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Meet the richest area native you've probably never heard of
[February 12, 2013]

Meet the richest area native you've probably never heard of

Feb 09, 2013 (The Kansas City Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- His face has never been on a movie screen like that of Paul Rudd or Jason Sudeikis.

He hasn't starred in sports, like slugger Albert Pujols, or on stage, like opera singer Joyce DiDonato.

Nor does his name grace an eponymous product, emblazoned like a crest, as it does for the Halls of Hallmark, the Blochs of H&R Block or designer Kate Spade.

To most people, in fact, his face and name are absolutely unrecognizable.

Yet at 27 years old, Arash Ferdowsi -- a 2004 graduate of Blue Valley Northwest High School and an unassuming Overland Park native -- might be one of the youngest, richest people from this area that you've never heard of.

He might also provide proof for those seeking fairness in the universe that sometimes, yes, nice guys can finish first.

Ferdowsi's claim to fame: He was co-founder at age 21 of Dropbox, a file-sharing system created in 2007 by his Massachusetts Institute of Technology classmate Drew Houston that now sits on the laptops, desktops, tablets, smartphones and, soon, cameras of more than 100 million users in 200 countries.

The company's valuation: $4 billion.

In the last 12 months alone, Dropbox, based in San Francisco, has grown from about 90 employees to more than 250. Investors include U2's Bono and The Edge and huge institutional backers such as Goldman Sachs, Benchmark Capital and Greylock Partners.

Steve Jobs in 2009 offered to buy Dropbox from Ferdowsi and Houston for a reported nine-digit figure, meaning $100 million or more. (Ferdowsi said an exact number was never discussed.) Jobs said he saw Dropbox as more of a feature than a company. Ferdowsi and Houston turned him down.

In November, Dropbox, a full-fledged company, unveiled a modern, 87,000-square-foot office next to AT&T Park overlooking San Francisco Bay. It's filled with open space and light and -- in keeping with its tech-savvy youth culture -- rooms are spotted with pingpong tables, Legos, drums and guitars, a stuffed Tyrannosaurus rex and scooters that employees use to get around.

"Definitely," said Mikhail Kats, 26, an applied physics graduate student at Harvard University who has been Ferdowsi's friend since their days at Blue Valley's Harmony Middle School. "I am pretty confident that he never thought that they would be where they are now." Ferdowsi, named by a website last year as No. 8 on the list of Silicon Valley's 10 most eligible tech bachelors, doesn't dispute it.

"Not really," he said in a telephone interview. "It's just kind of, it's just kind of -- I mean, clearly Dropbox is a good idea. And we clearly did a good job in executing it.

"But we got lucky on so many, in so many different ways. And if we had made some opposite decisions of what we did, you wonder if we would even be where we are right now.

"There is a lot of luck in this. It definitely isn't anything any of us expected." Jon Ying, 26, a graduate of Blue Valley North, a lifelong friend of Ferdowsi's and now chief of design at Dropbox, puts it more succinctly: "It's definitely very dreamlike, and I think it's always going to seem dreamlike. We joke it is like we flipped a coin 10,000 times and it turned up heads every time." During his childhood in suburban Johnson County, Ferdowsi was hardly thinking he'd one day achieve Silicon Valley startup celebrity and individually be worth, by some media estimates, as much as $600 million.

At his office at 92nd Street and Ward Parkway, his father, mortgage broker Gholam Ferdowsi, clicked on photos of his son that he keeps in a Dropbox folder on his laptop, photos that perhaps foretold early and fated success, or at least show his boy's longtime focus.

There's little Arash sitting at a table at home counting out peanuts and arranging them by number in circles.

"This is like 2{, 3 years old," his father said effusively. "He was always interested in numbers." There's Arash at 6, sitting in front of a bulky Tandy 1000 personal computer.

"He was always interested in how they worked," his mother said later. "I think he was 9 or 10 when he put his own computer together. We ordered the pieces for him and he assembled the hard drive." His father, at 62, is affable, with youthful energy and an easy smile beneath a heavy mustache.

Like his son, Gholam Ferdowsi stands about 5 feet 7 inches tall. He has large dark eyes and gray hair thick as turf. Iranian by birth, he came to the United States from the city of Tabriz in 1978 to study at Central Missouri State University and other schools. He ended up staying when Iranian fundamentalists overthrew the shah in 1979.

In 1984, he met and married Tahmineh, now 53, when she was a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Also Iranian, she goes by Tammy. A year after their marriage, Arash arrived.

By their own admission, the Ferdowsis were doting parents who became deeply emotionally involved in their son's education and talents. Gholam Ferdowsi said friends at times criticized them for catering too much to the wants and opinions of their only child.

"He is the only one we had. We never made any decision -- car, TV, furniture -- without him," Gholam Ferdowsi said.

When they planned a vacation, they would ask Arash where he wanted to go.

Before buying a new chair or couch, they talked to Arash.

The boy, they said, had great instincts.

Gholam Ferdowsi told a story of when his son was 5 or 6 and the family was having a house built.

Arash was sharply interested in studying the printed floor plans, locating the living room, the kitchen, where the staircase was relative to the walls and windows.

Then, during construction, father and son visited the house while it was hardly more than floors and frames.

"Arash, come see the rest of the house!" his dad recalled calling out.

But Arash seemed fixated on the staircase and aspects of the first floor. He was pacing back and forth before shouting to his father.

"He said, 'Wait, wait, wait,'" his dad recalled. "He said, 'Come here. This is wrong.' " Gholam Ferdowsi looked. His son was correct.

"The stairs were too far over. I didn't notice," he said.

Arash did. The builders made a correction.

By now, the narratives of Silicon Valley wunderkinds have practically become archetypal: young technology geniuses, sometimes with difficult or demeaning personalities, who are driven by a vision.

Bill Gates drops out of Harvard to start Microsoft. Mark Zuckerberg does the same to start Facebook. Steve Jobs berates his underlings in pursuit of a galaxy of iProducts based on his perfectionism.

Arash, meanwhile "He was just a nice kid, a nice young man," said Ronda Hassig, a librarian who knew him in his years at Harmony Middle School. "He wanted to do whatever it took to please you. He got things done on time, always did it with a smile. Real quiet and real smart." Real smart.

Smart enough, especially in math and science and computers, to graduate first in his class at Blue Valley Northwest.

He went on to field offers from Harvard and Stanford and to get enough scholarships at the school of his dreams, MIT, that his parents said they paid only a few thousand dollars a year for a $50,000-plus-a-year education.

His buddies attested that in high school Arash stood out as simply a decent guy with a goofy sense of humor. Not a tech geek fixated on video games. He barely played them. But nor was he the popular homecoming king.

"He definitely was a very quiet guy and well respected," Ying said. "Everybody knew he was very smart, but he never carried a lot of ego with it. He definitely had this reputation as being one of the nicest guys you could meet." In other words, normal.

His group of friends was small and tight. They went to the Great Mall of the Great Plains to dance on the arcade's Dance Dance Revolution machine. (Dropbox has one in its offices. The song "Bumble Bee" is a Ferdowsi favorite.) He is a huge -- and frustrated -- Kansas City Chiefs fan.

Weekend nights Arash was with friends at the IHOP or Wendy's off 135th Street.

"I think people would probably, like, people would probably point to me as someone who was likely to be -- how do I phrase this " he said. "A kind of a go-to person if you needed help with math or computers or science or anything like that and, just generally, hopefully, a nice person.

"I would say that people felt I was friendly and generally tried to help people." When he left Kansas City for MIT, it was with a freshman's measured ambitions to become a programmer at an innovative company such as Google.

"Google was a little bit smaller back then," he said. "It was still a very selective and difficult place to get into. I thought it would be awesome to do that.

"But I learned, over time, that if you really want to learn and have an impact, you join smaller companies. So I became increasingly interested in working at Facebook at a time when they had like 50 engineers." At MIT in 2007 he met classmate Drew Houston, now 29 and Dropbox's originator.

Story has it that Houston, who grew up outside Boston, devised Dropbox after he got tired of forgetting to bring a USB drive with him while away from school. He thought there had to be a better way to access files anywhere on any device, Mac or PC.

He wrote the original code. When his first investor, Paul Graham of Y Combinator, told Houston he needed a partner to make a go of the company, he talked to an MIT friend, Kyle Vogt, who also grew up in Johnson County and graduated in 2004 from Shawnee Mission Northwest.

Vogt was already well known at MIT for having left to begin or run a series of companies, including and

"He introduced Drew and I," Ferdowsi said of Vogt. "He dropped out his sophomore year to start a company. He was getting all sorts of awesome press and working on really cool, exciting problems. I kind of pointed to him and saw him as a little bit of a role model." Ferdowsi and Houston met. Their personalities meshed. Houston was the inspired programmer who was also a personable and vocal big-picture guy. Ferdowsi was a quiet problem solver who also was a programming whiz. He loved to focus on process and details.

"It's pretty crazy," Ferdowsi said. "Drew calls it a shotgun marriage. We only spent like five hours together before we decided to do Dropbox." Certainly Houston, who was traveling and unavailable to talk for this story, could have gone solo with his idea.

"Drew kind of has this amusing analogy, or maybe not amusing. I don't know," Ferdowsi said of running the company together. "I just think it's true. It's kind of like raising a kid as a single parent. You can do it, but it's so much harder." Ferdowsi left MIT in 2008 before graduating, confident that he could always return if Dropbox failed.

When a test of Dropbox brought more than 80,000 sign-ups in a day, he and Houston knew they had something.

Whether it will last in fortunes-come-and-go Silicon Valley is difficult to know.

"It's the nature of the valley that Dropbox or any other company could be in trouble tomorrow," Ying said.

Josh Olson, an analyst for Edward Jones & Co. who follows the technology industry, said Dropbox is surrounded by competitors -- Apple's iCloud, Google Drive, Microsoft's SkyDrive and any number of smaller startups that offer storage in the cloud network.

Although Dropbox has 100 million users, more than 95 percent of them use its storage, synchronizing and sharing capabilities for free. Dropbox makes money on the 5 percent that pay $10 to $20 a month for added gigabytes.

With so many players on the field, Olson said, Dropbox could be vulnerable.

"But if they have good innovation and are fast-moving and are able to maintain consumer mindshare," he said, "who is to say they couldn't survive " That is precisely what Ferdowsi is focused on, he and others said, working every day and weekends from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. or later.

Others Ferdowsi's age might choose to celebrate such a meteoric rise in lavish ways: a yacht or jet, a Maserati, parties with supermodels.

"Fame definitely doesn't drive him," his friend Kats at Harvard said.

Ying said: "Arash isn't motivated by money. He has purchased himself a home, but that's about it." No car. He rides the Dropbox shuttle to work, where he generally wears Dropbox T-shirts and hoodies.

"He doesn't require much," said Ying, adding that to Ferdowsi, Dropbox is his social life and "his baby." "At home in his free time," he said, "he is sitting with the TV on and scouting Dropbox. Sometimes I'll get texts from him at 1 in the morning: 'The icon on this page looks funny. Can you fix it ' "Much of it is a love for the company the way a parent would love a child." Ferdowsi tells the story of a time, only a few years ago, when he and Ying returned to Johnson County to visit their parents. It was on one of those trips, he said, that he knew Dropbox might actually turn out to be something.

"I was back in Kansas," he said, "and I was at the arcade playing DDR -- Dance Dance Revolution -- with Jon. Jon is much better than me." The two friends were wearing Dropbox T-shirts, all of which Ying designs. In San Francisco, it's not unusual, he said, for people to recognize and ask about the company when they see the logo.

But in Kansas "We ran into these three high school kids and they were just like, 'Oh my God. Dropbox! How did you get that ' We told them what we did at Dropbox, saying, like, 'Yeah, I was like one of the two people who started it.' "I generally get shy or embarrassed in situations like that. I try to downplay it a bit. I try to say it in a calm way." Once the kids accepted the fact -- "I think they believed me," Ferdowsi said. "Yeah, I think they believed me." He threw them a question that an engineer/business owner would ask: "How are you using it " ___ (c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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