What These 6 CEOs Learned From Working at Salesforce

benioff surprised
Credit: Robert Scoble via Flickr

Baby Benioffs everywhere!

Salesforce launched 15 years ago. With annual revenues expected at more than $5 billion this year, it is hard to remember those days when Salesforce was a scrappy start up, trying to sell enterprise customers on the benefits of the multi-tenant software-as-a-service model. That battle is long over, and since then Salesforce has gone on to introduce a number of other new innovations that were also promptly snapped up with the rest of the industry. Chatter comes to mind; so does its latest product, Community Cloud.

Less has been said, though, about the generation of new tech executives cultivated by Salesforce. In many ways the company has become a de facto training ground in this industry -- much like Oracle was in the 1990s.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, of course, is an Oracle alum so it shouldn’t be surprising that he is repeating history. But while the careers of Salesforce's executive progeny are interesting to follow, what is truly telling is what they have gone on to do since their stints at the company.

We talked to several of them. Here's what they told us.

Tien Tzuo, co-founder and CEO of Zuora, which helps companies manage subscription billing.
Company formed: December 2007
What he did at Salesforce: At the company for close to nine years, Tzuo started as head of Products and moved on to become Salesforce's first Chief Marketing Officer. In the last three years, he was Chief Strategy Officer, in charge of building out Salesforce's Enterprise and Vertical businesses.
What Tzuo learned at Salesforce that helped him the most when forming Zuora: "Always start with The Vision. At Salesforce, it was never about creating a sales force automation product, it was about the End of Software, of how enterprise software was going to transform in the age of the Internet, and we wanted to be the company that figured that out." 
How he gave Marc Benioff his notice: "Before starting Zuora, I actually went to Marc first. It was 2007, people had not yet started leaving Salesforce to start something. Marc was found of telling us that Larry said 'no' to him the first two times he tried to leave Oracle, so I figured I had to ask 3 times before he would acquiesce. But when he heard the idea, he liked it and encouraged me. He offered to be one of our angel investors, just like Larry invested in Salesforce. Marc continues to be an inspiration to this day." 
What is special about Zuora: "We offer the only billing, finance, and commerce solution for the subscription economy for companies with recurring revenue business models -- think ZipCar, Netflix, Pandora, Spotify. A century-old business model is changing in an age of ubiquitous networks and computing power, and we want to be the company to figure it out." 

Peter Gassner, CEO of Veeva, which offers CRM for the pharmaceutical industry. The company had a very successful IPO earlier this year. 
Company formed: 2007.
What he did at Salesforce: Gassner was at Salesforce for two years, joining early when it were a small private company with just a few hundred employees. He was Senior Vice President of Technology, "but like everyone else at that time I wore many hats," he says. "My main responsibility was building the salesforce.com platform and taking it to market."
What Gassner learned at Salesforce that helped him the most when forming Veeva: "That the cloud is a much better model. I saw that cloud software had the ability to transform business processes at a scale never before seen….So I learned how to build a new category from the ground up and how to lead that category. I also saw that industry cloud could be the next big thing. At Salesforce, we were selling horizontal cloud products to all types of businesses, but I started noticing that there were certain industries that needed very specific applications with very specific functionality. I saw the opportunity to tailor cloud offerings for these types of companies. Veeva was founded in large part based on my experience at Salesforce and recognizing this business opportunity." 
What he thinks about his former colleagues: "Some of today’s most exciting young companies were started by my friends from Salesforce. We get together, we share ideas, and we enjoy each other’s company."
What is special about Veeva: "Veeva delivers industry-specific, cloud-based solutions to the global life sciences industry. We chose life sciences because it’s a trillion dollar industry that invests heavily in IT. We’ve seen rapid adoption by helping these organizations leverage cloud software to get drugs to market faster, maximize sales, and maintain compliance. Today, 33 of the top 50 pharma companies use our software." 

Jim Yu, co-founder and CEO of BrightEdge, an SEO and content marketing platform
Company formed: 2007.
What he did at Salesforce: At the company for two years, Yu was Director of Product Management on the platform team.
Why he left Salesforce: "In 2007, most companies were focused on paid media, such as search ads, banner ads, and ads within specific channels, not on earned media, creating content, or content optimization. In my eyes, there was a huge disconnect that if bridged had the potential to unleash exponential marketing opportunities for brands. This was the impetus for my decision to leave Salesforce and bootstrap BrightEdge from my kitchen table."
What Yu learned at Salesforce that helped him the most when forming BrightEdge: "There were two primary lessons from Salesforce that directly informed decisions I made when forming BrightEdge: a heavy emphasis on customer success and a culture that inspires innovation. In other words, Salesforce taught me how to approach software, business management, and the building of scalable technology in a totally new and agile way. Back when we were just getting started with BrightEdge, it was clear that digital marketing was always changing, as Google innovates 500+ times/year, and Facebook redefines social and mobile over the course of a few short years. It was this understanding that change was constant, and that customers needed a platform to help them stay ahead of these changes that spurred the development of BrightEdge S3." 
What is special about BrightEdge: "Our Content Performance Marketing Solution. It starts with the Data Cube, which gathers billions of pieces of content from across the web -- including search demand, content details, and rich media -- to offer marketers a view into the performance of their content or their competitors' content."

George John, CEO of Rocket Fuel, a programmatic ad-buying platform
Company formed: March 2008.
What he did at Salesforce: John was director of Product Management focusing on the needs of the company's largest customers -- analytics, dashboards, collaboration. He also rolled out its online user community.
Why Salesforce was so successful from the start: "Salesforce was a great example of the Henry Ford ('if I had built what customers wanted, I would have built a faster horse') / Steve Jobs school of product innovation. When Salesforce started in 1999, nobody was asking to have their company data smashed into a giant database in what we now call the cloud, but it was the right solution and we were able to demonstrate the benefits." 
What it's like being interviewed by Marc Benioff: "I felt like I should have paid him afterwards for his incisive analysis of my interests and strengths. Marc has an awe-inspiring attention to detail." 
What it's like working for Benioff: "I once saw Marc walk past a sales rep's cube, and in a split second Marc noticed that the rep's Salesforce screen was missing a button that should have been enabled by the latest release just days before. Marc stopped in his tracks, talked to the rep to understand why he wasn't using the new feature, and immediately went to ask the product manager to follow up. At that time, Salesforce was already a roughly 500-person company with thousands of customers and hundreds of features going into each release. That the CEO had such a command of the details was truly remarkable and inspiring.
On his 'Salesforce mafia' dinners and other connections: "We have 'Salesforce mafia' dinners a few times a year, and I often run into other alums who are now CEOs at various events or get lunch to catch up. Recently another salesforce alum and I did an event for the SF United Way, talking about how the Salesforce foundation and Marc's genuine commitment to philanthropy left a mark on us and made us more cognizant of this when we started our respective companies. Also, Nancy Connery, who used to be head of HR at Salesforce (from inception to around 2,000 employees), is my personal coach at Rocket Fuel and is helping me create the same kind of special place here at Rocket Fuel.
What is special about Rocket Fuel: "Rocket Fuel is a marketing technology company focused on using artificial intelligence to automate fine-grained decision-making that is on one hand too big (picking the right ad spots out of more than 50 billion a day for a brand's campaign) and on the other hand too small (each decision is about showing a single ad to a single person and paying maybe a tenth of a penny to do it) to be appropriate for manual human operation."

Chuck Ganapathi, Founder and CEO of Tactile, which has built a mobile CRM/contact management app called Tact 
Company formed: 2012.
What he did at Salesforce: At the company for five years, Ganapathi was the SVP of Product, responsible for Sales Cloud, Chatter, and Mobile.
What he learned from his time at Salesforce: "That it pays to make a bet on a platform shift. I lived through the epic battle between Salesforce and Siebel and Salesforce won not through features and functions, but by betting on the industry shift from desktop to cloud. I am making a bet on the next platform shift: from cloud to mobile." 
On what is special about Tactile: Our product, Tact, is a user-first, offline-first productivity app for sales professionals that aims to close the last mile gap in CRM. It brings together everything a salesperson needs for his daily workflow, such as phone, email, calendar and CRM, in one spot. It's all made possible by Tactile’s patent-pending mobile sync platform.

Todd McKinnon, CEO and co-founder of Okta, an identity and authentication platform for cloud services. 
Company formed: 2009.
What he did at Salesforce: For the six years he was there McKinnon was head of engineering at Salesforce, with the main responsibility of defining and executing an architectural vision for various functional areas.
What McKinnon learned at Salesforce that helped him the most when forming Okta: "The biggest lesson that we’ve incorporated into the Okta DNA is the importance of a core focus on customer success. Salesforce has been known for its renowned customer support and customer success programs since the beginning." 
On staying in touch with former colleagues at Salesforce: "I more than just stay in touch -- some of them make up the Okta executive bench! My amazing co-founder and Okta COO Frederic Kerrest was the third employee in the business development group at Salesforce and started (and built) the Latin America sales organization. We also recently hired Krista Anderson as Okta’s first chief customer officer in February. She was formerly a senior vice president at Salesforce." 
What's unique about Okta: "Our cloud-based identity management service is top-notch but we are the only company to put customer success front and center in a big way -- orienting our entire business around what's best for our millions of users ....Our customers consider Okta a strategic partner because we make their problems our problems – and we solve them."

And so the cycle continues. Who knows, in another ten years' time we may be looking at the next generation of tech executives spawned by Okta-Rocket Fuel-Zuora et al.

This story, "What These 6 CEOs Learned From Working at Salesforce" was originally published by CITEworld .

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies