The building Block of a new dynamic at Salesforce.com?

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 15, 2014
Summary:
Keith Block's reputation as enterprise software super-sales guy suggests a possible new leadership dynamic for Salesforce.com.

I think the biggest mistake Mark Hurd ever made was letting Keith Block leave Oracle, because he's probably the best sales executive the enterprise software industry has ever seen.

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Keith Block

That was the 'no pressure then'  welcome Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff gave to Keith Block, one of Oracle’s top sales chiefs, last year when he joined the cloud firm to lead its drive upwards into the enterprise customer base.

Just over a year on and Block has been making his mark, boldly declaring this week that it’s his intention to take Salesforce.com to a $20 billion run rate and knock SAP from its pedastel as the number one applications firm.

But then Block has something of a reputation for bold statements. Oracle fired him after he said that the firm had "bought a dog" when it acquired Sun Microsystems for $7.3 billion, a statement almost as colorful as when he described Oracle president Hurd as generating "lots of noise, not much results."

Speaking at a special session at Dreamforce, Block said that when he’d been in his “previous life”, he’d spent a lot of time observing Salesforce.com, notably what he described as the talent drain from Oracle to the cloud upstart. Today he reckons that around a third of the people he’s working with at Salesforce.com are people he’s worked with before!

Block argues there are four planks to support his ambition to get to that $20 billion goal, starting with being repsonsive to what the customer wants. That’s followed by the need to speak the language of the industry sector into which you’re selling:

It’s doesn’t matter what size a company is, every company falls into an industry. We are here to solve business problems so we need to speak the language of the customer.

The third plank is to grow a successul and transparent partner ecosystem. Block argues that the ‘traditional’ enterprise software firms would take this to mean the big ticket systems integrators. That’s an area on which Salesforce.com has been spending a lot of time, evidenced by the high profile of the likes of Deloitte and Accenture at this week’s Dreamforce conference.

But Block’s defined ecosystem goes beyond that, into the ISV community where he wants to cultivate further development on the Salesforce.com platform, particularly in support of the push into vertical markets.

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Past and present

This poses an interesting challenge for Salesforce.com, one that every enterprise firm runs into at some stage and which is all too often blurred over by judicious use of the ‘co-opetition’ term. What happens as your functional footprints gets larger and larger and you start to tread on your partners’ toes.

At this year’s Dreamforce there was no room for both Salesforce.com and Marketo’s Marketing Clouds, a situation that will surely repeat itself in the future in other areas?

Block’s response is to the point:

Every major technology company in the world has had to deal with this. I’ve done a fair bit of due diligence on our partners. What customers want is predictable behavior and other companies have not delivered the level of dialog on that. That’s our biggest differentiator. We’re about consistency and predictability. If we jointly plan, then we can reduce friction.

Finally there’s the push for international expansion. Block points out that Salesforce.com has focused on 20 major cities in nine countries as its primary target markets to date, but adds that international expansion, supported by the likes of new data centers in the UK, France and Germany, is crucial to future growth.

Block insists that while Salesforce.com has accelerated from being a single solution to being a multi-cloud provider, there’s no question of trying to be all things to all people:

Marc [Benioff] says that if everything is important then nothing is important. That’s why having a game plan that’s very transparent is important. If you look at SAP’s acquisition strategy, there’s nothing predictable about the way they’ve built out their ecosystem in that respect. We’ve being very open and transparent. If you look at the legacy providers, you can learn from their mistakes. We’re the ones blazing the trails now. We won’t repeat the sins of the past.

My take

It’s clear that Block means business and we can expect to see a lot more of him center stage in the future. This is an interesting development for Salesforce.com, a company that has been so dominated by the imprint of one man’s sheer force of will.

I’ve often made the comparison between Salesforce.com’s development and that of Oracle at the comparative points in its evolution and I’ve argued that Oracle performs best when Larry Ellison has a strong pragmatist by his side. That’s been Hurd and Safra Catz in recent years, but think back as well to Charles Phillips and most especially to Ray Lane.

Is Block Marc Benioff’s Ray Lane? Quite possibly - and I mean that as a compliment to all concerned.

I point that out as I’m not entirely sure that allusions to Oracle are necessarily welcomed. In the entire time I spent with Block, while he referenced SAP repeatedly, not once did the O-word pass his lips until the very end of the meeting when I pointed this out.

Block smiled and told me that Oracle was an excellent on premise software company, adding mischieviously that this speaks for itself.

One member of the Salesforce.com partner ecosystem spoke to me later in glowing terms about the impact Block has made on strengthening those relationships. Add in his undoubted experience at “the other company” of driving into the enterprise and the prospect of a whole new dynamic within Salesforce.com emerges.

 

Disclosure: at time of writing, Oracle, Salesforce.com and SAP are premier partners of diginomica. 

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