How Dropbox changed the file-sharing game

Iconic Products Episode 010

If you share files across the internet, chances are you’ve used Dropbox at one point or another. 😄

This product, while simple in its concept, has become one of the most popular file-sharing products ever made — with estimates for the number of users reaching more than 500 million.

And with the company’s hugely successful IPO earlier this year — Y Combinator’s first startup to go public — it’s easy to see that Dropbox isn’t going away anytime soon. 👊

But what makes this product so iconic? Let’s dive in and explore the world of Dropbox!


A simple idea, done well

The idea for Dropbox actually stemmed from founder Drew Houston’s personal frustrations and pain points.

As he explained in an interview with Business Insider, he was once riding the Chinatown bus from Boston to New York — and realized he had left his thumb drive containing files he needed at home. 🤬

“I was so frustrated … because this kept happening,” Houston said. “And I’m like, ‘my God, I never want to have this problem again.’ I opened up the editor and started writing some code. I had no idea what it would become.”

He said in a separate interview with Mixergy that, “you needed one service to backup your stuff, another service to kind of upload your files to a website, another service to sync your computers, another service to send big files… it just personally seemed pretty clear that all these things would have kind have fallen under the same umbrella. And if that product didn’t exist, I was like ‘let me just try to build the simplest thing that could possibly work.’”

And that’s how the concept for Dropbox came to be: fixing a simple, yet extremely frustrating problem. 🙏

While cloud-based tools have gained momentum and hype over the years, Dropbox’s ability to use this technology to seamlessly execute storage and file sharing in a user-friendly way is its not-so-secret recipe to success.

When Dropbox first started, the cloud storage startup marketing was becoming oversaturated, but as Houston has mentioned in past presentations and interviews, when VCs would bring this up, he would respond with, “Do you use any of them?”

Naturally, their answer would be, “no.” 🤦‍

Therein lay the problem: building a scalable, bulletproof, cross-platform cloud storage program is a difficult process.

But with Dropbox’s strategy to get things right from the outset — they decided to enlist the help of their most powerful asset: their users. 👫


User feedback is everything

One of the most pivotal points of Dropbox’s success was its focus on user feedback to make working with the product easier, rather of using it to extend product functionality — most companies do the latter.

Dropbox originally launched a 3-minute screencast of its minimum viable product in April 2007 on Hacker News (Y Combinator’s forum).

From there, they received tons of valuable user feedback, and were already started to garner interest in the product. 👍

While I won’t go into the details of everything they did to grow Dropbox in the beginning, there’s something to be said with their commitment to listening to, and learning from, their users.

Instead of building the entire product and just sending it off, Dropbox put something usable (but basic) in the users’ hands and asked for feedback directly.

They went to where their target audience hangs out and communicated with them in a genuine, authentic way — creating an open, honest, two-way conversation. 🤝

And while their official launch to the public in late 2008 was a bit of a mess from a marketing strategy point of view, they saw months later that they were still doing relatively well because users loved the product.

So, how did they still pull off the growth they had?

Because they kept the main thing, the main thing.

If it weren’t for Dropbox’s goal of listening to users and actively responding to their feedback, it might not have been possible to have a product that “just works.”

And when your product “just works,” what else is there to say? 🤷‍


Effective word-of-mouth marketing

Dropbox quickly realized that the “traditional” route of marketing their product wasn’t working for them — PR, Google AdWords, etc. — and decided to pivot to a word-of-mouth, referral strategy.

This is a strategy they still have integrated into their marketing plan to this day, despite having hundreds of millions of users.

But it’s no surprise that they stuck with this idea: because the referral program increased signups by 60% and within 15 months, Dropbox went from 100,000 registered users to 4 million — crazy, right? 😱

In short, Dropbox remained dedicated to building a community over the years, and made sure to reward those users who bring in more users.

And by using the freemium model, offering the basic version of the product for free, helped in spreading it easily — you get more storage space for free if you spread it, which is like oil on a fire. 🔥

One user might not pay for it (at least, initially), but they might possibly refer the product to someone who will pay for the product.

The numbers have changed over the years, but currently with a free plan that starts at only 2GB, you (and the person you refer) can receive an additional 500MB of storage for every person you refer to Dropbox — you can do this for up to 16GB of extra free space. 🚀

By learning early and learning often, and focusing on creating a great product that people wanted to share with their friends, they better understood their market and how Dropbox fit into users’ everyday lives.


From “feature” to iconic product

Did you know that Steve Jobs once called Dropbox “a feature, not a product.”

Ouch. 😐

But they’re way past that now. Especially with their rebranding late last year, they are positioning the product as “a living workspace that brings teams and ideas together.”

This rebranding has helped Dropbox pivot a bit to ensure that they are reaching the right users in the right way.

As one designer so eloquently put it, “Dropbox wants to be seen in a new way; one that shows they can fully handle the creative and collaborative needs of those who design or interact with designers. This is a smart move when you consider how design and design thinking have quickly become table stakes for all digital companies. Five years ago, the focus on design felt niche; today it is pervasive.”

In addition to design, the company has also had a strong foothold in understanding and prioritizing analytics. 📊

Utilizing analytics is a big part of how they were able to make the right investments in resources for marketing and for the product itself.

They have put systems and processes in place to better understand not only how users are discovering the product, but also how they are using it.

This has allowed them to see what’s working and what isn’t, and make informed decisions at the product level. 💪


Making an accessible product

Much like how WhatsApp localized to different languages early on, Dropbox is available in 20 different languages globally — meaning the vast majority of their users can use the product in their own language, rather than needing to work in de facto English. 🌎

Plus, Dropbox can be used across just about any device with an internet connection, seamlessly.

Obviously this feature alone is not the most mind-blowing concept for a cloud-based product, but the fact that the experience is so seamless across devices is something that they’ve mastered in recent years.


Clever uses beyond file sharing

Dropbox’s aforementioned rebranding pivoted their messaging toward being a living, collaborative workspace, but outside of simply storing and sharing files, is there anything else it can do? 🤔

Over the years, Dropbox has added a few additional features that have truly helped them push the product in the right direction, such as Showcase and Paper.

In a team capacity, Dropbox Business has additional features and allows multiple people to use and collaborate in a single space — which can be great if you’re working at a company that constantly has the issue of needing to send files over email multiple times a day.

So maddening — and so unnecessary! 😅


Dropbox is a trailblazing product when it comes to cloud-based storage and file sharing, and we’re looking forward to seeing what they do next! ✨

How do you use Dropbox? Let us know in the comments!


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Ali Colwell

Head of Marketing at Salesflare
I'm a fintech-turned-SaaS marketing expert who is passionate about design, automation and all things digital. View my full profile here.