Salesforce hits silver - a tale of two towers a quarter of a century apart

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 8, 2024
Summary:
Salesforce is officially 25 years old today. Some reflections on the first quarter of a century.

Birthday
Parker Harris and Marc Benioff

Twenty-five years ago today Salesforce was incorporated as a company, a start-up operation in the shadow of San Francisco’s famous Coit Tower. Flash forward a quarter of a century and the San Francisco skyline is dominated by another tower, the 61 storey Salesforce Tower. Things have moved on from that little apartment on Telegraph Hill. 

I’ve covered Salesforce for most of its first 25 years and tracked its ups and downs over that time. There are older tech firms, of course - let’s not forget we’ll be celebrating the half-century of Oracle, alma mater to so many Salesforce execs, in a few years time!

But hitting your Silver Jubilee is a milestone worth noting, particularly when I recall being told back in the very early days by an ‘expert CRM commentator’ that Salesforce was “a nice try”, but the best the firm could hope for was irritating Tom Siebel enough that he would buy the company just “to put them out of his misery”.

(As an aside, it does amuse me that Siebel today competes with Salesforce in the AI space with his C3.ai. Indeed this week’s TrailblazerDX conference from Salesforce overlapped with C3.ai’s Transform event. Benioff vs Siebel - plus ça change etc etc). 

As Salesforce enters its next quarter of a century, it’s a different beast to what it was only a year or so ago as activist investors circled and the executive team pivoted to transform its operating model. Cost-cutting and rationalization resulted in lay-offs around the world, while the focus was firmly placed on profitability as Chief Operating Officer Brian Millham, himself coming up for his own quarter century at the company, overhauled the sales organization. That transformation continues, but it’s evident that it’s been a success to date. 

That’s the latest evolution that the company has undergone. Over 25 years, there’s inevitably been a lot of change and I’m not even going to attempt to cover everything in this one article - you can check out our back catalog here for just the last ten years! But here are some things that I reckon are worthy of note to explain how Salesforce has thrived. 

Benioff 

The best description I ever heard of Marc Benioff was this - the mind of a fox in the body of a bear. I first met him when he worked at Oracle, but it was, at best, only in passing. It was a couple of years into Salesforce when we met again in London at some long-since-forgotten CRM trade show where I got the pitch from him for this new venture and the idea of Software-as-a-Service. 

Across the past 25 years, Benioff has been the consistent face of Salesforce. There have been co-CEOs for periods of time and there has always been the impossible-to-over-estimate importance of co-founder Parker Harris's presence, but to the world-at-large and the Salesforce Ohana as a whole, it’s the Benioff show

That’s been true of other CEOs over the years - Larry Ellison at Oracle, Steve Jobs at Apple - and, of course, as with those others, the question that lingers in some minds is what happens ‘after Marc’? Personally I think that scenario is extremely unlikely to trouble anyone for a long time yet - he said last year that he was more enthused and engaged than ever - although Millham is clearly picking up a large chunk of day-to-day operational responsibilities. But we're not re-running Succession here...

Growth 

Some of us remember when Salesforce was a simpler beast. ‘No Software’ summed it up. Since then the product offering has expanded into multiple clouds, through a combination of organic and inorganic growth. It’s been a case of ongoing enlargement of the enterprise footprint. There have been remarkably few stumbles on the way - not managing to pick-up LinkedIn was a near miss and we should perhaps brush over the ‘buying Twitter’ phase - but as the latest expansion via generative AI kicks in, the Salesforce cloud arsenal is a long way from its first generation. 

Ethics

The first time this really engaged with me was during the transgender bathroom controversies in the US, during which Salesforce stepped up to the mark - no pun intended - to support its LGBT employees. Since then we’ve seen similar action around equality issues, not least addressing equal pay for female employees, taking a stand against the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban, and most recently female reproductive rights following the Supreme Court’s striking down of Roe vs Wade

Sticking the corporate neck out like this is a high risk strategy. You’re potentially going to offend as many of your customers or potential customers as you are going to delight. And if you do take a stand, you are going to be held to higher account than many of your rivals who do not take public positions like this. So, we’ve seen protests from activists who object to Salesforce doing business with the US Customs and Border Protection Agency, for example. And, demand some voices, if you are willing to threaten to pull business out of Indiana and Georgia to support the gay Ohana, why are you still doing business in certain other parts of the world? 

Personally, I’ve always argued that you pick your battles where you can have an impact rather than just make a gesture, but it’s a fine line to tread. On the whole, I think Salesforce has negotiated the balance well and deserves plaudits for trailblazing on this ethical positioning. It’s also hugely pleasing to see so many other tech firms today taking similar stands. As for those commentators who sneer and reach for the word 'woke', you're on the wrong side of history. 

The latest battleground, of course, is around AI ethics and the need for regulation. As far back as 2017, Benioff was raising the question of whether AI should be thought of as a basic human right. At the time, most of us believed we had a lot of time to think this one through, but the explosion of generative AI has pulled the rug from under us there. Salesforce has been candid about the hesitancy it sees in the marketplace among C-Suite execs who are intrigued, but nervous about the potential of the AI revolution. It’s a debate in which we can confidently expect the firm to continue to engage. 

Customer access

At diginomica, there’s one thing that we tell every tech firm - your customers are your single greatest advocates. You can have hugely eloquent corporate spokespeople who will tell your story - and it’s always great to talk to vendor thought-leaders, I should add - but it’s what people are doing with your tech in the real world that is the most convincing and compelling argument. In this respect, Salesforce thankfully  hasn’t changed over the years. At the annual Dreamforce gathering, there’s no attempt to prevent me or my colleagues from interacting with customers. I recall at the very first Dreamforce way back when, Benioff pointing me towards one customer after another and encouraging them to talk. Dreamforce today is a massive phenomenon with hundreds of user sessions that are ‘open to air’ as it were - long may that continue. As a customer company, it's a crucial differentiator.

Marketing 

There’s always been a lot of clever marketing going on at Salesforce, starting from the early days of piggybacking onto Siebel Systems events with advertising stunts outside. My favorite example from across the years was when Microsoft attempted to do the same at Dreamforce, with adverts outside the venue featuring Bernard, who had been ‘forced’ - geddit? - to use Salesforce and wanted to be free. Come day two of the conference, Benioff addressed the Microsoft stunt head-on, wheeling out ‘Bernard’ - in reality a stock image model - onto the keynote stage and getting the audience to cheer him on back into being a happy Salesforce user. At last year’s Dreamforce I met up with the latest Chief Marketing Officer Ariel Kelman, one of the ‘boomerang’ execs who’ve returned to the company in recent months. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next in terms of marketing strategy. 

My take

So, just a few random observations of the first 25 years of Salesforce.

Happy anniversary Marc, Parker and the Salesforce Ohana.  

Onwards! 

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