How To Be Like Benioff: 4 Startup Lessons From The Early Days Of Salesforce

By Tien Tzuo October 12, 2016

Zuora CEO Tien Tzuo was the eleventh hire at salesforce.com and its first CMO.

I worked for Marc Benioff for nine years. Being at his side as we built Salesforce.com from the ground up was an amazing experience. After a month of working for Marc, I quickly realized that pretty much everything I learned in business school was obsolete. Here are four big lessons I learned from the entrepreneur:

Pitching is Listening.

In the 2nd or 3rd week on the job, Marc took me on a sales call. I was excited, we were going to close some customers! But then I found myself in the strangest sales call I’ve ever been on.

Instead of “identifying pain” and responding with relevant product features, Marc spent the whole meeting peppering the prospect with questions. What do you think of the name “Salesforce.com”? What do you think of the tabs (This was 1999, Amazon used tabs as a navigation tool, so we did too). What do you think of the colors? It went on and on. Marc’s pitch meeting felt more like a one-man focus group.

What I learned was Marc is always testing his ideas, testing his strategy, testing his vision. Marc is always in a mindset to listen, to observe, to understand, and it’s this discipline that allows him to always be in touch with the marketplace. It’s easy for people in his position to get disconnected and fall prey to myopic thinking. That’s never going to happen to Marc.

Run towards big ideas, not away.

In 2003, when I was still pretty new to the CMO role, I got one of what would be many “crazy idea” calls from Marc. He was tired of boring software releases. He told me to name our latest release “S3” and buy all the tickets for the upcoming premiere of Terminator 3 for a big “S3 at T3” launch. Oh, he also said this would be expensive so go raise $250K through partner sponsorships.

Of course, I had some reservations. This didn’t make any sense — we’re a software company, what does movie premier have to do with us? And why would our partners pay us to sponsor this event?

I took a deep breath, got the team together, and started making some calls. It wound up being a huge success. The premiere got tons of press, our customers and partners loved it, and I got to shake hands with the Terminator himself! Marc taught me to take chances and push yourself out of your comfort zone. At the end of the day, you want to be writing the rule book rather than abiding by one.

Earlier this year, I had the huge honor of hosting astronaut Scott Kelly at our annual Subscribed Conference. It was one of his first terrestrial appearances after a year spent up in the International Space Station, and was a totally amazing experience. How did we land him? We found the number for NASA and called it.

Never lose sight of your first principles.

Once Salesforce started the scale, as we had new launch events, my team and I would work mightily and proudly 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.

Tear Up the Master Plan.

I admire people who aren’t afraid to rip up the master plan and start over – whether it’s your company or your role within it. Marc reminds me of people like Reed Hastings and Jeff Bezos in this respect. If Amazon isn’t a bookstore anymore, then Salesforce certainly isn’t a CRM company anymore.

It almost feels like every 12 months, I take out a clean sheet of paper and then redesign my role. You get to these moments where you feel like things aren’t quite working anymore. You talk to the people in your company and you hear things like, “The left hand doesn’t quite know what the right hand is doing. Management is getting clueless about what’s going on, on the ground.” These are typically the early signs that you have to reinvent yourself.

Marc is obviously running a big organization right now, but because he’s so relentlessly curious and willing to take chances, he keeps things interesting for his industry as well as his employees. That’s a cool way to earn respect.

To learn more about how Tien Tzuo built Zuora, read our guide How to Build a Billion Dollar Run-Rate