I watched an interview with Salesforce.com’s CEO Marc Benioff from the Techcrunch Disrupt Conference which happened last week in San Francisco. You can watch the entire interview here, and it’s worth thirty minutes of your time.
I have always been a big fan of Salesforce.com. They were one of the very first companies to make the bet on what is now called cloud computing.
Some interesting stats about Salesforce.com:
- In 2002, they had 5,700 customers and about 80,000 subscribers. Today they have 107,000 customers and millions of subscribers.
- Current valuation is $21 billion and is the fifth most valuable software company in the world
- Current revenue run rate is $3 billion a year
- They have donated 1% of their stock and 1% of employees time to charity since the inception of the company.
What’s curious to me is Benioff is rarely mentioned when the names of elite technology CEOs are tossed about. Everyone knows who Mark Zuckerberg is. Most people know who Larry Page and Sergei Brin are, and probably Jeff Bezos. However, I would submit that Benioff belongs in the same class for a number of reasons: Consistent Innovation, Staying true to the mission, and Philanthropy.
When I first started using Salesforce at Bandwidth.com, we were a small company drowning in our own success. We needed a system to run the company, and after reading up on the company we made a bet and went with them for our entire back office systems. They had just launched their Enterprise Edition, which provided developer access to their platform. It was a huge step forward, albeit a pretty bumpy one at the time. Their slogan was No Software. Their value proposition was simple: We run the application so you don’t have to.
Salesforce was first to market with the idea of an application store (they call it the App Exchange). Long before Apple ever thought of the iPhone, much less the App Store, Benioff and Salesforce were allowing customers to innovate on the platform by building their own applications, and allowing their partners and developers to build and sell applications that integrated to Salesforce to solve specific problems in vertical markets. The result was explosive growth, because for the first time Salesforce.com could be bent to solve most any business problem.
The next big step forward was the launch of Force.com, a radical move that let developers build AND DEPLOY applications within the Salesforce architecture. Solving this kind of technical problem is not easy. The problem of developers writing poor or nefarious code had to be solved, as well as a host of other technical challenges.
Throughout this time, there was a steady march of quarterly releases that contained fixes, updates and smaller new features. Every quarter, every year for the last ten years at least. Forty major product updates, to say nothing of acquisition integrations and the really big moves forward I referenced above. Benioff and Parker Harris, his Executive Vice President of Technology have been remarkably consistent with new, value-adding functionality.
Staying true to the mission
When Salesforce.com started, the product was pretty simple. It managed a sales team’s contacts, accounts and deals. To a large extent, that’s what Salesforce.com is still about. Yes, they have Support, Social integration, and lots of other new stuff. Most of the customers, I would imagine, still buy Salesforce to do what it was built for back ten years ago.
What I love about the approach they have taken is that you never hear Benioff say “We are this for that” like so many companies do. ”We are Instagram for bicycles” or whatever other inane idea raises $500k and you never hear from again. Benioff has always been about solving real, practical problems for his customers every day. It’s blocking and tackling. If you listen to him talk in any setting, he just gets technology as a business and knows where his company fits.
If you watch the interview you will hear Benioff’s passion for giving his money away. He speaks about the grace he has been given, and how he has been able to give away in return. In addition to the Salesforce.com Foundation, Salesforce is free to any non-profit organization for the first 10 users. Benioff personally has donated large sums of his own money to worthwhile causes, like building a hospital in San Francisco. I like the fact that he thought about giving away a piece of everything from the very beginning. It wasn’t an afterthought after the company became successful.
And One More Thing…
One last anecdote that I think helps to explain Marc Benioff’s commitment to his customers. In 2003 and 2004, Salesforce had a lot of problems. They were growing very quickly and as a result, the architecture was buckling under the strain. There would be outages almost every quarter when they would do their releases. At Bandwidth.com, we grew to loathe the week that updates came out. At the time we were a small customer, probably 40 or 50 subscribers, but our ENTIRE business ran on Salesforce. When they went offline, we did too.
There was never a time when Benioff would not take our calls. He would answer the phone and take our blasts and promise to do better the next time. He would answer every email we sent him. I don’t know that we would have stayed with them had we not felt his sincere commitment to making things right. I ran into him in a bar at Dreamforce a year or so later. He knew who I was and asked specifically about our business.
I have dealt with a number of companies much smaller who never cared the way he did, and still does I am sure. It’s why he, and his company, have been so successful. I think history will shine a much brighter light on him than he gets in the current climate.