Protocol | Enterprise

Marc Benioff created one of Silicon Valley’s most unique cultures. Will it outlast him?

Salesforce is often praised as a cuddly marketing powerhouse. And the image projected to external customers is only magnified internally, according to former employees.

A city during a cloudy sunrise

While Dreamforce may be an annual showcase of its brand in downtown San Francisco, Salesforce employees live in that reality every day in Salesforce Tower and around the world.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When a Salesforce employee wants to know if a colleague is in Marc Benioff's good graces, one trick is to look at their wrist.

The CEO has a tendency to reward direct reports, those in his inner circle or workers that impress him with a Cartier watch or bracelet, former employees tell Protocol. But Benioff's gift-giving habit involves more than just bling. For example, according to the sources, he previously gave now-CMO Sarah Franklin, who is credited with creating the successful Trailhead program, an Aston Martin car.

Salesforce did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the specific instances cited in this article. However, it's clear this largesse has made its way into the company's culture.

Salesforce rewarded Chief Engineering Officer Srinivas Tallapragada with a $250,000 bonus in fiscal year 2021 for "leadership in connection with a specific technology initiative," per a regulatory filing. The company gave former co-CEO Keith Block an "automobile and watch" that together totaled $298,126, according to a 2019 filing, and co-founder Parker Harris an automobile in fiscal year 2017 with a $271,438 price tag. Similar gifts were given to COO Bret Taylor and President Mark Hawkins.

It's not uncommon for tech companies to throw lavish rewards at their top performers, particularly at a sales organization the size of Salesforce. ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott takes the top salespeople at the organization on a trip to Hawaii, a program known as the "Winner's Circle" that he also ran at SAP.

But Benioff's army of Cartier-wearing, Aston Martin-driving Silicon Valley tycoons is just one example of the unique, and sometimes borderline cult-like, culture that has set Salesforce apart from its tech industry peers.

Salesforce is often praised as a marketing powerhouse, and much of what customers see externally is only magnified internally. While Dreamforce may be an annual showcase of its brand in downtown San Francisco, Salesforce employees live in that reality every day in Salesforce Tower and around the world.

Ohana Festivus

Between the dancing cartoon characters that serve as Salesforce's mascots and Benioff's obsession with Hawaiian culture that was visible seemingly everywhere, former employees said it was easy to get swept up in the obsession. In other words, people drank their fill of the Salesforce Kool-Aid. But that myopia led to obvious problem areas that stood in contrast to the marketed cultural values, like diversity, being overlooked.

There are other aspects of daily work at Salesforce that are perhaps not fully unique to the company, but certainly unique to the tech industry compared to other lines of work.

One day at Salesforce, you're listening to board member Colin Powell urge employees to vote Trump out of office during a virtual all-hands meeting, sources told Protocol, comments they said drew backlash from employees in conservative states like Utah. Next day, you're following a heated debate in Chatter, the company's internal instant messaging tool that pre-dates Slack. In a channel called "Airing of Grievances," employees were welcome to complain about almost anything, from the internal tech the company uses to its equality and diversity issues.

And, like any company, its culture has evolved over the years. In the early days, Salesforce was a hard-charging sales environment where employees threw themselves headfirst into the notorious "work hard, play hard" lifestyle that came to define Silicon Valley. But as the company grew, particularly once it launched a focus on diversity efforts in 2016, alcohol became far less prevalent at events and in the office, sources say.

Now, as Salesforce enters what Benioff is proudly proclaiming as a new era — one that could see the departure of the CEO who has become as intertwined with the company as the CRM it sells — employees and investors have raised questions over what happens to that culture when (or if) Benioff retires.

When asked about the future of Salesforce's culture at a recent investor day, Benioff seemed confident that key aspects he helped establish will remain should he leave, using Salesforce's response to the recent Texas abortion law as an example.

"There was no notification to me … and that is the culture. There is a permission to our executives on how to operate freely. They don't need my approval," he said. "That's why the culture is still in place today."

Despite a habit of occasionally interjecting himself in projects and making on-the-fly decisions, past employees agree that Benioff's willingness to let execs work independently was a big part of how the culture at Salesforce was built and sustained over a period of substantial expansion.

"The one thing that Marc Benioff did so well at the company is he brought in great talent, but he trusted the fact that the talent that he brought in would do the job that made them who they are," Latch revenue chief Chris Lee, a former Salesforce employee for over 11 years, told Protocol.

Sometimes, however, that strategy backfired. Benioff, for example, let Heroku operate largely independently after acquiring the company in 2010. But there were deep divisions between the two companies. In the years that followed, Salesforce badges wouldn't even work to get into Heroku's offices and employees there made it clear they didn't enjoy visitors from the mothership, according to sources. The two eventually integrated more closely and Benioff acknowledged to employees that the initial arrangement was a mistake, per one source familiar with the remarks.

And others said it was tougher for lower-level workers. Employees often had to leave the organization and come back with a higher position, according to the sources, prompting jokes among employees that it was the only way to get promoted. Franklin, for example, left to join AWS as a director then came back as a senior director for developer marketing. And Nicole Malamatenios, a former senior director in the public sector division, left for Google for five months before coming back as the vice president of global government practices, per her LinkedIn.

"It was annoying, but you knew it was the way it was," one former employee told Protocol.

From industry rebel to billionaire bigshot

It's not just Benioff's future driving this cultural soul searching. A major pivot at Salesforce to hybrid work — one that led Benioff to proclaim that its "digital headquarters are more important than our physical headquarters" — is also spurring questions.

"This is such a unique culture, even if people are working apart from each other. And I know you want to keep that together," Evercore ISI analyst Kirk Materne told Benioff at the company's investor day last month.

It's a struggle that many other corporations are grappling with: how to sustain the culture when work is no longer centralized in a few specific locations. But not many other businesses have a leader like Benioff. And for all the parts of his personality that helped turn Salesforce into the behemoth it is today, there are hints Benioff has drifted from the industry rebel hell-bent on upending enterprise tech and closer to the billionaire big shot persona of his archnemesis — and one-time mentor — Larry Ellison.

Despite Benioff not having any actual ties to Hawaii apart from owning property there, his obsession with the island state is a key part of Salesforce's culture. Of note, Ellison famously owns his own Hawaiian island, prompting Benioff to once say: "As long as he's not on the island I'm on, that's OK with me."

While the company dialed back its Hawaiian bent in recent years after criticism from employees, the "Ohana" remains. And after Hawaiian leaders urged tourists to revisit plans to come to the island, Salesforce is still planning on hosting its own annual year-end extravaganza there for top-level employees, per sources.

Benioff also hired the ghostwriter for his latest book, "Trailblazer," as an employee, sources said. And he bought all Salesforce employees a copy, a move that surely helped inflate sales of the book while making certain it would line the desks of Salesforce Tower. The company did not respond to an inquiry about who covered the cost, but employees could also purchase the book and get reimbursed for it, per one former employee.

Then there's Benioff's philanthropic and investment endeavors that have surged in recent years. He donated $30 million in 2019 to start the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative and $100 million to two Bay Area children's hospitals: Children's Hospital Oakland (which was renamed the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland) and UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital (which was renamed the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital San Francisco). His private venture capital firm Times Ventures has also invested in companies like SpaceX and Planet Labs.

On a more serious note, Salesforce employees have criticized the scale of racism and discrimination at the company, an aspect of the workplace they say directly violates its cultural pledge of equality. Benioff has positioned himself as a human rights champion, but sources previously told Protocol he had direct knowledge of the complaints — despite claiming otherwise.

Still, it's hard to deny that Salesforce has built something unique. Its annual conference Dreamforce, probably the most vivid example of the wild world Benioff has created, is easily one the industry's biggest and most widely covered. And its 1-1-1 philanthropy system is now a model for other organizations.

Despite its overuse in today's corporate lingo, culture matters. And it's especially important at Salesforce as it looks to integrate Slack, its most important and most expensive merger to date.

Benioff's executive bench is impressive and already winning accolades from Wall Street. But there's only one Benioff, a distinction that's easy to see when compared to assumed replacement Bret Taylor's more down-to-earth demeanor.

So the question remains: What will life at Salesforce look like once Benioff officially passes that torch?

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