December 8, 2023

Many years ago, Buddhist monk and spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hahn posed a question to Salesforce co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff.

“Which is more important, success or happiness?” he asked.

Mr. Benioff answered in pretty much the same way you’d expect a Silicon Valley entrepreneur to answer.

“It’s both,” he said.

Thich Nhat Hahn warns, “If everything matters, nothing matters.” But for years, Mr. Benioff seemed as capable of success and happiness as Silicon Valley itself—not to mention money, respect and influential.

Salesforce, which makes software that helps companies sell better, has become an aggressive and influential technology company, becoming San Francisco’s largest employer. Mr. Benioff, 58, has become a philanthropist and champion of a new model of capitalism that, at least in the Bay Area, is as inescapable as the 61-story tower named after his company.

And then it’s 2022. All of a sudden, Salesforce was making less money. Stocks withered. Activist investor Starboard Value bought a stake, which is never good news for management. Brett Taylor, Mr Benioff’s co-chief executive, left abruptly after just one year on the job. He is the second co-CEO to do so, putting Mr. Benioff’s succession in doubt after 24 years at the company.

Last month, Salesforce said it would cut 10% of its workforce, a decision that seemed to run counter to Mr. Benioff’s repeated statements that the company was one big family. He has been criticized on social media for his poor handling of the layoffs. A second activist investor, Elliott Management, bought a stake in Salesforce. Then one after another. For those keeping count, that’s five.

“Mark believes you can have a great company that delivers great returns for your shareholders while helping your community and your planet,” said Steve Fisher, a longtime Salesforce employee and co-founder of Beni Mr. Off’s teenage friend. “This is one of those times when the concept is put to the test.”

Salesforce’s troubles, like many of its tech peers in this tumultuous time, stem from the pandemic. Three years ago, it seemed technology could save humanity. For tens of millions of people, technology has suddenly become the interface between their couch and their work.

“In the darkest depths of the pandemic, I thought, ‘How are we going to get out of this?'” Mr. Benioff said in a series of conversations with The New York Times over the past week. Maybe, he thought, we won’t. “I feel like we’re going to move more aggressively to an all-digital day.”

The pandemic acquisition Salesforce announced at the end of 2020 was the $28 billion purchase of remote work app Slack. If everyone is going to be on Slack all day forever, it’s cheap. But they don’t, and that’s not the case.

Salesforce’s troubles may be broader, but they’re mirrored across the tech industry.Some 100,000 tech workers are said to have been laid off since the start of the year layoffs. That’s a rounding error for the larger economy, but until recently these workers were among the best paid and best treated.The concept is free massagefor example, may no longer be part of the Silicon Valley experience, more evidence that tech is losing its grip on the pandemic.

Salesforce never offers massages, but its corporate philosophy proclaims that its employees are special. One word Benioff uses a lot is “Ohana,” which he learned in Hawaii. “Ohana represents the idea that families—by blood, adoption, or intention—are connected and that family members hold each other accountable,” Salesforce’s website says.

Benioff sees no contradiction between the layoffs and Salesforce Ohana. Families can be difficult at times.

“I wish I could offer lifetime employment,” he said. “But the reality is, when you have a big company with 80,000 employees, sometimes you have to make personnel changes. Our layoff package is the most generous ever.” salary.

It might come as a shock to some, but Salesforce layoffs are nothing new, he added.

“We’ve had some tough times since we started in 1999,” he said. “That’s not entirely true. But it’s an opportunity to grow. If you’re in a plateau, you’re not going to grow.”

A random sample of laid-off Salesforce workers contacted through a recruiting site found that few, even anonymously, wanted to complain about Mr. Benioff. “I think he’s lost somewhere, too many sycophants telling him what he wants to hear,” one offered. That was just brutal.

Still, Mr. Benioff had a lot to say, often through words — sometimes words, but also photos, links and emojis. His mother, Joelle, said in an interview that he was “not very talkative” as a child, but now he has something to say. He spoke for two hours at a virtual company meeting following layoffs last month.

Bad idea, he said now.

“We try to explain the unexplainable,” Mr Benioff said. “It’s hard to have a call like this with such a large team and make it work, and we’re paying for it.” Other tech companies didn’t bother to hold hands: They simply cut off former employees’ access in the middle of the night.

It was a rough month at Salesforce. Mr. Benioff traveled to one of his favorite places, French Polynesia, for a 10-day digital detox.

“We’re so addicted to our devices (at least I am), it’s very liberating to leave them all behind for a while!” he wrote in a post.

On an earlier trip, he donated $1 million in cash to local pandemic relief.To provide these and other services to the French, he now a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. He let his family listen to the speech.

Any conversation with Mr. Benioff inevitably involves his grandfather, Marvin E. Lewis, a San Francisco barrister and politician who was the main force behind BART (the Regional Transit System).

Mr Lewis is known for coining the concept of “moral harm”. His most famous case came in 1970 and was titled “The Cable Car Named Desire”. Dancer Gloria Sykes said she lost her “mental balance” after hitting her head in a cable car accident and developed an “insatiable desire for sex” among other problems, including At least one suicide attempt. Ms Sykes was awarded $50,000 by a jury with Mr Lewis as her attorney.

“He’s really a visionary,” Mr. Benioff said. “He’s a lawyer, but he made the world a better place.” He posted a photo at a BART station paying tribute to Mr. Lewis, calling him a “stalwart prophet.”

If lawyers can scale these heights, why can’t tech executives? Especially if he can make himself happy in the process?

“If you don’t give to others, you can’t be happy,” Mr. Benioff said. “A lot of my tech peers are very upset.”

Salesforce and Mr. Benioff have undoubtedly made a significant contribution to the well-being of San Francisco. Recently, however, more questions have been asked about the inherent contradictions of working for the strong to help the weak. As one reviewer on Amazon wrote of Mr. Benioff’s book Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change: “Benioff often seems surprised by the scale of the world’s problems, Although many of his clients are in them.”

“Marc made himself a target for criticism by positioning himself as a rampant capitalist tech bro,” said Joshua Greenbaum, a software industry analyst at Enterprise Applications Consulting. “However, if you don’t want your company to pay taxes” – Salesforce Legally not paying taxes on billions of dollars of corporate income – “What right do you have to teach people how to make the world a better place?”

If your company is crumbling, says Mr Greenbaum, you have even less power.Mr Benioff tweeted more than 30 times in January about his initiative to replant the world’s forests, a cause he promoted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. No tweets acknowledged the turmoil at Salesforce.

“Mark let the cash cow wind its way into the weeds,” Mr Greenbaum said.

That’s the logic behind the stakes held by activist investors, which also include Third Point, Inclusive Capital and ValueAct Capital. Perhaps Mr Benioff could be forced to bring the cows home sooner, or he could resign in favor of someone willing to do so. None of the activists would comment, but Mr. Benioff will.

“I’m as excited about our future as all investors – I’m a shareholder too!” he texted, adding a heart emoji.

Salesforce stock has bounced back since the layoffs were announced. But to fend off radicals and prolong his rule, Mr Benioff needs to improve margins. The pursuit could put more pressure on the Salesforce family and could even lead to more layoffs. Which means the question of One Lineman remains open – success or happiness?

“What do I really want? The answer is trust,” Mr. Benioff said. “Trust from our employees, trust from our customers.”

This is of course the salesman’s answer. Did you expect anything different for Marc Benioff?

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