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Drew Houston, Marc Benioff Discuss the Busywork Epidemic

In a fireside chat with Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston opened up about values, company culture, and a surprising discovery. A few years ago, he’d been using a growing pile of productivity tools when he came to a realization: “I was way busier, but not more productive.”

He was running between meetings, constantly checking notifications, and spending all of his time doing busywork. What was going on?

“We’re hiring people for their minds, and then we’re not giving them any space to think.” -Drew Houston

“Our industry has been really good at finding ways to make the treadmill go faster,” Drew says. “Work has expanded into every moment of our waking lives…and a lot of that is because of technology.” While Drew says technology isn’t bad on its own, he was seeing first-hand how easily it could get in the way of meaningful work. Today, he sees the same thing happening with employees across the tech industry.

“We’re hiring people for their minds, and then we’re not giving them any space to think.”

Drew thinks Dropbox can help solve this problem, whether it’s with tools to help take care of the busywork, or integrations that let teams stay focused on the work that matters. But even more fundamental than that, Drew told Marc, is the importance of company values and personal growth as a first step.

“Values are like oxygen,” said Drew, “you only know when they’re missing.” Drew says that many of the values at Dropbox—like putting “we” before “I” or “aiming higher”—have helped shape what’s important for the company’s future. That means giving people more room to think, respecting their personal lives, and prioritizing a team’s flow over raw productivity.

Drew Houston and Marc Benioff shake hands at Dreamforce 2018

Drew finds similar inspiration in the world of art. Marc pointed out Drew’s long-standing passion for music, including his years as a guitar player in a cover band. Drew’s passion for creative collaboration helped guide his approach to collaboration in business.

“How do you sustain excellence and creativity over decades?” Drew asked. The greatest bands still need room to create, experiment, and grow—they can’t be productive around the clock. Drew’s found the same principles often apply to business teams, too. “There’s a lot that business can learn from the creative arts.”

Marc closed by asking Drew what advice he would give to new founders starting their own company. Once again, Drew stressed the importance of introspection and thoughtful growth, rather than a quick solution. “No one’s born a CEO. It’s something that’s learned…not innate.”

For Drew, staying focused on what matters and battling the busywork epidemic is an ongoing learning process, but he says the key has been always keeping his personal growth just a tad ahead of the company growth curve. “You may not be the best in the world, but people tend to sell themselves short. If you’re thoughtful about training yourself, you can make a lot of progress. It just has to happen over time.”

Watch the full talk