Drew Houston Dropboxes in on MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge

Uncategorized Posted Jan 28, 2014 by Chris Carleton

New MITEF logo_3.09We all knew the feeling. It rang deep in one’s belly.

As the plane taxied down the runway, that cornerstone document for your big meeting was safe and sound…on the thumb drive you left on your desk. Ouch.

Fast forward a few years. File-sharing programs are increasingly abundant. Companies like Dropbox and Box are the darlings of the venture-backed IPO candidate camp. They’re raising hundreds of millions in growth equity and enjoying valuations of $10B and $2B, respectively. What’s not to like?

Not much, according to Dropbox Founder Drew Houston.

But, he knows it’s anything other than Easy Street. That’s especially true when it comes to finding, hiring and keeping happy the dozens… if not hundreds…of employees his company needs to continue on its northward trajectory.  Top engineering talent is the crown jewel.

According to the MIT grad and newly minted member of the Billionaire’s Club, “In order to become and stay successful as a startup, it’s important to keep the talent bar high….Everybody’s job in the company is to bring in great people because they are so rare.”

Houston joined MIT Tech Review Editor-in-Chief Jason Pontin last night for a fireside chat at MIT’s Stata Center to dig into the war for tech talent.drew pic 2

Hosted by the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge, a sellout crowd was treated to a swapping of insights and anecdotes – which felt equal parts TV talk show, MBA class case study, and two buddies catching up over a beer.

Topics ranged from Houston’s a-ha! moment that drove him to found Dropbox (see earlier file-left-on-desk reference!) –  complete with funny Fung Wah bus to NYC riffs – to NSA and privacy, to what companies like Dropbox do to find the talent it needs.

And it surely needs that talent. In just a few short years, Dropbox has catapulted from startup to spotlight.

Heady growth? Check. Customer numbers have doubled to 200 million in the past year alone. Access to capital? Check. Just closed $250M in additional funding.  Market expansion? Check. Just launched a business edition. Near death experience? Check. Just suffered an outage that lasted nearly a day – with social media chatter underscoring how integral Dropbox has become to work and leisure lives.

Houston’s first job? Finding a cofounder, who turned out to be classmate Arash Ferdowski.

“You come into MIT and you’re like, “I’m pretty good at math.” And then you take one of your first math courses — you’re like, ‘Okay, never mind.’ Which is really valuable because then what ‘good’ looks like really changes. And so you set a whole new standard for the kind of person you want to bring into your company. . . .”

“Most of the early team was people that we knew from school. That was really important because whether you’re 2 people, or 10 people, or 100 people, or whatever size — that little group is the seed crystal for what your company becomes. Because it’s very rare that you have someone good who wants to join people that they think aren’t as good.  And so keeping that talent bar super high is something that we obsess over I’m sure.”

Other Houston quotable quotes:

“Recruiting is the one thing I spend the most time on. Most of the really good people you want to join your company aren’t looking for jobs. You need to develop a relationship with them and maintain that over time, sometimes as long as a couple of years, before they ready to come.”

“A person is the average of the five people he or she spends time with…” – a line that prompted real-time introspection from nearly all of the 300+ people in attendance.

Values at Dropbox: “Impact. Quality. Craftsmanship. Breaking new ground. Pushing limits. ‘We not I’ is our company slogan.”

“You never know who is miserable in the big companies.”

On NSA: “There are tradeoffs between privacy and security, but the government needs to show greater level of transparency,” adding that he has never spoken to the NSA and that Dropbox was not part of PRISM.