It was during the heyday of the Internet boom, in March 1999, that tech veterans Marc Benioff, Parker Harris, Frank Dominguez, and Dave Moellenhoff launched salesforce.com. In true startup fashion, it was located in a one-bedroom apartment.
Up until this time, the enterprise software market was stuck in its crusty ways. Vendors would sell on-premise solutions and charge hefty up-front licensing fees, with ongoing maintenance charges. There were usually hard-sell tactics for upgrades. And yes, it was far from clear how many employees really used the software.
salesforce.com had the bold ambition to turn this model upside down. Fees instead would be charged on a subscription basis. The software would be accessed via the Internet, which meant seamless upgrades as well as access to data in real-time.
Yet this vision had to be evangelized. Let’s face it, many companies did not want to place their data in the cloud. Would it be scalable? What about security?
These were legitimate issues but CEO Benioff worked tirelessly to promote his vision – and over time, it started to take hold in a big way.
Now the company generates over $13 billion in annual revenues and is growing at 26%.
Yes, it’s been an incredible journey. So then, what are some of the lessons? Well, there are really too many to count. In fact, Benioff wrote a book called Behind the Cloud: The Untold Story of How Salesforce.com Went from Idea to Billion-Dollar Company-and Revolutionized an Industry, which highlights 111 of them!
But recently, I talked to a variety of former Salesforce.com employees and got their takeaways. Here’s a look:
Tien Tzuo, who is the founder and CEO of Zuora:
I worked for Marc Benioff for nine years. Being at his side as we built Salesforce from the ground up was an amazing experience. After a month of working for Marc, I quickly realized that he has a relentless consistency with his storytelling. Once Salesforce started to scale, as we had new launch events, my team and I would work proudly to come up with a brand new message, an exciting new angle, a different kind of presentation. Then we would take our shiny new deck in to show Marc, and he would toss it. Then he would take us back to our fundamental ideas. He would return to the kinds of questions we were asking ourselves when we were just starting the company, like “How does the Internet change software delivery?” or “What if CRM was as simple and intuitive as buying a book on Amazon?” As it turns out, those messages were still relevant! Marc never lost focus of first principles. Marc taught me the discipline of giving the same message day after day, month after month, year after year. I’m not talking about rote recitation. The trick is delivering the same message in a thousand different ways. That’s how you change the world.
Judy Loehr, who is the founder of Bayla Ventures:
In the early days of salesforce.com we had to figure out how to make every part of this new company and business model work: prove an online CRM product could be widely accepted, prove customers would continue to pay month after month, and prove that a subscription model could work for software. I remember lots of knock-down arguments, but ultimately everyone was fighting for what was best for customers and how to make this new business model successful.
Shawna Wolverton, who is the head of product at Zendesk:
When I joined salesforce we were still inventing cloud software as we went. There were no playbooks or best practices for how to build or scale, our only option was to innovate and figure things out ourselves. Those early pioneering days created a pervasive culture of innovation that has clearly served the company very well over the past 20 years.
Jenny Cheng, who is a VP PayPal:There was a sense of urgency in the early days of Salesforce that you don’t see at every company. In both product and sales, we treated every month like it was both our first and last month. There was an urgency to get every new feature and release right and out to customers as soon as possible, an urgency to get new products into the hands of customers quickly, and always a focus on both short and long-term customer success.
Courtney Broadus, who is an angel investor:
It’s crazy that “move fast and break things” became a symbol of Silicon Valley when no business-oriented tech startup would have survived with that motto. Even in the earliest days of salesforce.com, we had a very strong culture around delivering innovation with excellence (do amazing things and DON’T break anything!). We were building a new model of cloud delivery for business software that no one understood, so our customer’s trust was sacred.
Our maniacal focus on getting each new technical capability done right – elegant, scalable, secure, iterative – created such a solid base architecture that we were able to open up our technology and share the first cloud platform for customers to build their own apps themselves.
Deepa Subramanian, who is the CEO of Wootric:
Salesforce treated people as a long-term investment even though we were in scrappy startup mode. They really invested in me and created an environment where individual contributors could be fearless about contributing to strategic discussions.