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Bret Taylor

Salesforce has built a deep bench of executive talent via acquisition

When Salesforce acquired Quip in 2016 for $750 million, it gained CEO and co-founder Bret Taylor as part of the deal. Taylor has since risen quickly through the ranks of the software giant to become president and COO, second in command behind CEO Marc Benioff. Taylor’s experience shows that startup founders can sometimes play a key role in the companies that acquire them.

Benioff, 56, has been running Salesforce since its founding more than 20 years ago. While he hasn’t given any public hints that he intends to leave anytime soon, if he wanted to step back from the day-to-day running of the company or even job share the role, he has a deep bench of executive talent including many experienced CEOs, who like Taylor came to the company via acquisition.

One way to step back from the enormous responsibility of running Salesforce would be by sharing the role.

He and his wife Lynne have been active in charitable giving and in 2016 signed The Giving Pledge, an initiative from the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to give a majority of their wealth to philanthropy. One could see him wanting to put more time into pursuing these charitable endeavors just as Gates did 20 years ago. As a means of comparison, Gates founded Microsoft in 1975 and stayed for 25 years until he left in 2000 to run his charitable foundation full time.

Even if this remains purely speculative for the moment, there is a group of people behind him with deep industry experience, who could be well-suited to take over should the time ever come.

Resurrecting the co-CEO role

One way to step back from the enormous responsibility of running Salesforce would be by sharing the role. In fact, for more than a year starting in 2018, Benioff actually shared the top job with Keith Block until his departure last year. When they worked together, the arrangement seemed to work out just fine with Block dealing with many larger customers and helping the software giant reach its $20 billion revenue goal.

Before Block became co-CEO, he had a myriad other high-level titles including co-chairman, president and COO — two of which, by the way, Taylor has today. That was a lot of responsibility for one person inside a company the size of Salesforce, but promoting him to co-CEO from COO gave the company a way to reward his hard work and help keep him from jumping ship (he eventually did anyway).

As Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research points out, the co-CEO concept has worked out well at major enterprise companies that have tried it in the past, and it helped with continuity. “Salesforce, SAP and Oracle all didn’t miss a beat really with the co-CEO departures,” he said.

If Benioff wanted to go back to the shared responsibility model and take some work off his plate, making Taylor (or someone else) co-CEO would be one way to achieve that. Certainly, Brent Leary, lead analyst at CRM Essentials sees Taylor gaining increasing responsibility as time goes along, giving credence to the idea.

“Ever since Quip was acquired Taylor seemed to be on the fast track, becoming president and chief product officer less than a year-and-a-half after the acquisition, and then two years later being promoted to chief operating officer,” Leary said.

Who else could be in line?

While Taylor isn’t the only person who could step into Benioff’s shoes, he looks like he has the best shot at the moment, especially in light of the $27.7 billion Slack deal he helped deliver earlier this month.

“Taylor being publicly praised by Benioff for playing a significant role in the Slack acquisition, Salesforce’s largest acquisition to date, shows how much he has solidified his place at the highest levels of influence and decision-making in the organization,” Leary pointed out.

But Mueller posits that his rapid promotions could also show something might be lacking with internal options, especially around product. “Taylor is a great, smart guy, but his rise shows more the product organization bench depth challenges that Salesforce has,” he said.

Why Slack and Salesforce execs think they’re better together

When Salesforce bought Slack earlier this week for $27.7 billion, it was in some ways the end of a startup fairytale. Slack was the living embodiment of the Silicon Valley startup success fantasy. It started as a pivot from a game company, of all things. It raised $1.4 billion, went from zero to a $7 billion valuation to IPO, checking off every box on the startup founder’s wish list.

Then quite suddenly this week, Slack was part of Salesforce, plucked off the market for an enormous sum of money.

While we might not ever know the back (Slack) room maneuvering that went on to make the deal a reality, it is interesting to note that Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield told me in an interview this week that he was not actually trying to sell the company when he approached Salesforce president and COO Bret Taylor earlier this year. Instead, he wanted to buy something from them.

“I actually talked to Bret in the early days of the pandemic to see if they wanted to sell us Quip because I thought it would be good for us, and I didn’t really know what their plans were [for it]. He said he’d get back to me, and then got back to me six months later or so,” Butterfield said.

At that point, the conversation flipped and the companies began a series of discussions that eventually led to Salesforce acquiring Slack.

Big money, big expectations

From the Salesforce perspective, Taylor says that the Slack deal was worth the money because it really allows his company to bring together all the pieces of their platform, one that has expanded over the years from pure CRM to include marketing, customer service, data visualization, workflow and more. Taylor also said that having Slack gives Salesforce a missing communication layer on top of its other products, something especially important when interactions with customers, partners or fellow employees, have become mostly digital.

“When we say we really want Slack to be this next generation interface for Customer 360, what we mean is we’re pulling together all these systems. How do you rally your teams around these systems in this digital work-anywhere world that we’re in right now where these teams are distributed and collaboration is more important than ever,” Taylor said.

Butterfield sees a natural connection between what people do in the course of their work, what machines do behind the scenes in these systems of record and engagement, and how Slack can help bridge the gap between humans and machines.

He says that by putting Slack in the middle of business processes, you can begin to eliminate friction that occurs in complex enterprise software like Salesforce. Instead of moving stuff through email, clicking a link, opening a browser, signing in, and then finally accessing the tool you want, the approval could be built into a single Slack message.

“If you have hundreds of those kinds of actions a day, there’s a real opportunity to increase the velocity and that has an impact, and not just in the minutes saved by the person doing the approval, but the speed of how the whole business operates,” Butterfield said.

Competing with Microsoft

While neither executive said the deal was about competing with Microsoft, it was likely an underlying reason that the companies decided to join forces. They may prove better together than they are separately, and both have complicated histories with Microsoft.

Slack has had an ongoing battle with Microsoft and its Teams product for years. It filed suit against the company last summer in the EU over what it called unfairly bundling of Teams for free with Office 365. In an interview last year with the Wall Street Journal, Butterfield said that he believes Microsoft sees his company as an existential threat. Hyperbole aside, there is tension and competition between the two enterprise software companies.

Salesforce and Microsoft also have a long history from lawsuits in the early days, to making friends and working together when it makes sense after Satya Nadella took over in 2014, while still competing hard in the market. It’s hard not to see the deal in that context.

In a recent interview with TechCrunch, Battery Ventures general partner Neeraj Agrawal said the deal was at least partially about catching Microsoft.

“To get to a market cap of $1 trillion, Salesforce now has to take MSFT head on. Until now, the company has mostly been able to stay in its own swim lane in terms of products,” Agrawal told TechCrunch.

As for Butterfield, while he saw the obvious competition, he denied the deal was about putting his company in a better position to compete with his rival.

“I don’t think that was really an important part of the rationale, at least for me,” he said, adding “the competition with Microsoft is overblown. The challenge for us was the narrative. They’re just good PR or something that I couldn’t figure out,” he said.

While Butterfield cited a list of large clients in enterprise tech, insurance and banking, the narrative has always been that Slack was favored by developer teams, which is where it initially gained traction. Whatever the reality, with Salesforce, Slack is definitely in a better position to compete with any and all comers in the enterprise communications space, and while it will be part of Salesforce, the two companies also have to figure out how to maintain some separation.

Keeping Slack independent

Taylor certainly recognizes that Slack’s current customers are watching closely to see how they handle the acquisition, and his company will have to walk a fine line between respecting the brand and product independence on one hand, while finding ways to create and build upon existing hooks into Salesforce to allow the CRM giant to take full advantage of its substantial investment.

It won’t be easy to do, but you can see a similar level of independence in some of Salesforce’s recent big-money purchases like MuleSoft, the company it bought in 2018 for $6.5 billion, and Tableau, the company it bought last year for over $15 billion. As Butterfield points out, those two companies have clearly maintained their brand identity and independence, and he sees them as role models for Slack.

“So there’s a layer of independence that’s like that [for Mulesoft and Tableau] because it’s not going to help anyone call us Chat Cloud or something like that. They paid a lot of money for us, so they want us to do more of what we were already doing,” he said.

Taylor, whose opinion matters greatly here, certainly sees it in similar terms.

“We want to make sure we have a real integrated value proposition, a real integrated platform for developers, but also maintain Slack’s technology independence, technology agnostic platform and its brand,” he said.

Better together

As for the companies coming together, both men see a lot of potential here to merge Slack communications with Salesforce’s enterprise software prowess to make something better, and Taylor sees Slack helping link the two with workflows and automations.

“When you think about automation, it’s event driven, these long running processes, automations. If you look at what people are doing with the Slack platform, it’s essentially incorporating workflows and bots and all these things. The combination of the Salesforce platform where I think we have the best automation intelligence capabilities with the Slack platform is incredible,” Taylor said.

The challenge these two men now face as they move forward with this acquisition, and all of the expectations inherent in a deal this large, is making it work. Salesforce has a lot of experience with large acquisitions, and they have handled some well, and some not so well. It’s going to be imperative for both companies that they get this right. It’s now up to Taylor and Butterfield to make sure that happens.

 

Everyone has an opinion on the $27.7B Slack acquisition

When the Salesforce-Slack deal was officially announced on Tuesday afternoon, and the number appeared, it was kind of hard to believe. Salesforce had shelled out more than $27 billion to buy Slack and bring it into the Salesforce family of products. The company sees a key missing piece in Slack, and that could explain why it was willing to spend such an astonishing amount of money to get it.

With Slack, Salesforce now has what CEO Marc Benioff called the interface to everything, something he says that the company has thought about for years. In 2010, they tried building it themselves with Chatter, a social tool that never really caught on in a big way. With Slack they finally have it.

“We’ve always had the vision of the social enterprise at Salesforce for more than a decade. Oh, we’ve had Dreamforces entirely dedicated to the vision of what a collaborative interface, a high production interface with applications and an ecosystem would look like wrapped on top of our Customer 360,” Benioff said.

He added that ironically in a building right next door to Salesforce Park you’ll find Slack headquarters. They won’t have to go far to collaborate (or you know, they can just use Slack).

From Chatter to Slack

Neeraj Agrawal, general partner at Battery Ventures says that Benioff has had an interest in enterprise social going back years and this is his way of finally delivering.”Remember Chatter? Benioff was dead on with this trend. He lost Yammer to Microsoft (when Microsoft acquired it for $1.2 billion) about 7-8 years ago, and then launched Chatter. It was a huge bet, but didn’t work. Slack is really Chatter 2.0,” he said.

Chuck Ganapathi, CEO and co-founder at Tact.ai was product lead on the Chatter product at Salesforce in the 2009 timeframe. He wrote in a soon-to-be-published blog post he shared with TechCrunch, that it failed for a lot of reasons, but mostly because at its core, Salesforce was still a bunch of database guys and enterprise social was a very different animal.

“Salesforce is a database-centric company, founded by Oracle ex-pats on a relational DB foundation. Messaging apps must be architected to handle unstructured data, with a big focus on UX, which weren’t core competencies at Salesforce. Sometime after I left, the company seemed to lose interest in improving Chatter, except maybe as a component of other products,” he wrote.

But Benioff never lost interest in the concept of incorporating social into the Salesforce platform. It just took another 10 years or so and bushel of money to make it happen.

A good match or not?

Leyla Seka, a partner at Operator Capital, who formerly ran the AppExchange at Salesforce, sees good things ahead with a combined Slack and Salesforce. “Salesforce and Slack together will offer a powerful duo of applications that will help companies work more effectively together. I think that COVID-19 has shown us how critical it is to get employees the data they need to do their job, but also the community they need to thrive at their job. The marriage of Salesforce and Slack promises to do just that,” Seka told me.

Brent Leary, principal analyst at CRM Essentials was knocked out by the price tag, but says it shows that Salesforce is not afraid to go after what it wants, even if it has to pay a hefty price to get it. “This goes to show Salesforce has absolutely no fear in them when it comes to this deal. They are willing to throw down the big bucks on this acquisition because they see a huge payoff by adding this piece into their platform,” he said.

As for Slack, he sees it as a way for them to take the fast track to the enterprise big leagues. “And for Slack they go from competing with AMOSS (Adobe, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Salesforce) to joining the one of them, and the company that really made the most sense for them to team up with,” he said.

Laurie McCabe, an analyst and founder at SMB Group agrees with Leary’s take, saying Salesforce doesn’t hesitate when it thinks the value is there. “In this case, Slack gives them a strong collaboration offering that will help them compete more effectively against Microsoft’s growing cloud portfolio, which of course includes CRM and Teams,” she said.

Show me the money

Battery’s Agrawal believes this deal is all about generating revenue, and it was willing to pay a premium to move the needle in billion dollar chunks. The end game he believes is about catching Microsoft, or at the very least getting to $1 trillion (with a T, folks) in market cap.

It’s worth noting that investors are not showing signs, initially at least, of liking this deal with the stock down over 8% today and 16.5% since the rumor of Salesforce’s interest in Slack surfaced last week before the Thanksgiving holiday. That translates into over $18 billion in lost market cap, probably not the reaction that they were hoping for. But Salesforce is big enough that it can afford to play a long game, and reach its financial goals with the help of Slack.

“To get to a market cap of $1 trillion, Salesforce now has to take MSFT head on. Until now, the company has mostly been able to stay in its own swim lane in terms of products. […] To get to a trillion dollars in market cap, Salesforce needs to try to grow in two massive markets,” Agrawal said. Those would be either knowledge worker/desktop (see the 2016 Quip acquisition) or cloud (see the Hyperforce announcement). Agrawal says chances are the company’s best bet is the former, and it was willing to pay top dollar to get it.

“The deal will help Salesforce maintain a 20%+ growth rate over next few years,” he said. Ultimately, he sees it moving the revenue needle, which should eventually drive market cap higher and help achieve those goals.

It’s worth noting that Salesforce president and CEO Bret Taylor said while they intend to integrate Slack deeply into the Salesforce product family, they recognize the power and utility of Slack as a stand-alone product and they don’t intend to do anything that would mess with that.

“Fundamentally, we want to make sure that Slack remains as a kind of technology agnostic platform. We know that Slack is used by millions and millions of people every day to connect every tool under the sun. The most remarkable thing is just how many customers have also just integrated their own custom internal tools as well into this is really kind of the central nervous system for the teams that use it, and we would never want to change that,” he said.

It’s hard to judge a deal this large until we have some hindsight and see how well the two companies have meshed, how well they can incorporate Slack into the Salesforce ecosystem, while allowing that independence Taylor alluded to. If they can find a way to walk that line and Slack becomes that wrapper, that operating system, that glue that holds the Salesforce ecosystem together it will be a good deal, but if Slack stops innovating and withers under the weight of its corporate overlords, then it might not be money well spent.

Time will tell which is the case.