Box, a leading cloud content management and collaboration company with over 20 million users, filed an S-1 with the Securities and Exchange Commission two weeks ago. It’s a hotly anticipated IPO, and an exciting milestone for the nine-year old company with 1,000-employees. Most people in the tech industry believe Box was born in Palo Alto, across the street from Stanford, and moved to its current location in Los Altos to scale. But in fact, in 2005 and early 2006 Box operated from Berkeley.
In those early days, Box’s founders and employees worked out of a shed behind a house on the corner of Ashby and Shattuck avenues. In early 2006, I peered into dimly-lit shed where Aaron Levie and a few others were cranking away — at the time on a consumer-focused storage product.
I regret not taking a photo of the interior (back in this pre-iPhone era) because it would have captured how cramped, messy, and somewhat odorous the quarters were. At the time I was a freshman at UC Berkeley’s EECS (electrical engineering and computer sciences program), but even my dorm room seemed spacious in comparison to the Box shed.
Aaron took meetings at Roxie Delicatessen around the corner. It was a far cry from Coupa Cafe and the Creamery in Palo Alto— no mochas or lattes. At the time, Box, had raised seed funding from Mark Cuban and a few other early investors, but had not raised capital from institutional investors. I was grateful Aaron treated me to a pink Snapple — in my head I was calculating how many GB of Box storage Aaron traded to give me that Snapple. This was also a time before Amazon S3, and as a result, Box was struggling to cheaply scale its data storage architecture. In these early days Aaron actively sought out anyone with even a modicum of experience in scaling storage-heavy consumer web services.
Though Box’s offices were far from campus, Aaron frequented Cafe Strada on Bancroft Ave. directly across the street from Cal. He seemed to have a magnetic pull on the startup community (even before his 93k twitter followers); I serendipitously ran into Aaron a few times at Strada while meeting with folks working on other startup projects.
A couple months later in 2006, Box relocated from Berkeley to a two-story office in Palo Alto and Box threw a party to celebrate. I was one of 50 or so people who attended and by that time Box was firmly entrenched in the Palo Alto ecosystem.
Berkeley has many of the same attributes as Palo Alto — a world-class engineering university is at the center of the city and public transportation to San Francisco is a short distance away. And just as the city of Palo Alto is surrounded by a number of populated suburban neighborhoods, Berkeley too is a 20-minute drive away from the Claremont hills, Orinda, and Lafayette. But as of yet, Berkeley hasn’t had a billion-dollar IPO.
It’s tempting to think Box would have had a major impact on Berkeley had it stayed. Box would have pulled a critical mass of senior technology executives to the area, and created the next generation of angel investors and entrepreneurs funding and building companies in Berkeley.
But it’s precisely because talent density is critical to a growing company that Box did not stay in Berkeley. On one hand, the center of gravity for tech startups was beginning to shift from Palo Alto to San Francisco in 2006/2007, so it’s conceivable that Berkeley’s proximity to San Francisco would have enabled it to build a senior team. But much of Box’s early executive team (like VP Karen Appleton) was based in the south bay and hired after Box moved to Palo Alto; Box’s current executive team would likely not have relocated to Berkeley.
Therein lies the cold-start challenge in building “mini-Silicon-Valleys,” even in Berkeley, 50 minutes away from the heart of Silicon Valley. Growing companies need to tap into a deep concentration of senior talent, and senior talent clusters around where the current fast-growing technology companies are.
Twitter, Pinterest, and Dropbox are all located in San Francisco and are attracting concentrations of senior talent. Talent with families from many pre-IPO companies now live in Claremont hills, Orinda and Lafayette. If Box were to start in Berkeley today, it’s likely that they would not need to move. Today, Box could draw on a rich pool pool of seasoned technology executives for whom a commute to Berkeley would be shorter and more desirable than a commute so San Francisco. As pre-IPO and post-IPO tech companies in San Francisco pull more talent to the East Bay, we’ll see companies in Berkeley tapping a critical concretion of talent so that the company can both start and scale in Berkeley.
Palo Alto is often thought of as the start-up capital of the world. But while many growing technology companies begin in Palo Alto, they move north or south when they start to scale past 100 people — Google, Facebook, and Box are all examples of this. And yet those companies are still considered to have been “founded” in Palo Alto. In this sense Box is Berkeley’s first billion-dollar IPO — it spent a formative year in Berkeley then moved elsewhere to scale.
Footnote: TubeMogul filed an S-1 last week, and was originally started in a basement office in Berkeley and subsequently moved to Emeryville. Unlike Box however, it’s unclear the valuation at time of IPO will be $1B+
Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related, local authors are preferred, and we don’t publish anonymous pieces. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.