The Lesson I Learned from Steve Jobs

Long before Marc Benioff became CEO of Salesforce.com, one of the first companies to deliver enterprise software to customers as a subscription over the internet, he was a summer intern at Apple in 1984. That’s where he met Steve Jobs. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

I first met Steve Jobs in 1984 when Apple Inc. hired me as a summer intern.

The fact that I’d landed this gig in the first place was something of a fluke; as a college student at the University of Southern California, I’d reached out to the company’s Macintosh team to complain about a bug in its software and somehow parlayed that conversation into a job. While I’d done my best to impersonate a seasoned developer, at 19 years old, the sum total of my programming experience was writing a dozen arcade and adventure games in high school. Working at Apple was the big leagues, and while I felt profoundly underqualified, nobody tossed me out the door that summer. In fact, every time Steve Jobs passed my cubicle, I somehow summoned the nerve to strike up a conversation.

It wasn’t much, but through those small interactions, a bond would eventually form. Steve and I shared a love for technology and science as well as a passion for meditation and Eastern philosophy. In addition to being a brilliant executive and peerless innovator, he was a spiritual, intuitive person who had a gift for seeing the world through many perspectives at once. I saw that he had a willingness to share his wisdom, and I wasn’t afraid to ask for it.

Even once my internship ended, we stayed in touch, and as my career progressed he became a mentor of sorts. Which is why, one memorable day in 2003, I found myself pacing anxiously in the reception area of Apple’s headquarters.

Marc Benioff tweeted this photo of Steve Jobs in December 2015, saying “I’m thinking a lot about Steve Jobs.” Mr. Jobs died in 2011. Photo: Mark Chavez

By then, I was CEO of Salesforce, one of the first companies to deliver enterprise software to customers as a subscription over the internet. In the four years since Salesforce opened for business, we’d hired 400 employees, generated more than $50 million in annual revenue, and were laying the groundwork for an IPO the following year. We were justifiably proud of our progress, but I’d learned enough about the technology business to know that pride is a dangerous state of mind.

Truth be told, I was feeling stuck. To catapult the company into the next phase of growth, we needed to make a bold move. We’d survived the scary startup phase where so many companies crash and burn, but I was struggling to imagine how I’d navigate the pressure of running a public company that has to lay itself bare to Wall Street every quarter.

Sometimes seeking guidance from mentors is the only sure way to survive these bouts of inertia. That is why I decided to make a pilgrimage to Cupertino, Calif.

As Steve’s staff ushered me into Apple’s boardroom that day, I felt a rush of excitement coursing through my jangling nerves. In that moment, I remembered what it had felt like to be an inexperienced intern mustering up the courage to say a few words to the big boss. After several minutes, Steve charged in, predictably dressed in his standard attire of jeans and a black mock turtleneck. I hadn’t settled on precisely what I wanted to ask him, but I knew I’d better cut to the chase. He was a busy man, and was legendary for his directness, and ability to quickly zero in on what’s important.

The same year Marc Benioff met Steve Jobs, Apple released the new Macintosh computer. Here Mr. Jobs posed with one of the new models. Mr. Jobs later became a mentor to Mr. Benioff. Photo: Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

So I showed him a demo of the Salesforce customer relationship management service on my laptop and, true to form, he immediately had some thoughts. After unleashing a torrent of rapid-fire suggestions on our software’s basic functionality, down to the shape and color of its navigation tabs, Steve sat back, folded his hands together, and got to the larger point. Salesforce had created a “fantastic enterprise website,” he told me. But both he and I knew that that alone wasn’t enough.

“Marc,” he said. “If you want to be a great CEO, be mindful and project the future.”

I nodded, perhaps a bit disappointed. He’d given me similar advice before, but he wasn’t finished.

Steve then told me we needed to land a big account, and to grow “10 times in 24 months or you’ll be dead.” I gulped. Then he said something less alarming, but more puzzling: We needed an “application ecosystem.”

I understood that to hit the big leagues, we needed a huge marquee customer win. But what would a Salesforce “application ecosystem” look like? Steve told me that was up to me to figure out.

We tripled in size over the next three years, topping $300 million in revenue, but the puzzle posed by Steve remained unresolved. The more innovative products and features we released, the more our customers expected from us. Privately, I started to worry about whether we could cope with the pressures of scaling up.

In previous eras, a company in our position would have tapped its most brilliant scientists and squirreled them away behind a triple-bolted door with top secret painted on it. These appointed geniuses would have spent long days in isolation, wrenching together prototypes and puzzling over clay models, walled off from any ambient noise.

At the end of the process, these scientists would emerge from their lairs, likely over caffeinated and unkempt, and would wheel out a gurney containing some new product, the likes of which nobody had ever seen. Then it was up to customers to determine whether it was a game changer. Too often, it wasn’t.

We had subscribed to this outdated model too, in the early years of the company. Then, in 2006, the approach to innovation at Salesforce started to change. To innovate on a truly massive scale, we realized that we couldn’t simply demand more of our already overworked engineering department. The only possible way to scale up our innovation efforts was to start recruiting outsiders.

One evening, over dinner in San Francisco, I was struck by an irresistibly simple idea. What if any developer from anywhere in the world could create their own application for the Salesforce platform? And what if we offered to store these apps in an online directory that allowed any Salesforce user to download them? I wouldn’t say this idea felt entirely comfortable. I’d grown up with the old view of innovation as something that should happen within the four walls of our offices. Opening our products to outside tinkering was akin to giving our intellectual property away. Yet, at that moment, I knew in my gut that if Salesforce was to become the new kind of company I wanted it to be, we would need to seek innovation everywhere.

So I sketched out my idea on a restaurant napkin. And the very next morning, I went to our legal team and asked them to register the domain for “AppStore.com” and buy the trademark for “App Store.”

Shortly thereafter, I learned that our customers didn’t like the name “App Store.” In fact, they hated it. So I reluctantly conceded and about a year later, we introduced “AppExchange”: the first business software marketplace of its kind.

Steve Jobs told Marc Benioff: “’Marc, if you want to be a great CEO, be mindful and project the future.’” Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

These decisions gained added relevance when I returned to Apple’s Cupertino headquarters in 2008 to watch Steve unveil the company’s next great innovation engine: the sprawling, boundaryless digital hub where millions of customers, developers, and partners could create their own applications to run on Apple devices. Steve was a master showman, and this presentation didn’t disappoint. At the climactic moment, he said five words that nearly floored me: “I give you App Store!”

All of my executives gasped. When I’d met with Steve Jobs in 2003, I already knew he was playing a hundred chess moves ahead of me. None of us could believe that Steve had landed on the same name I’d originally proposed for our business software exchange.

For me, it was exciting and humbling. And Steve had unwittingly given me an incredible opportunity to repay him for the prescient advice he’d given me five years earlier. After the presentation, I pulled him aside and told him we owned the domain and trademark for “App Store” and that we would be happy and honored to sign over the rights to him for free.

Steve helped me understand that no great innovation in business ever happens in a vacuum. They’re all built on the backs of hundreds of smaller breakthroughs and insights—which can come from literally anywhere. AppExchange now has more than 5,000 apps, ranging from sales engagement and project management tools to collaboration aids.

Building an ecosystem is about acknowledging that the next game-changing innovation may come from a brilliant technologist and mentor based in Silicon Valley, or it may come from a novice programmer based halfway around the world. A company seeking to achieve true scale needs to seek innovation beyond its own four walls and tap into the entire universe of knowledge and creativity out there.

From “Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change” by Marc Benioff and Monica Langley, to be published on Oct. 15 in the U.S. by Currency, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, and in the U.K by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd. Copyright © 2019 by Salesforce.com, Inc. Mr. Benioff is the chairman and co-chief executive officer of Salesforce.com.

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