Drew Houston hands

If Drew Houston was like the majority of other people, Dropbox would never have existed. This is because, at the time he started working on it, the file sharing and portability problem had already been solved according to most people in the technology sector. In such situations, it’s natural to accept the status quo, the founder told the audience at tonight’s PandoMonthly fireside chat.

There were already plenty of solutions in the market. Everyone owned USB flash drives that made it easy and inexpensive to physically move files between machines. In other cases, most people just emailed files to themselves or others. There were even hundreds of cloud-based file sharing programs – Send Big Files, et al.  But while everyone Houston spoke to early on was quick to point out these alternatives, no one he asked was really using them.

While none of the solutions were great, everyone had created a hacked together scheme that worked for them, Houston says. “Usually people – they’ve got something to do – so they’re like ‘Alright, just give me something that works.’ No one was like ‘God, I really want a cloud storage solution.’”

But none of this was good enough for the MIT alumni, who equated emailing himself files to writing himself a letter, addressing an envelope, adding a stamp, and thinking that was an effective way of keeping personal records.

The one thing working in Houston’s favor was that he experienced the alternative while at MIT. The campus network is configured such that each student can log into a personal workspace at any computer on campus. When they repositioned an icon or created a new file, that change is reflected the next time they log in, regardless of where on the network that occurs.

The final straw that led to the creation of Dropbox may have been that infamous train ride between Boston and New York, when Houston left his flash drive at home. But the seeds of the idea had been brewing long before then.

It’s easy to brush things off or assume that someone else has a better solution. The difference between successful entrepreneurs and the rest of us is that when a problem – and thus an opportunity – appears, they take action. The rest may involve aspects of luck meeting preparation, but it’s the first step that so few people are willing to take.