Pando

Marc Benioff: From marketing guy to people's billionaire

By Sarah Lacy , written on April 6, 2016

From The Disruption Desk

Marc Benioff didn’t always seem like the future standard bearer of the enterprise software business.

He wasn’t a genius programmer or socially brittle nerd. He was in marketing at Oracle. While quick with a quip and happy to take on a spat, they always took on a genial, laughing tone. Not so much the furious slugfests of Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy and the many who went up against them over the years.

In the early days his antics seemed more geared to get outsized press than the work of a future bonafide mogul. And few suspected that an app so tailored to managing salesforces-- so much that it dominated the name and the ticker symbol "CRM" -- would become such a behemoth of the space.

It turns out all of those things that made Benioff distinct from the earlier generations of software moguls, have continued to make not only his career, but his reputation as “a people’s billionaire.” In many ways the antithesis of Larry Ellison demanding to be able to land his plane at any hour at the San Jose Airport.

Benioff has parlayed one marketing “stunt” into another one, with the stakes always increasing, the scope expanding, and the substance of what he was marketing becoming more all-inclusive, and frankly, more important.

I’ve followed Benioff since the early days of Salesforce.com when I was covering software for BusinessWeek. We’ve agreed and disagreed. I’ve never been as close to him as other reporters have, in part because I was uncomfortable with how he “worked” the press. Pando sharply criticized his laughable interview of Uber’s Travis Kalanick in which, as Dan Raile put it, Benioff acted as Kalanick’s PR spokesperson.

But what Benioff has built Salesforce into can’t be diminished. And with the recent campaigns for equal pay for women and against bigoted laws in Indiana... well… It’s hard even for me to come up with a reason not to consider Benioff one of the best leaders in tech we’ve seen in the Internet era-- particularly in the enterprise software world.

He created a new type of software company-- technically and culturally. Say what you will. Say it’s all for his ego. It’s self-serving. Say, his company has never been profitable enough to deserve its market cap. You can hate that Dreamforce brings the city to such a halt that streets are blocked off and a cruise ship had to house attendees in the Bay. Dreamforce caused more rage and disruption than the Superbowl this past year. The new Salesforce tower is set to be the tallest building west of the Mississippi . That is not built by a man low on ego, certainly.

Somewhere along the way PT Barnum became a man building state of the art Children’s Hospitals for the city he so inconveniences every year at Dreamforce, and a rare champion for women’s rights and LGBT rights in an era of tech bros and “not my problem, we’re just a platform” excuses.

Somehow Benioff became more magnanimous as much of the younger, hipper tech world around him became less so.

And yet here’s the interesting thing: So many of his stunts or campaigns or causes (call them what you will) have taken on a common tone. He doesn’t fight alone. He makes the fight bigger than him or his company. This is a man who feels most comfortable on a bandwagon-- whether one of his own making, or one he’s jumped on to late in the game.

Consider:

  • Those early “No Software” pickets outside then arch rival Siebel Systems. It wasn’t-- ostensibly-- about Salesforce being a better option, a cheaper option, a more user friendly option. It was about a change in the market. It sought to catalyze a hatred of expensive on-premise software and the millions companies paid to accounting firms to implement them.

  • Benioff tried hard to jump on the social bandwagon, something that didn’t come off quite as well. He jumped on the platform bandwagon, trumpeting that app developers could write their own mini-apps, just as they could on Facebook.

  • Benioff was a forebearer of what would become the “cloud computing” movement. But it wasn’t called it back then. It was called “Software as a service.” Once “cloud” became a more peppy, aspirational moniker, he jumped so thoroughly on board that he changed the logo into something that looked like a Japanese school girl would have on a backpack.

  • Dreamforce has become something that bears little relation to the software Salesforce peddles. Bruno Mars, Hillary Clinton, Goldie Hawn. The people who attend-- for free-- aren’t all salesforce customers or developers. Hell, they frequently don’t even know what the company does. It’s the ultimate bandwagon of bandwagons that forgot what the memo of the bandwagon even was.

  • Benioff pioneered the wave of headquartering Valley companies not in the peninsula but San Francisco. Here, too, he sought inclusion, foregoing many of the normal amenities that peninsula companies offer like oil changes, multiple cafeterias, laundry, and Volleyball courts in hopes that the City itself would make up Salesforce’s “campus.” That it would blend into the urban environment and become a part of it.

  • The latest causes around equal pay for women and LGBT issues. Benioff has used his relentless marketing persona, his Twitter handle, his charm and connections in the Valley and Hollywood to push two genuinely blameworthy causes. As a result he’s not only threatened to pull Salesforce jobs and revenues from states whose politics he finds unfair and repugnant. The way he’s done it has given other billionaires in tech a mix of social pressure and permission to come out against these laws hard. He’s put frenemy tensions aside to bolster their support through his own megaphone.

It strikes me there’s another thing that makes Benioff’s form of bandwagons so effective: He mostly picks battles he knows will prove right. SAAS was a huge one, and the cloud was really just another name for it. The shift to San Francisco given the proclivities for younger, hipper founders and startup staffs to live there was another. And when it comes to causes, he seems to focus on local and domestic issues, not funding coups in the Ukraine as Pierre Omidyar has, vowing to end hunger as Dustin Moskovitz has, not eliminating malaria as Bill Gates has, or taking the Internet to the world as Mark Zuckerberg has.

Benioff has always known the battle he is facing. And fortunately if you care about equality-- he has a track record of being effective.