It's not often you get to see a millionaire tech executive in a onesie. Salesforce's lesser known co-founder Parker Harris took to the stage at the Dreamforce tech conference in San Francisco last week as "Lightning Man" wearing a blue, grey and white onesie and clutching a lightning bolt.
It was all in the name of promoting the company’s new service for app developers, Lightning.
Many people are more familiar with Salesforce's chief executive Marc Benioff, whose larger-than-life personality has made him well-known in the tech industry. But Harris is the brains behind the company's product and engineering.
Harris already had his own company when he met Benioff in 1998. Benioff was on a sabbatical from Oracle and wanted to start his own company. Harris and his Left Coast Software co-founders were also looking for a change.
"One of our first jobs was at Saba Software. We were helping them build their products for the cloud," Harris says. "We wanted to build our own product and move away from consulting. We were looking for a change. The CEO of Saba introduced me to Marc Benioff."
Conveniently, Benioff wanted to build a company doing sales force automation (software that automates business tasks such as inventory control, sales processing, and the tracking of customer interactions), something which Harris and his co-founders had been doing for years.
Harris was very interested in Benioff’s idea and knew it was something he couldn’t ignore.
Several months later, Harris, Benioff and two other founders from Harris's old company launched Salesforce. com from a tiny one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco.
“We had to finish up the jobs we were doing with customers and started Salesforce in March 1999. Salesforce bought our company for $100. That’s how we shut it,” he says. “When we met, Marc already had the domain name Salesforce.com. When we started, we played around with other names such as Workforce but they were all taken or didn’t work.
“We got some early design partners. We gave them the service for free if they helped make it great. We did a dotcom launch in February 2000 and that’s when we started charging.”
Harris said one of the hardest moments was when the dotcom bubble burst. “We had to make sure we could get through that time financially. We had to look at our marketing spend and hiring.”
Sixteen years later and Salesforce.com has grown into one of the largest software companies in the world, pulling in annual revenues in excess of $6 billion. The company reported a profit of $4.1 million for the quarter ended April 30th, compared with a loss of almost $97 million during the same quarter last year. It was the first time in seven quarters the cloud software company reported a profit.
Salesforce has 17,500 employees including more than 500 in Dublin. The Irish office was the company’s first outside the United States.
"There was a lot of incentive from the Irish Government to locate there. We were telesales-orientated and we could get good workers there with languages."
The cloud computing company is currently building a new headquarters, which will become the tallest building in San Francisco by the time it is complete in 2017. Its original plan was to build a campus similar to the campuses of other tech giants such as Google and Facebook, but located in the city.
“We bought some land and had plans to build a campus. We realised we were going to outgrow the campus by the time it was done,” Harris says. “When you come to San Francisco, we want you to know where Salesforce is. We had grown to multiple buildings in the downtown area but wanted one place.”
Harris majored in English at a liberal arts college, but did a minor in computer programming. He says the combination has made it easier when it comes to “translating” technical engineering subjects to non-technical people.
He says the company puts a lot of energy into transparency and communication.
“When we build a plan for the company and plan for the future, we share it with everyone. We broadcast company meetings and record them. Employees can give feedback and they don’t have to agree.”
He is also very involved in the company’s diversity programme.
“Where I’m focused now is how I get more women leaders. We decided not to just look outside the company for great women to hire, but to help women rise up through the ranks internally,” he says.
Speaking at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference, he said he launched the company’s women in leadership programme because he wanted to change the ratio.
“We can talk about it and give it lip service and say it’s an important issue, but I wanted to do something. I’m an engineer. I wish I had done this leadership programme many many years ago. I think we would have had a lot more success now.”
Last year, Dreamforce contributed $226 million to the San Francisco economy, with the figure expected to be higher this year due to more attendees, as more than 170,000 registered.
A shortage of accommodation in the city led Salesforce to hire a cruise ship for the four-day conference. Almost 1,100 conference attendees stayed aboard the cruise ship, which served as a floating hotel last week.
“My favourite moments at Dreamforce are when people come up and thank me randomly. It’s a selfish time for me as I get lots of positive feedback,” Harris says.