When serial entrepreneur Alex Bard started help desk software company Assistly in 2009, he didn’t exactly expect to be working for one of the world’s largest software companies just four years later.
Assistly was acquired by Marc Benioff’s Salesforce.com for $50 million in September 2011. It was renamed Desk.com; Bard now leads both the SMB-focused Desk.com and Salesforce’s enterprise-focused Service Cloud as SVP & GM and was one of 10 Forbes “Rising Stars At The World’s Most Innovative Companies” earlier this year.
Speaking to Business Insider Australia at Salesforce.com’s annual Dreamforce conference this week, Bard said he hadn’t initially planned to sell Assistly and, in retrospect, Salesforce.com was the only company that could have bought it.
“We had other opportunities and said no very quickly,” he said. “Marc is extraordinary – I’d say he’s the enterprise Steve Jobs. For me, the reason I decided to join is because Marc is somebody I respect, I look up to and I want to learn from.
“When you’re running your own company, you have people that you talk to, you have mentors, you have fellow entrepreneurs that you connect with.
“But being part of a company like this where you have somebody who is so unique, so successful, so different and having an opportunity to connect with that person and the team that they’ve built daily, that’s different. It’s like the best MBA you could ever imagine.”
Including Assistly, Bard has founded four companies so far and still invests via AngelList. Here’s his advice for entrepreneurs, including what he’s learned from Marc Benioff:
- Learn from others’ mistakes
- Think for the long term
- Work on your business, not an acquisition or IPO.
“I don’t think you target an IPO; I don’t think you should target being acquired. Because I think that leads to the wrong thinking.
“What you should target is building a really great company that customers love to use and where you can have an impact.
“Everything else comes as a byproduct of that because really, the only thing that drives entrepreneurs when they get beat up every day is a passion for what you do, not a passion for getting acquired or going public.”
- Be clear and transparent about your vision and goals.
- Give back to the community.
Assistly essentially operated on the typical start-up mantra: “fail quickly, make mistakes and iterate”. But those mistakes just aren’t an option at Salesforce, which serves tens of thousands of enterprise customers globally.
“I learn an unbelievable amount both from doing as well as watching – before, as an entrepreneur, it was mostly by doing. Here, you operate on a different scale.
“So you avoid those mistakes by learning from people who’ve made those mistakes in the past. So you have to think about how you build a product and how you go to market a little differently, but it’s great. I think there’s value in both.”
As an entrepreneur with a fast-growing start-up, Bard said he typically planned just three months ahead. That’s no longer the case at Salesforce.com.
“I think at start-ups, obviously you have a longer-term vision but I used to think in three-month increments, really, because things are moving so fast and you’re experimenting.
“At an enterprise company, where you’re in a much more mature phase, you have to be a lot more deliberate – you think about the next five years.
“So when I do planning [now], I’m doing five-year planning: what will the world look like in five years; what can we do today to ensure that we’ll be ready and our customers will be ready for the world five years from now.
“I think if you sit down with a lot of entrepreneurs, they may say they have a north star, but they’re not really doing deep, deep planning for five years out – there’s just no way because there’s just too much change happening.”
When new employees join Salesforce.com, they’re asked to write a personal vision statement and explain how it maps to Salesforce.com’s vision. That information is published on the corporate social network.
“Every single company goes through this exercise [of stating] vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures. No matter who you are in the company you have to understand why you’re in the company and how that connects to what the company is trying to do.
“We’re unbelievably transparent about how we think about things and the role that people play and the impact that they can have.
“I think that it’s hard to build a culture that we have with the 10,000-plus employees that we have, but we invest in it deeply. It’s leadership that helps us maintain it at this crazy scale.”
Salesforce.com operates on Benioff’s “1/1/1” philanthropic model that calls for technology companies to commit some of their time, equity and product to charity.
“I think philanthropy is a core part of what you stand for and is really powerful.
“Philanthropy is part of our core and every entrepreneur should think about that because it inspires what you do, inspires your employees and inspires your world, and the world wants to help you.”
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