No figure – no matter how godlike – gets in the way of Marc Benioff’s own crusade. In August 2003, pumped up with the rapid success of his online customer relationship management (CRM) software company, Salesforce.com, he launched a poster campaign depicting the Dalai Lama praying beneath the legend, “There is no software on the path to enlightenment”. The glibness of linking sales applications with nirvana prompted a storm of complaints from the spiritual leader’s followers. Benioff, a Buddhist himself, duly apologised – but the incident did little to teach him about the value of quiet contemplation. The man labelled ‘the biggest mouth in Silicon Valley’ has been anything but quiet over the past year as his company has doubled in size and prepared for an initial public offering (IPO). As proof of that, even June’s IPO was delayed for weeks when Benioff failed to bridle his off-the-cuff public remarks during the pre-flotation ‘quiet period’.
Such incidents are all part of Benioff’s larger-than-life public persona. If his tales of corporate yoga sessions, yachting on the Côte d’Azur and swimming with dolphins at his Hawaiian retreat are to be believed, one might wonder how the six-foot five Californian has found the bandwidth to create a company with annual revenues of over $100 million in just five years. Observing that sales are expected to hit about $170 million this year, investors have few concerns about where the jetset image ends and the CEO role begins. As a measure of that, the company’s initial stock price rocketed by 56% on its first day of trading, netting Salesforce $110 million.
That cash will further fuel an attempt to do nothing short of changing the shape of the software industry. Benioff and his team maintain that Salesforce is proof positive that the application service provider (ASP) model – in which applications are delivered as a service over an Internet connection – is the future.
His vision of “the end of software” was an epiphany that came in 1996. “I was using Amazon.com and I thought, ‘Why isn’t all enterprise software built like this? Why are we still building software as if the Internet does not exist?'”
He determined that software should follow the utility model, with a centralised source delivering software services to a wide audience of subscribers. “When they built the stock exchange, they didn’t build [its own] nuclear power plant next door,” he says, referring to the fact that most companies own the applications that drive their operations.
This ‘revolution’ is not something he is happy to keep quiet about. And by his own account, Benioff has always found technology exciting – ever since he started writing games as a teenager.
After a summer job with Apple’s salesforce in the mid-1980s, he found himself fielding customer service calls on the helpdesk at Oracle. But not for long. By the age of 25, he was running Oracle’s direct marketing division; at 26 he was marketing director for its core database business. Of course, a close friendship with Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, did not hinder his rise.
After 13 years at Oracle, Benioff was a senior vice president with a reputation for outlandish morale-boosting and marketing stunts. He would lead thousands of senior sales staff in motivational singalongs; and he even took the necessary qualifications so he could perform the wedding ceremony of one of his colleagues.
Ellison’s belief in his protégé remained even when Benioff left in 1999, with the Oracle founder backing the founding of Salesforce with $1 million in seed funding.
But Benioff argues that Salesforce is not solely about making money for its shareholders. From the outset the company adopted what it calls the ‘1 percent solution’ through which it donates 1% of its profits, 1% of its equity and 1% of its employee time to local and international charities and community causes.
“We have a different culture because of it,” says Pat Sueltz, Salesforce’s president of technology. “We have a profit motive and a profit-the-community motive. That’s attracted some really fine people.”
As long as the bluster and eclectic thinking is backed by customer demand – and satisfaction – then Benioff and Salesforce will have a good chance of fulfilling that radical goal of changing the applications software industry forever. With or without the Dalai Lama’s blessing.