It led to my favorite Box value “Believe your epic ideas are possible.”  Aaron inspired everyone to think bigger and do more than they would ever have done before.

And the rest is history.