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Happiness or success? Salesforce’s Marc Benioff doesn’t want to choose.

Happiness or success? Salesforce’s Marc Benioff doesn’t want to choose.

Happiness or success? Salesforce's Marc Benioff doesn't want to choose.

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

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“Which is more important, to be successful or to be happy?” He asked.

Mr. Benioff responded much as one would expect a Silicon Valley entrepreneur to respond.

“Both,” he said.

Thich Nhat Hahn warned that “if everything is important, nothing is important”. But for many years, it seemed that Mr. Benioff, like Silicon Valley itself, was capable of success and happiness – not to mention money, respect and influence.

Salesforce, which makes software to help businesses sell better, has become an influential and influential tech company, San Francisco’s largest employer. Mr. Benioff, 58, has become a philanthropist, an advocate for a new model of capitalism and, at least in the Bay Area, as inescapable as the 61-story tower that bears his company’s name.

Then came 2022. Suddenly Salesforce made less money. The stock has faded. An activist investor, Starboard Value, took a stake, never good news for management. Mr. Benioff’s co-chief executive, Bret Taylor, abruptly quit after just a year on the job. He was the second joint chief executive to do so, leaving the issue of succession to Mr Benioff’s 24-year reign at the company in doubt.

Last month, Salesforce announced it would lay off 10% of its staff, a move that appears to run counter to Mr. Benioff’s repeated statements that the company is one big family. He was chastised on social media for mishandling the cuts. A second activist investor, Elliott Management, took a stake in Salesforce. Then another and another and another. For those counting, it’s five.

“Marc believes you can have a great company, deliver great returns to your shareholders, and help your community and your planet, all at the same time,” said Steve Fisher, a longtime Salesforce employee who was also a friend. teenager of Mr. Benioff. “This is one of the times when that notion is tested.”

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

“In the darkest depths of the pandemic, I was like, ‘How are we going to get out of this? ‘” Mr. Benioff said in one of a series of conversations with The New York Times over the past week. Maybe, he thought, we wouldn’t. “I felt we were going to pivot much more aggressively towards an all-digital day.”

Salesforce’s big pandemic buy, announced in late 2020, was remote work app Slack for $28 billion. If everyone had to stay on Slack all day forever, it was cheap at this price. But they didn’t, and it wasn’t.

Salesforce’s issues may be broader, but they’re mirrored across the tech industry. About 100,000 tech workers have been laid off since the start of the year, according to Layoffs.fyi. This is a rounding error for the economy as a whole, but these workers were until recently among the best paid and best treated. The idea that free massages, for example, might no longer be part of the Silicon Valley experience was further evidence that technology was losing its pandemic grip.

Salesforce has never offered massages, but its corporate philosophy promotes the idea that its employees are special. One word Mr. Benioff throws around a lot is “Ohana,” which he picked up in Hawaii. “Ohana represents the idea that families — blood-related, adopted, or intentional — are related and that family members are responsible for each other,” the Salesforce website says.

Mr. Benioff sees no contradiction between the layoffs and the Salesforce Ohana. Families are sometimes difficult.

“I would like to offer a job for life,” he said. “But the reality is that when you have a large company with 80,000 employees, there will be times when you have to make an adjustment in the number of employees. Our severance packages are among the most generous ever. The terminated employees received a minimum of almost five months’ salary.

It may have shocked some, he added, but layoffs at Salesforce are nothing new.

“There have been tough times since we started in 1999,” he said. “It’s not all up and to the right. But it is an opportunity for growth. If you are stable, you are not growing.

A random sample of terminated Salesforce employees contacted through job boards found few people wanted to complain about Mr. Benioff, even anonymously. “I think he got lost somewhere, too many sycophants told him what he wanted to hear,” one offered. It was as wild as it gets.

Mr Benioff, however, had a lot to say, often in text – sometimes words but also photos, links and emojis. His mother, Joelle, said in an interview that he was “not a big talker” as a child, but now has words to spare. In a virtual company meeting after last month’s layoffs, he spoke for two hours.

Bad idea, he says now.

“We were trying to explain the inexplicable,” Mr. Benioff said. “It’s hard to have a call like that with such a large group and have it be effective, and we’ve paid the price for that.” Other tech companies didn’t bother to hold hands: they simply cut off their former employees’ access in the middle of the night.

It’s been a tough 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) that it’s very freeing to leave them all behind for a while!” he wrote in a text.

On a previous trip, he contributed $1 million in cash to local pandemic relief. For these and other services rendered to the French, he is now Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. He played the speech to his family.

Any conversation with Mr. Benioff inevitably touches on his grandfather Marvin E. Lewis, a San Francisco lawyer and politician who was a major force behind BART, the regional transportation system.

Mr Lewis was best known for developing the concept of ‘psychic injury’. His most famous case, in 1970, was called “The Cable Car Named Desire”. A dancer, Gloria Sykes, said she hit her head in a cable car accident, lost her “sanity” and developed “an insatiable appetite for sex” along with other issues, including at least a suicide attempt. With Mr. Lewis as counsel, Ms. Sykes was awarded $50,000 by a jury.

“He was truly a visionary,” Mr. Benioff said. “He was in business as a lawyer but made the world a better place.” He texted a picture of a tribute to Mr Lewis at a BART station calling him “a determined prophet”.

If a lawyer can reach these heights, why not a technological framework? Especially if he can make himself happy in the process?

“You’re not going to be happy if you don’t give to others,” Mr. Benioff said. “A lot of my tech peers are extremely unhappy.”

Salesforce and Mr. Benioff have undoubtedly made a major contribution to the well-being of San Francisco. But more and more questions are being asked these days about the inherent contradictions in working for the powerful to help the powerless. 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 problems in the world, despite the fact that many of his clients play a part in them.”

“Marc makes himself a target of criticism by positioning himself as much more than a creeping capitalist tech brother,” said Joshua Greenbaum, software industry analyst at Enterprise Applications Consulting. “But if you don’t want your business to pay taxes” – Salesforce hasn’t paid any taxes, legally, on billions in business income – “what right do you have to lecture people on how to make the better world?”

And if your business falters, Mr. Greenbaum said, you have even less right. Benioff posted more than 30 times on Twitter in January about his initiative to restore the world’s forests, a cause he was championing at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There were no tweets acknowledging the turmoil from Salesforce.

“Marc let the cash cow meander through the weeds,” Mr. Greenbaum said.

This is the logic behind the bets taken by activist investors, including Third Point, Inclusive Capital and ValueAct Capital. Maybe Mr. Benioff can be forced to bring the cow home faster, or he can step down in favor of someone who will. None of the activists would comment, but Mr. Benioff would.

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

Salesforce shares have rebounded since the layoffs were announced. But to repel the militants and prolong his rule, Mr Benioff must improve his profit margins. This quest is likely to cause more stress in the Salesforce family, possibly even more layoffs. Which means Thich Nhat Hahn’s question still hangs in the air: success or happiness?

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

This is, of course, a salesperson’s response. From Marc Benioff, would you expect anything else?

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