SAN FRANCISCO — When Drew Houston played computer games like Starcraft in high school, he made some changes so the games ran more smoothly on his friends’ computers.
“He created this one little application, and it would basically display everybody’s shared files, and then if you clicked on a file, it would go ahead and ask everyone else on the network if they wanted to download it as well,” said Andrew Croswell, a friend of Mr. Houston’s from Acton-Boxborough Regional High School in Acton, Mass.
Mr. Houston, now 35, has since taken a version of that same concept and turned it into Dropbox, an online file storage and collaboration company that has grown rapidly since its founding in 2007.
Last month, Dropbox filed to go public, and when it does Mr. Houston will become the newest member of a small club of tech founders who steered a start-up all the way to Wall Street. (The company is expected to set a price range for its offering as soon as this coming week and trade on the stock market by the end of the month.)
In the process, Mr. Houston is also set to become the next bona fide tech billionaire. According to Dropbox’s initial public offering filing, he owns 25 percent of the company, making him its single largest shareholder. Dropbox was last privately valued at about $10 billion, meaning Mr. Houston’s stake was worth about $2.5 billion on paper.
Whether Mr. Houston successfully takes Dropbox public will be closely watched, with other privately held tech companies like Uber and Airbnb also edging toward an I.P.O. Dropbox, which is based in San Francisco, is unprofitable, and Mr. Houston now has to navigate through a challenging time, both guiding his company around the tech giants that are squeezing into its space and adapting his frat guy persona to a changing culture.
“He’s maybe one of the last ones of a very un-C.E.O.-like C.E.O.,” said Jeffrey Mann, a vice president at research firm Gartner, who follows the file-sharing and collaboration industry. “He was technical. He started out by coding. Most start-ups now when they get to that size, founders like him get pushed aside for someone with a finance or management background. But he managed to stay there.”
Dropbox said Mr. Houston was unavailable for comment, citing the quiet period before an I.P.O. But according to interviews with more than a dozen people, Mr. Houston — a private man with a love of 1990s rock and business books — built his company with an easygoing management style and a dry sense of humor, which helped him deal with the bumps along the way.
Mr. Houston grew up in Acton, a suburb outside Boston, the oldest of three children. His father, an engineer, and his mother, a librarian, noticed early on that Mr. Houston was precocious and encouraged him to explore his interest in computers, but did not want him skipping grades.
“His parents wanted him to stay in first grade for socialization, and they didn’t want to use the term gifted,” said Claudia Couto, who taught at Mr. Houston’s elementary school and tutored him privately. She is now retired.
As a middle schooler, Mr. Houston beta-tested computer games looking for security flaws. He worked for a robotics start-up as a teenager and repaired computers for neighbors. He got a perfect score on the SAT and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001.
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