A Glass-Half-Full Kind Of Guy

Salesforce.com CEO Benioff sees endless opportunity in the global market

Tony Kontzer, Contributor

January 31, 2004

4 Min Read

Several months ago, Marc Benioff, the outspoken CEO of Salesforce.com Inc., was at a gathering of business executives led by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, when Tom Siebel, CEO of rival Siebel Systems Inc., was speaking. As Benioff recalls it, Siebel described how, during a visit to a Neiman-Marcus store in Palo Alto, Calif., he was taken by how empty the store was and how it reflected a frozen economy.

When Evans asked whether everyone else shared Siebel's observation, Benioff says he raised his hand and took exception. He told the group that, based on his database of 9,000 companies that use Salesforce's on-demand customer-relationship-management services, the economy had turned about 90 days earlier, as customers started buying additional access licenses for the new salespeople they were hiring.

"There are new markets to conquer and acquire," Benioff saysPhoto by Eric Millette/bigshotstock.com

It's a self-serving anecdote that's vintage Benioff: pro-Salesforce.com, anti-Siebel, and wildly optimistic. Months later, Benioff's optimism has grown even more pronounced. "My prediction is that 2004 is going to be a good year for IT and for the U.S. economy," he says.

Describing Benioff as a glass-half-full type of guy doesn't do him justice. Not even a full glass will do. And his explanation for why he has such a rosy view of the world is surprisingly simple. "I don't like the other side," he says. "The other side's there, but why even focus on it? I can articulate the dark side as well as anybody, but why?"

Benioff's optimism no longer seems so out of place. His company is in the quiet period before one of the most eagerly awaited initial public offerings of the new century, and his customers' behavior has for months been hinting at the prolonged recovery economic indicators now point toward.

Even the issue that causes him the most unrest--the fragile nature of global relations since Sept. 11, 2001--is, to Benioff, the flip side of opportunity. While he characterizes the flare-ups of conflict and terrorism, as well as the far-reaching changes in the global economy caused by such factors as offshore outsourcing, as "difficult to stomach," he sees technology playing a key role in helping the world transition into a new era. "There are new technology models that are actionable, and there are new business models that are actionable," Benioff says. "There are new markets to conquer and acquire."

Naturally, Benioff sees companies such as Salesforce playing an important role in that new world. His vision of the Internet as the global business platform portends a potentially powerful role for companies that can deliver utilitylike services that will let business customers focus on their own strengths. And though he's a firm believer that IT remains a difference-maker for today's businesses, he's convinced they shouldn't have to manage it themselves.

In fact, Benioff goes so far as to say that the concept of non-tech businesses having to manage their own IT systems, constantly sweating how to crunch data or manage upgrades of major enterprise applications, is ridiculous. Technology should be invisible to such companies, he says, so they can focus on their core competencies, whether that means preparing food, developing real estate, or selling furniture. "Companies shouldn't have to build their own power plants, and they shouldn't have to run their own data centers," Benioff says.

Benioff says his view of IT as a utility has placed Salesforce under a microscope since he left his executive post at Oracle in 1999 to found the company, with an investment from Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. Silicon Valley, he says, has waited for him to deliver on his vision, but the waiting is nearing an end. "We've bitten off so much in terms of huge new models, the Valley has kind of looked at us for four years and said, 'OK, so prove it,'" Benioff says. "Now, as we're slowly proving it, other companies are chasing us."

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