Dropbox interview: building a next-generation IT giant

3 Dec 2012

Dropbox plans to hire between 30 and 40 people in Dublin in 2013, senior executives confirmed today in an interview with Siliconrepublic.com. And, as it aspires to become a mainstream tech brand worldwide, the company won’t rule out the rapid growth rates enjoyed by Google, LinkedIn and Facebook in Ireland’s capital city.

Ireland awoke to the news today that another jewel had been added to its digital crown as Dropbox revealed plans to locate its international headquarters in Dublin. That crown already boasts Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, Facebook, Zynga, Amazon, Yahoo! and Salesforce.com to name but a few.

Having conquered the consumer tech world with over 100m users cloud storage player Dropbox it seems plans to repeat the feat in the corporate IT world. You could say it has already succeeded since for most users of the service Dropbox is already an indispensible work tool that CIOs need to get their head around.

If the consumerisation of IT was a pincer movement on the department of the CIO, one flank would be led by the mobile devices like the iPhone; services like Dropbox would be leading the charge of the other flank.

“Everything we do is through the lens of what would be best for our users,” explained Mitra Lohrasbpour, head of business development at Dropbox whom I met at IDA Ireland’s Dublin offices this morning.

“Over one third of our 100m users are in Europe and we decided it was high time to support them closer to home. We thought long and hard about what places in Europe would allow u to do the best job from both a sales support perspective and technical sales perspective and we chose Dublin. Our US operations have doubled in the last seven months in terms of employee headcount and so we are rapidly growing and we expect the Dublin operation to follow the same path because our European user base is expanding as well.

“We will start 2013 with plans to hire 30 to 40 people in the first year and it is very likely that in future years we will grow as quickly in Europe as we have in the US.”

Lohrasbpour said that the company will begin its search for new offices in January. “We expect to be in central Dublin,” she said.

From talking to Dropbox, I get the giddy sense that it is shaping up to be a next generation IT company of scale and its ambition is apparent when you see how the product is manifesting.

Dropbox is a free cloud service that lets users bring all photos, docs and videos into a folder that can be accessed on any PC, Mac, iOS, BlackBerry or Android device and across a variety of web browsers. The product is evolving at a rapid pace and one of the latest capabilities involves every photo you take on your Android smartphone or iPhone being synched and stored in your private Dropbox folder that can then be accessed from any networked device of your choosing.

When I saw Dropbox for the first time it was May 2010 and UK tech journalist Bill Thompson showed it to me on his brand new first generation iPad. To my mind it was obvious computing was shifting a gear and conversations about cloud were redundant if you didn’t mention mobile devices. I spent that weekend making sure there was a Dropbox folder on every connected device I owned.

Dropbox: the next generation IT company

MIT graduates Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi began work on Dropbox in 2007, as a Y Combinator start-up.

It emerged in April that U2’s Bono and the Edge took part in a US$250m second-round funding of Dropbox.

“Dropbox is one of the great tech stories of recent times. Meeting Drew and Arash is like meeting guys in a band,” Bono said, adding that it will find the innovative workforce it needs in Dublin and that the IDA played a blinder.

Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com Sujay Jaswa, vice President at Dropbox who has been with the company since its early days said the cloud service is moving from being a way for people to manage their personal memories to a work tool that is enabling professionals such as musicians to collaborate across cities, countries and continents.

“We were founded in 2007 but the product was only introduced in September 2008 and the growth since then has been almost entirely viral. There was effectively no marketing spend responsible for driving the adoption.

“Five years ago when the product was first emerging, people were happy enough emailing attachments to themselves as the normal course of business or carrying a USB stick around as a normal thing. And we looked at that as a company and that was obviously a crazy way to behave and Dropbox was designed to solve that problem.

“The same thing led to the camera uploading features. The idea that you could take 90pc of your photos on your phone but then forget it in a taxi and your photos and all those memories would be gone, that struck us as ridiculous. That was why we built the features.

“There are a number of things in the works we think are exciting and are all oriented at making the lives of end users and IT administrators and making those two groups very successful basically,” Jaswa said.

Dropbox in the workplace

The consumerisation of IT in the workplace presents Dropbox with an irresistible opportunity. While many CIOs, CSOs and IT managers see cloud services and smartphones as a potential data leakage threat, it is up to providers like Dropbox to give them the reassurance they need.

“Dropbox has made its way into millions of business around the world,” Jaswa continued. “We are working to give IT administrators better control over the experience so they have more visibility as to how people are using their company data, what devices are linked to the products and what’s going on with the files.

“Having more knowledge makes people feel better.”

Another issue occupying the minds of the visionaries at Dropbox is how people want to work into the future.

“If you were to remove the constraints, what are the things that people would prefer to do? How do people want to protect or manage their data? Two and a half years ago the iPad didn’t exist and eight years ago there was no Android or iPhone, just BlackBerry. Nowadays we cannot imagine getting work done with out those devices.

“So what are the technology trends that will transform how people get their work done and we hope to facilitate the transition,” Jaswa said.

While Dropbox uses Amazon’s S3 cloud service, I asked the executives about whether Dublin’s rich tapestry of data centre infrastructure was an influence in the company’s decision to choose the city.

Lohrasbpour replied: “When we thought about opening offices overseas, the immediate needs of users were foremost in our thoughts and that’s what led us to Dublin, but it was valuable to know that if we do move in the direction of opening overseas data centres or require overseas infrastructure, Ireland has a strong base in that area.”

Incidentally Amazon last year kicked off a massive data centre expansion programme in Dublin, acquiring a 22,539 sq-metre facility at Greenhills Industrial Estate in Dublin 24 and leasing space for a data centre expansion in the Snugborough Industrial Estate in Ballycoolin and the Clonshaugh Industrial Estate.

“Dublin has an incredible pool of talented individuals both in sales and technical support to assist our users with their needs,” Lohrasbpour continued.

“We’re super-excited to grow our team next year and plan growing even more than that as the operations dictate,” she said.

My gut tells me that Dropbox is at the start of a fascinating journey in Europe. A journey that reminds me of Microsoft coming to Ireland in 1985  just to ‘manufacture’ software; of Intel setting up in a car showroom in Dublin in 1989, just six years before its Irish operations supplied half the world’s supply of Pentium chips; and of Google coming to Dublin in 2004 to employ a handful of people (it now employs nearly 2,000 in Ireland).

It’s early days, but Dropbox is a company at the crossroads of the next transition in IT. Things might just get very interesting.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years