Call it the one that got away. That’s how I felt after reading a detailed profile of Box.net today, the fast-growing storage and online collaboration service which just landed a huge deal with Procter & Gamble and is on track to raise another round of cash at a whopping $500 million valuation. The 240-person company is bursting at the seams, with Business Insider noting that it plans to move into a new headquarters in order to keep up with the momentum.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, here’s the problem: Box.net was actually started by two guys from Seattle.
Aaron Levie and Dylan Smith attended Mercer Island High School, and started the company in 2004 when they were still in college. They spent some of the early months working on Box.net from Seattle, but in 2006 they picked up and moved to San Francisco Bay Area to work out of the home of a relative.
At the time, Levie told me that the Bay Area just had more young folks who wanted to build companies.
“Seattle is a very exciting place right now, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a hot spot for people in our age range,” he said.
But Levie has a point. Seattle is a young city for sure, but with only one major research institution here it doesn’t pump out as many young brains as Boston or the Bay Area.
And for all of the luck that goes into the making of an innovation hub — think Jeff Bezos’ decision to pick the Seattle area for Amazon’s headquarters or Bill Gates and Paul Allen relocating Microsoft from Albuquerque — there are stories like this one of Levie and Smith taking their ideas elsewhere. (I am sure the Boston area is still smarting over losing Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook).
Now 26, Levie and crew are taking direct aim at Microsoft’s SharePoint. It is probably too late to get the entrepreneurs back (unless Microsoft or Amazon acquires them, and that won’t likely bring the 240 jobs with them).
But are there actual lessons from the Box.net move? I think there are. And here’s my quick takeaway:
The Seattle region needs to do everything it can to foster young entrepreneurial talent, the kids who are tinkering on new ideas in their garages or college dorm rooms. (Folks like this). The University of Washington is kicking around some programs to help throw some fuel on the young entrepreneurial fire, but it will take a community-wide effort to make sure that the region does everything it can to hold onto the best and brightest.
Would the Box.net founders have left for the Bay Area anyway? Maybe. There’s certainly the draw of money, talent and buzz.
But, then again, if Box.net had a strong group of entrepreneurial peers, supportive angels/venture backers and the right access to tech talent, who knows what could have happened.