Dropbox Becomes a 'Feature' for 100 Million People

The five-year-old online storage site has focused on consumers. Next up: Business customers
Andrew "Drew" Houston, chief executive officer and co-founder of Dropbox Courtesy Dropbox Inc.

The knock on Dropbox, as delivered by no less than Steve Jobs, has been that the company delivers a feature and not a full-blown product. One day, such logic holds, Dropbox’s ability to coordinate the storing of files across all manner of computing devices will be baked into a larger, more meaningful service from the usual cast of technology titans—Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.com.

Perhaps. But as of this week, Dropbox has 100 million users that make the company’s service one seriously well-loved feature. (For those unfamiliar with Dropbox: It lets you install a folder on your computing devices and then have any files you place in the folder synchronize across all of the devices; it also lets you share these files with other people.)

“The 100-million users milestone is more than just a number for us,” says Drew Houston, co-founder and chief executive officer of Dropbox. “It’s symbolic of us joining an elite handful of companies that have reached that scale. It’s also a start of the new road we are on—the road to a billion users.”

Houston notes that the last bit, the part about the billion users, would have seemed delusional when Dropbox began a few years ago. These days, though, it seems feasible, particularly as smartphone and tablet sales explode and people scramble for an easy way to link the devices to their home and office PC files. “People start out backing up their photos, then they’re sharing wedding photos with their family, and then their contractor shares the plans on a house remodel,” Houston says. “Before you know it, your whole life is on Dropbox.”

A CEO gushing about his own product does not impress, but some of the figures tied to Dropbox’s growth do. Each day, Dropbox customers store 1 billion files. The company more or less has to help duplicate a digital version of the Library of Congress every day. By comparison, Twitter has about 140 million people issuing 500 million or so tweets on a daily basis. “But at Dropbox, it’s not 140-character snippets,” says Houston. “It’s your tax returns and your most important stuff.”

Since the start of 2012, Dropbox’s staff has grown from 90 people to 250. The company has concentrated on the consumer market. The idea is to get people using the service and then sit back and watch as they install Dropbox on work computers. The strategy has allowed Dropbox to avoid hiring tons of salespeople to sell nervous chief information officers on the wonders of cloud computing. In the coming year, Houston expects some of this to change as Dropbox looks to bulk-up its sales staff and release new products that are meant to cater to businesses’ security and software concerns.

The new strategy will put Dropbox in direct conflict with Box, its similarly named competitor that has gone after businesses before pursuing consumers. Dropbox also faces plenty of competition from the various online storage products offered by Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.com. Microsoft, in particular, has just launched its file-syncing offensive via Windows 8, which rather vigorously encourages people on PCs, tablets, and smartphones to store their files in SkyDrive.

No matter, says Houston. “All of those companies have the same problem,” he says. “They want to put all your life into their ecosystem. It’s more and more places where all of your stuff can get stuck.”

Ah, the Switzerland Gambit. Well played, Houston. Well played.

Like any good, hyperbole-loving, Silicon Valley CEO, Houston talks up Dropbox in the loftiest of terms. We’re told that people remember the first time they used the software, much in the same way they remember their first kiss, and that the technology is the “one simplifying force” we have all been looking for—a unified field theory for device and data junkies. And things will only get better: “Today we are known as that magic folder,” Houston says. And tomorrow? “We will be the home for the most important stuff in your life that everything can plug into.”