Salesforce serves as training ground for SaaS startup execs


Salesforce logo on Mosconi Center at Dreamforce 2016.
Image Credits: Ron Miller (opens in a new window) /

When startups go looking for executive talent, they want someone with some experience working for a successful organization. When it comes to the cloud, there is a dearth of expertise — with one notable exception — Salesforce. Perhaps, that’s why Salesforce, by far the most successful pure SaaS company ever, has become a pipeline for executive talent.

The company launched in 1999 and has grown over 17 years to more than 24,000 employees, over 6000 of which work in the Bay area, making it the largest tech employer in San Francisco. With that many employees, it would make sense that some would venture out on their own and start their own companies, or be recruited to help run startups — and that has clearly been the case over the years.

The fact is that former Salesforce employees are spread across the Silicon Valley ecosystem and beyond. Whether we are talking about Zuora co-founder and CEO, Tien Tzuo or Okta CEO and co-founder, Todd McKinnon, both of whom got their start at Salesforce, there are countless examples of former Salesforce employees heading out into the world and bringing the skills they learned running the world’s biggest SaaS company to bear on other other organizations.

Movin’ on up

When you bring in good talent, chances are at some point, some will want to spread out and try their hand at other companies, says Tim McAdam, general partner at TCV, who sits on the board of FinancialForce, a company built on top of the Salesforce platform. “Salesforce has attracted great people over time, but great people are ambitious and they want to take their learnings and start a business or join a newer business,” McAdam explained.

Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff at TechCrunch Disrupt in September, 2016 in San Francisco.

He adds, Salesforce is extremely goal-oriented and hits their numbers, and those are the kinds of skills that translate well at other organizations. As though to prove his point, the company killed it in its latest earnings report earlier this month, generating $2.14 billion in revenue, up from $1.71 billion for the same period last year. What’s more, Salesforce reported it’s well on its way to a $10 billion revenue goal it set for itself, and it even went so far to set a $20 billion revenue goal for some time in the next three-four years.

You just don’t see that ability to execute at that level from other SaaS vendors, at least not yet, and McAdam says that it starts at the top with CEO and Chairman Marc Benioff. “The inculcation of execution from Benioff trickles down and allows executives to be entrepreneurial and to do great things over time,” he said.

Go your own way

Zuora’s Tien Tzuo was Salesforce’s first CMO when the company was so new it was being run out of Marc Benioff’s apartment. He says, what they built, and Benioff was a driving force, was a great environment for building, marketing and delivering software. “We rewrote the rules,” he said. When he was ready to go start his own company managing subscription businesses in the cloud in 2007, Benioff encouraged and supported him. Over the last nine years, Zuora has raised over $242 million and has achieved a unicorn valuation of $1.12 billion.

The biggest impact was working at Salesforce during the critical emergence of the cloud. It really informed my view of the problem I was solving. Todd McKinnon, CEO at Okta

Todd McKinnon from Okta says that working at Salesforce between 2003 and 2009 gave him a front row seat as companies started their shift to the cloud. “The biggest impact was working at Salesforce during the critical emergence of the cloud. It really informed my view of the problem I was solving. I would work with CIOs from big companies. When you were talking to CIOs, [you realized] the cloud was going to change IT radically and it didn’t have tools to manage and secure it.” McKinnon used that knowledge to help launch Okta, a cloud identity company that has raised over $228 million and grown to unicorn status with a valuation of $1.2 billion.

But Tzuo and McKinnon are far from alone. The alumni network of former Salesforce employees is deep and growing. In fact, I spoke to several executives who cut their teeth at Salesforce recently including Clara Shih, CEO, at Hearsay Social; Alex Bard, CEO, Campaign Monitor; Jager McConnell, CEO, Crunchbase and Andy MacMillan, CEO at Act-On Software. Each felt that being part of Salesforce had been an enormous influence on them and how how they run their companies today.

Come together, right now

In fact, these folks have often formed bonds that lasted long after they left Salesforce. There is a strong network of Salesforce alums that includes regular in-person meetings, a Slack channel, Facebook groups and other means of staying connected to one another. McConnell says he and Shih recently hosted a dinner for Salesforce alums, who are now CEOs and he found it tremendously useful to talk to other people facing similar problems to him who come from a comparable background.

Many alums look to help one another whether they worked together directly or not when they were at Salesforce. “It’s such a strong culture. Andy [MacMillan] and I didn’t know each other [when we were at Salesforce], yet we still feel like kindred souls,” Shih said. She says it stems from the culture, from learning to think and operate a certain way — and all of that carries forward, even after leaving the company.

“I ask Andy for help all the time and I’m not shy about asking my [Salesforce] network [for assistance],” Bard said. He says that people talk about the “Paypal Mafia,” the group of executives and venture capitalists that came out of Paypal that includes Peter Thiel and Elon Musk — but he believes that there is a similar dynamic at work with Salesforce alums.

MacMillian sees a kind of flywheel effect within the Salesforce executive alumni network. When you go to a SaaS company, and you’re looking for smart, competent people, there aren’t that many sources he says, so people tend to feed off what they know — and what they often know is Salesforce.

More TechCrunch

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

16 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

18 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck

As part of 2024’s Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is showing off some updates to Android that should be useful to folks with mobility or vision impairments. Project Gameface allows gamers…

Google expands hands-free and eyes-free interfaces on Android