In 1999, Marc Benioff left his position as an Oracle executive to start his own company, Salesforce. The company was unique because it didn't sell software appliances or require you to install software – it was all done with what would be called SaaS – software as a service. And you didn't have to pay for a perpetual license, instead you paid an annual subscription.
Salesforce was arguably a decade or so earlier than the beginning of the SaaS era of startups powered by the cloud. Adobe wouldn't move to cloud until 2012. Atlassian is currently migrating to the cloud. While many of the lessons that Benioff learned have long lost their competitive edge (and are now table stakes), I think others will need to be used as SaaS becomes even more competitive (see my 2022 predictions). Here are some interesting tidbits from his book, Behind the Cloud, (written in 2009!).
On viral marketing at a competitor's conference, Siebel was Salesforce's biggest competitor at the time.
On the morning of the conference, we sent protesters (in reality, paid actors) to the Moscone Center to picket the [Siebel] conference. They waved mock protest signs "NO SOFTWARE posters" and shouted, "The Internet is really neat . . . Software is obsolete!‚" We also hired actors to pretend to be a TV crew from local station KNMS, who came on location to cover The End of Software movement.
On lead generation
This was still the era of the dot-com brouhaha, and I was invited to several parties every night. I would speak with a large number of people and collect business cards from everyone. The next morning, I would give the stack of cards to the sales team and urge them to contact the leads immediately. They hated it. They tried to hide as they saw me walk down the hallway, but luckily the office was a big open space, and there was nowhere for them to go. I also encouraged the team to call everyone they knew and to routinely ask friends of friends for referrals. Those friends sometimes got aggravated, but we got users. They were my favorite kind of users because the leads were free!
On bottom up growth
Salesforce.com customers are mostly sales, marketing, or customer support people, the people who use traditional enterprise software products. Yet traditional enterprise software companies had never marketed to these people. Enterprise software companies target the executives who control the budget. To us that seemed nonsensical, so we targeted the end users instead and found that they were grateful to finally be given a voice. Our customers‚ who were brave enough to embrace a product that went against the traditional software establishment‚ became like a band of savvy rebels, and we celebrated them as such.
On the importance of community
Initially we were surprised to find ourselves watching from the sidelines as a group of sixty people suddenly broke off into a conversation about how to use our service. However, after seeing this unfold at event after event, we began to recognize what was happening: people weren’t attending these events to meet us. They were coming to meet other people using the product.
On having a clear and consistent message
Over time, as we grew, we required that all customer-facing employees become “certified” in how to position the service and how to deliver our messages. We taught everyone how to defend the messages against objections, which made them feel more prepared and confident. One of the more unusual aspects of our pitches is that we made them “role based,” meaning that we would present a different problem-solving solution angle to a CIO than we would to a sales manager. The ultimate result of this meticulous coordination is that everyone is on message with the precision of a sophisticated political campaign.
Some other stunts Benioff pulled.
- Targeting end users – conferences, meet ups, social events, demos.
- Getting press by any means necessary – viral fake videos, marketing stunts, celebrity endorsements
- Playbooks for selling to different roles and interacting at different stages of the sales process. Nothing new but I found it impressive at Benioff's relentless cycle of experimentation and doubling down on whatever worked.