Influential Leaders: The Chatterbox

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Marc Benioff is in the spotlight—again. If that strikes you as unsurprising, you’re not alone: The cofounder, chairman, and chief executive officer of software-as-a-service (SaaS) pioneer Salesforce.com may prefer his beloved Hawaii, but his natural habitat is the stage, ideally one from which he can connect with customers, prospects, reporters, and analysts at once. Benioff’s been on a mission for more than a decade now, checking off each box he encounters on his to-do list for world domination. Having conquered the physical plane by uprooting the conventional wisdom about on-premises software, he’s since cast his gaze toward the clouds, transforming an “end of software” start-up hawking sales force automation to small and midsize firms into a billion-dollar-a-year cloud computing colossus handling the software needs of some of the world’s largest enterprises.     

Not a bad year’s work—but the transition, which we covered in a full-length special report on the company (“The Next Billion,” November 2009), is only the latest example of Benioff’s aspirational shifts. “Marc always seems to find the next turn in the market right before it happens,” says Esteban Kolsky, founder and principal of consultancy ThinkJar, “and to align the company in delivering to that trend.”

“It’s easy to point to Salesforce.com’s—and by extension Marc’s—influence on CRM,” says Ian Jacobs, senior analyst at Ovum. But their influence is expansive: “On-demand applications to manage the scheduling of agents in very large contact centers?” Jacobs asks, rhetorically. “On-demand tools that allow major retail chains to track innovation ideas from customers, partners, and suppliers? Hard to imagine those things happening without his constant evangelizing about the benefits of the on-demand model.”

“Marc remains one of the most engaging and visionary leaders in the software industry,” says Ray Wang, a partner at Altimeter Group. “He’s managed to foster a culture of both innovation and execution.” China Martens, senior analyst for enterprise software at The 451 Group, says, “More and more, he resembles an old-time preacher, with a mission to lead the faithful to the clouds and perhaps convert a few nonbelievers along the way. At the same time, he and his company are constantly reinventing their positioning, and experimenting with where they’ll head next.”

“If it wasn’t for Marc Benioff we would all have become bored with CRM a long time ago,” says Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal at CRM consultancy Beagle Research Group. “He’s entertaining, sure—but he’s a real innovator, too. He’s never stopped asking what else CRM could do.” Brent Leary, cofounder of CRM Essentials, agrees: “Every year, Benioff finds a new way to shake the industry up.” 

A bright light, indeed. 

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