On Tuesday evening, software billionaire Marc Benioff will celebrate his 54th birthday with a party high above San Francisco. Provided the evening fog does not roll in across the hills from the Pacific, guests at the top of his Salesforce Tower will get a twilight view of the city spread out below.
This might represent the pinnacle for a modern tech mogul. Some 170,000 people are due to converge on San Francisco that day for his company’s annual conference, testing the infrastructure of a city that is already failing to deal with a historic tech boom. They will rub shoulders with an army of the homeless that is a stain on San Francisco — and a problem that Mr Benioff has pledged personally to solve.
This week, though, the Salesforce co-founder has been trying on the very different role of press baron. Along with his wife, Lynne, he started the week with the $190m purchase of Time magazine, a somewhat faded symbol of 20th century media power.
Locked in preparation for the Salesforce conference — and seemingly cautious about flaunting his position as the latest tech boss to lord it over old media — Mr Benioff has not been his usual accessible self. Asked to talk, he responded with the kind of email brush-off that speaks volumes about his easy salesman’s charm: “You know I love you and would like to make this work but I’m not sure how?”
He’s brilliant at PR and marketing, it feels like there’s a lot of schtick. But when you peel everything away, there’s real authenticity
He did find a moment for an email exchange with the Financial Times — shortly after swapping text messages with the New York Times from a massage table — while jetting to Aspen for an intimate think-in with a group of business leaders.
“I strongly believe in a multi-stakeholder [sic] as the path forward, and especially at a time (in the 4th industrial revolution) that everyone and everything is connected,” he wrote. Short translation: technology is turning society upside down, and the only salvation lies in companies taking a wider view of their responsibilities to workers and the communities they rely on, not just shareholders.
“We have no choice but to preserve and promote our vehicles of engagement,” he added, of the role that media plays in a world under stress.
It has been a week of pure Benioff, characterised by equal parts high-mindedness, incessant networking and canny self-promotion. For the software industry’s top salesman, it often feels like the main product is himself.
After writing his first software program at 15, Mr Benioff interned at Apple and took a job at database software company Oracle after college. He was quickly singled out by co-founder Larry Ellison, who used him as a personal emissary to sort out problems around his company.
Mr Benioff quit at the end of the 1990s after suffering what he described as burnout. Two other start-ups he tried failed but a third, Salesforce, took off, and Mr Benioff soon took over as the chief executive.
These days, Mr Benioff seems to be slotting easily into his new role as tech industry statesman and chief agitator for fixing the problems of San Francisco, his family’s hometown. Yet he still has the look of an interloper, with a mischievous grin and a habitual twinkle in the eye. His bulky, 6 foot 5 inch frame is often clad in Hawaiian shirts, a reminder of the island bolt-hole where he frequently retreats. His personal philosophy combines meditation with a philanthropic zeal he tried to bake into the Salesforce culture from the outset, all of it stirred up with a heavy dose of marketing.
There has always been a lingering question about how much of his high-mindedness is deeply felt, and how much is self-promotion. As Mr Benioff reaches the apotheosis of selfhood, can the two any longer be separated?
Tien Tzuo, an early employee at Salesforce, recalled how, when the company’s computers kept crashing — a disaster for a business that delivers a service over the internet — Mr Benioff branded his response the “Trust initiative”.
“The engineers and product people were getting really mad, they thought it was disingenuous we were calling it ‘trust’,” said Mr Tzuo, now chief of Zuora, a cloud-based software company. But he credits the Salesforce chief with a deeper insight: rather than just a marketing pitch to disguise his company’s failings, “trust” became an aspirational goal, part of a culture that stretched beyond hype.
“He’s brilliant at PR and marketing, it feels like there’s a lot of schtick. But when you peel everything away, there’s real authenticity,” Mr Tzuo said.
If that highly polished authenticity is the currency Mr Benioff trades in, then there are signs that he is freeing up more of his time to put it to wider use. Five years ago, he appeared ready to step back when he flirted with selling out to Microsoft. That deal did not happen, but last month he split his chief executive role with fellow former Oracle executive Keith Block.
Mr Block brushed off the suggestion that Mr Benioff is ready to step back. “Marc’s strengths are in the vision and the product and the messaging, and using the company as a platform for change,” he said — a job he will continued to advance full-time. But for the newly-minted press baron, there are pressing problems of the world to solve.
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