The Box, How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

The Box by Marc Levinson might not be an obvious read for those interested in the startup ecosystem, especially those focusing on SaaS or digital products. However, this book, which dives into the history and revolutionary impact of the shipping container, offers surprisingly profound insights applicable far beyond its most prominent subject.
April 2024

An Unlikely Startup Tome

You might wonder how a book on shipping containers fits into a startup blog. Despite its historical angle on maritime logistics, "The Box" offers rich insights into how a simple idea—standardizing shipping containers—can radically alter entire economic landscapes.

The Pace of Change

Levinson masterfully illustrates the rapid changes triggered by the adoption of the shipping container. The transformation happened quickly and on a massive scale, reshaping ports, labor markets, and entire cities around the globe. For startups, there's a lesson here about the pace at which innovation can render old technologies or methods obsolete—a compelling reminder of the transient nature of 'the way things are done.'

The Surprising Economics of Shipping

One of the book's eye-openers is the revelation that shipping goods across oceans is often cheaper than transporting them over land. This fact alone has enormous implications for global trade dynamics and strategy. It highlights the importance of logistical strategy in product planning and market expansion, which are crucial considerations for businesses in any sector.

As one expert explained, “A four thousand mile voyage for a shipment might consume 50 percent of its costs in covering just the two ten-mile movements through two ports.” These were the costs that the container affected first, as the elimination of piece-by-piece freight handling brought lower expenses for longshore labor, insurance, pier rental, and the like. - Marc Levinson

Implications for Startups and SaaS

The Pain and Power of Standardization

As the shipping industry wrestled with standardization, so do many tech sectors today. Levinson's discussion echoes challenges faced in the tech world—where the interests of influential players often overshadow collective benefits. The saga of container standardization serves as a case study in navigating corporate interests and market forces for broader adoption.

More meetings through 1962 failed to break the deadlock. Finally, Fred Muller, an engineer serving as the MH-5 committee’s secretary, offered a thought: since the Sea-Land corner fitting was working smoothly with the world’s largest fleet of containers, perhaps the company would be willing to release its patent rights. Tantlinger made an appointment with Malcom McLean. McLean had no reason to be fond of the American Standards Association, which only recently had excluded Sea-Land’s 35-foot containers from its list of standard sizes. Nonetheless, he understood that common technology would stimulate the growth of containerization. On January 29, 1963, Sea-Land released its patents, so that the MH-5 committee could use them as the basis for a standard corner fitting and twist lock. - Marc Levinson

Embracing Paradigm Shifts

Startups must be nimble and ready to pivot in response to or anticipate fundamental changes, just as the shipping industry had to adapt to the container revolution. Understanding the forces that drive these shifts can help entrepreneurs position their ventures on the right side of history.

Lessons from Containerization and Abstraction

The concept of containerization parallels software, most notably seen in technologies like Kubernetes and Docker. These tools abstract away the complexities of their environments, much like shipping containers simplify the transport and handling of goods. This abstraction is crucial for operational efficiency, scalability, and maintainability—critical components of any successful software product.


While The Box might initially seem out of place in a startup-focused reading list, its lessons are deeply pertinent. Marc Levinson tells the history of the shipping container and provides a framework for understanding innovation and its vast impacts. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the mechanics of change and the role of simplicity in driving technological adoption. Whether you're in logistics, tech, or any field undergoing rapid transformation, valuable wisdom can be found on these pages.