MARC BENIOFF is a philanthropist and chairman and CEO of Salesforce. A pioneer of cloud computing, Marc founded the company in 1999 with a vision to create an enterprise software company with a new technology model based in the cloud, a new pay-as-you-go business model, and a new integrated corporate philanthropy model. Under his leadership, Salesforce has grown from an idea into a Fortune 500 company, the fastest-growing top five software company in the world, and the global leader in CRM. He has been named one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” by Fortune, “50 Most Influential People” by Bloomberg Businessweek, one of the top 20 “Best-Performing CEOs” by Harvard Business Review, one of the “Best CEOs in the World” by Barron’s, and “Innovator of the Decade” by Forbes magazine and he received The Economist’s Innovation Award. Marc is also a member of the World Economic Forum Board of Trustees. Marc is the author of three books, including the national bestseller Behind the Cloud, which details how he grew Salesforce from zero to $1 billion in annual sales. Currently, he is one of only four entrepreneurs in history to have built an enterprise software company with more than $10 billion in annual revenue (the other three being Bill Gates of Microsoft, Larry Ellison of Oracle, and Hasso Plattner of SAP).
What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
One of the most powerful books in business I ever read was Managing, by the former head of ITT, Harold Geneen. It changed my life and my whole approach to business. He’s old school, and his book is a chronicle of his regime at ITT. A lot of the things we do at Salesforce are based on his techniques, such as our quarterly operations reviews, which we’re religious about.
The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. is another book that had a huge impact on me. After starting my first job at Oracle, I was promoted in 1990 to be the youngest vice president. I ended up in Larry Ellison’s old office, which he didn’t entirely clean out, leaving behind some 40 copies of The Mythical Man-Month.
Larry had given this book to every software executive whom he met within the company. This short book says that to write great software, do it in small teams; having 100 or 1,000 or 2,000 developers won’t make it happen. Ironically, when we first started Salesforce and started to have some success, I remember that Oracle, now a competitor, had 2,000 CRM developers and asked, in essence, “How would Salesforce ever beat us?” I would say it’s because of The Mythical Man-Month. Small teams will always outperform large teams in software. It was serendipitous that I found the book in Larry’s drawer.
A third influential book is The Good Heart by the Dalai Lama. It was a very important book to me because, at the time I read it, I was looking at all of the different religions in the world. I was taken aback by this book, subtitled “A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus.” I really, really, really loved the book. What I liked the most was the Dalai Lama’s guidance on converting to Buddhism. He wrote that if you are part of another religion, please do not convert to Buddhism. Your fastest path to enlightenment and peace of mind and your own good heart is in the religion that you are in. I started to change my spiritual philosophy based on that book. I kind of rebooted my religion of origin. I became more committed to Judaism and to exploring that as my primary path.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
I really like this shirt that I bought from Under Armour, which displays one of basketball star Stephen Curry’s mottos: “I can do all things.” When you first see it, you think that it’s actually a kind of ego statement. What you don’t realize is that Curry, the MVP of the Golden State Warriors, is a religious person. He took this quote from Philippians 4:13 in the Bible, which says: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Curry says this verse before he takes a shot on the court.
It’s become one of his major mottos—it’s on his shoes and on this shirt. It’s a motivational and powerful motto that orients you, not only to something within yourself, but also to something greater.
I think most people might look at his “I can do all things” motto and think it’s all about him, but it’s really about his faith. I bought several of them, and I really like them.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?
I look at every failure as a learning experience and try to spend time with my failures. I stew on them for a while until I pick out some nugget from them that I can take forward.
For example, a few years ago, we were running out of space in our office in Japan and, coincidentally, I had a Tokyo meeting with the head of Japan Post around the same time. He brought me to his new building rising out of the original Japan Post office, next to the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Central Station in a very special part of Japan called Marunouchi. He told me that he loved Salesforce and wanted us in this tower, and he offered us a naming opportunity. Honored and flattered, I went up and down the elevator with the architect to see all the floors. I didn’t like the top floor, because after a recent earthquake, I worried that our employees would be too upset to work there. Also, I liked the human scale of the middle floors. I selected four middle floors. Yet, after moving in, I realized the top floor was actually absolutely the coolest floor, with a deck, which I could have chosen along with other lower floors. And I had declined putting our name on the tower.
I stewed on this for a couple years. Later we became anchor tenants in office buildings all over the world—in London, New York, San Francisco, Munich, and Paris. Each of these buildings is not only named Salesforce Tower, but we also took the top floor along with some lower floors. I learned from that experience in Japan to leverage a real estate strategy for Salesforce. It’s an example of how I learned that if I’m upset about something, I should spend time asking myself, “What could I learn?” Because another opportunity is probably going to come in the future, and I will be better able to re-execute it.
We are keeping the top floors of the Salesforce Towers open space—we call them “Ohana” floors. Ohana is the Hawaiian word for “family,” and for us, this includes employees, customers, partners, and the community. The Ohana floors will be used for meetings, events, and collaboration during the day. All employees are welcome to use the space. When the company is not using the Ohana floor, its use will be offered to NGOs and nonprofits. The top of Salesforce Tower San Francisco will be the highest floor in the city. It’s a sight to see!
In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
I’ve gotten my diet under control, adopting a low-sugar diet—what Tim Ferriss calls a slow-carb diet, which I completely agree with. Also, I try to take a day off a week and not eat at all. That has really helped me.
I have a friend, magician David Blaine, who fasted for 44 days over the city of London in a Plexiglas box. That’s when I decided I could take at least one day a week and just not eat.
What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
I love my Peloton cycle. I love being able to get on it to ride for 45 minutes, to get a good workout and have a social experience with people all over the world who are riding at the same time. My favorite instructor is Cody Rigsby. I try to stay in the top 10 percent of the class if I’m doing an active workout.
I’m getting very good, high-intensity interval training, all while having an entertainment experience with the music and with the instructor. I’m learning about my body and reducing my stress—all very important to me.
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
“Adopt a K-12 school.” Nothing is more important than our children’s education. If kids don’t have a K-12 education, they won’t have a chance in the future, especially for jobs that require competencies in core subjects like mathematics and writing. I’ve adopted my local school, Presidio Middle School, in San Francisco. It was fortuitous that I adopted the school my mother went to, even though I didn’t know it at the time. It was almost like I felt directed there in some strange way.
By adopting a school, we can do relatively small amounts of work that have a huge and lasting impact. Today, schools are often isolated from their communities, including local businesses. Making a difference is as simple as knocking on the door of your neighborhood school and asking the principal how you can help. You’d be surprised by how this simple act can help change the lives of young students for the better. It’s great to focus on parochial schools, charter schools, and other schools, but they are not the vast majority of schools in the United States. The 3.5 million public school teachers in the U.S., who make an average of $38,000 a year, need our help and our support to prepare our children for the future. They’re only going to get that if every one of us pitches in and adopts a school.
Since 2013, Salesforce has partnered with Bay Area school districts to improve computer science education. To date, Salesforce.org has donated $22.5 million to the San Francisco and Oakland school districts and also provided technology and infrastructure. The most important thing isn’t the money, but the time that our employees have spent in these schools, mentoring and tutoring kids, learning what they need, and understanding their challenges. So far, our employees have volunteered 20,000 hours in the schools.
What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
One of the best investments I ever made is in my meditation practice. I typically pray and meditate every morning for 30 to 60 minutes. I have also expanded my practice to teaching meditation at my synagogue. I’ve been meditating for more than 25 years, and I view it as a critical part of my success.
It’s a skill that I have used when things have gone wrong in my life. When there are life challenges—whether it was my father’s death, health challenges with family members, extreme stress in Salesforce, or worry about the state of the world—I could always find refuge and strength in my meditation and prayer practice. This is an investment that has paid off over and over again.
I’ve been especially influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen master who lives in Plum Village, a monastery in southwestern France. [Note from Tim: Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Peace Is Every Step, also had a huge impact on my life.]
After Thich Nhat Hanh suffered a stroke in 2014, he moved in with me (and also brought his top 30 monastics with him) for six months of stroke rehab, and, more than reading any book, it was profoundly moving for me to experience their lifestyle.
A few things that stuck with me were that they were committed to practicing every day, they had very strong adherence to their precepts, and they only traveled in groups and always stuck together.