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Bret Taylor is the future of Salesforce

After the sudden departure of Salesforce co-CEO Keith Block, veteran Silicon Valley product guru Bret Taylor seems poised to lead when Marc Benioff says "aloha."

Bret Taylor of Salesforce

Bret Taylor, seen onstage at the Dreamforce conference in 2019, is now Marc Benioff's presumed heir apparent.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bret Taylor had already enjoyed a pretty remarkable career in Silicon Valley before he was named president and chief operating officer of Salesforce late last year. A new phase of that career began this week.

The surprising departure on Tuesday of co-CEO Keith Block, who by all outside appearances was designated as the successor to Marc Benioff the day he assumed the co-leadership role in August 2018, establishes Taylor as the clear second-in-command at Salesforce. When Benioff eventually decides to stop running the cloud-computing pioneer and instead split his time between political work and walking the beaches of his beloved Hawaiian islands, it now seems likely he'll turn the company over to the veteran product executive.

Back in December, when Taylor was elevated to the chief operating officer role, cloud watchers viewed him as second in line to the Salesforce leadership chair behind Block. Block's departure appears to accelerate that timeline. "It's been feeling like [Taylor's] being groomed for the big chair somewhere down the line," said Brent Leary, founder of CRM Essentials, in December when Block still seemed like the immediate heir apparent.

Taylor's resumé speaks for itself: Benioff cited his "tremendous lineage" on a conference call Tuesday with financial analysts who posed several questions about Block's departure. Taylor is now responsible for "Salesforce's global product vision, engineering, security, marketing and communications," the company said in December.

A recent ex-employee of Salesforce told Protocol that many inside the company were caught off guard by the timing of Block's departure. But people inside and outside the company are not surprised that the move positions Taylor to be next in line. As Danny Elman, an analyst with Nucleus Research, put it to The Street: "Given … Taylor's rise in the company over the last few years, it seems he may be a likely candidate for CEO in the future."

After joining Google out of Stanford in 2003, he "co-created" Google Maps, according to his LinkedIn profile, and also helped organize the first Google I/O, now an annual stop on many a software developer's conference circuit. After leaving Google, he founded Friendfeed, which became arguably one of the most important acquisitions in Facebook history a few years later.

Taylor joined Salesforce in 2016 after it acquired Quip, an office-productivity software startup he co-founded and led as CEO that attempted to raise the bar for a generation of workers accustomed to Microsoft Office or Google's G Suite. Benioff named him president and chief product officer in 2017, and elevated him to the operations role last December.

"He's one of the absolute rising stars in our industry," Benioff said in 2016 after Salesforce acquired Quip for $750 million. Salesforce declined to make Taylor available for an interview and pointed to its December announcement when asked about the evolution of his role at the company.

Taylor rode two separate waves to reach this point in his career. Friendfeed was the catalyst for several extremely important social-media product features: The company was the first to introduce the concept of a "like" button to social media feeds.

That insight made Friendfeed one of the first companies — a list that includes social media rivals Instagram and WhatsApp, later acquired by Facebook — to expose some gaps in Facebook's product-development strategy. After Facebook acquired Friendfeed for $50 million in 2009, Taylor became chief technology officer at Facebook. He oversaw technology development during a period in which Facebook cemented its grasp of social media and went public.

Shortly after Facebook's IPO in 2012, Taylor left the company to start Quip, which came up with a new take on word processing, spreadsheets and slide presentations. Quip did not have quite the same impact on office productivity software that Friendfeed had on social media, but it won converts for its design and functionality, as well as a deep admirer in Benioff.

"It's been my dream to work more closely with Bret Taylor," Benioff said back in 2016.

Taylor is a well-known influence in design thinking within tech product circles, so his ascension also lines up nicely with the introduction of design thinking in enterprise software. Back when Salesforce was just getting started, enterprise software was designed by engineers for engineers, and foisted on a company's various business departments by a centralized IT department.

Cloud computing changed that forever, allowing the finance department to choose tools designed around their needs without having to get formal permission to install that software on a company-managed server. Once that train had left the station, a realization started to dawn on enterprise software product managers and investors: What if people actually enjoyed using the software needed to get their jobs done?

Salesforce already understood this, but once Taylor joined the team, he became the design-thinking evangelist inside the company. By putting him in charge of the whole global product vision, Salesforce is tasking Taylor with keeping the $158 billion company on track as both larger and smaller companies take aim at the enterprise software market.

When Salesforce began its ascent, Benioff's salesmanship was needed to convince skeptical enterprise software buyers that cloud software could be just as good as self-managed software, if not better. Over the next decade, product expertise is likely to play an even more important role, as Salesforce looks for external growth engines and nurtures internal projects.

"It would actually be cool to have someone with serious product chops running a really big software platform for the corporations," said Om Malik, partner at True Ventures, a longtime admirer of Taylor's.

Revenue is a lagging indicator of Salesforce's performance: Almost 93% of Salesforce's revenue is deferred over the length of a multiyear agreement, Benioff said Tuesday, which means the impact of product and strategy decisions the company made several years ago takes time to show up in its financial results. Since Taylor joined Salesforce, revenue has doubled, from $8.4 billion during its 2017 fiscal year to $17.1 billion during its 2020 fiscal year, which ended in January. The company reiterated its strong revenue forecast this week. Now it will be up to Taylor to make it happen.

At some point over the next few years, he's likely to assume full control of one of cloud computing's most iconic companies. "[Taylor is] a generation behind the current leadership, but his experiences at startups and creating iconic technologies at iconic companies uniquely positioned him for a move like this at a company like Salesforce," Leary said in December.

Following Block's departure, Taylor is poised to have an even greater impact on the future of Salesforce. "Bret has a very clear opportunity to help Salesforce evolve from what it is — a quasi cloud company with a bunch of loosely connected SaaS apps — into a data-centric ecosystem that helps companies do things," Malik said.

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