George Hu likes to call himself the most successful intern Salesforce has ever seen.
There’s no reason not to: he started there as an intern in 2001, and rose through the ranks over the next 13 years, holding the titles of chief marketing officer and chief operating officer along the way. In that span, Salesforce went from a scrappy startup to a $US50 billion software behemoth.
People always ask him if there’s a secret sauce to his success. Hu’s not sure how to answer. But he does believe there’s one thing every rockstar employee has in common: they try to meet an unmet need.
To illustrate the point, Hu likes to tell a story about the time he was in an executive meeting as an intern at Salesforce.
One of the executives complained that Salesforce didn’t have a full understanding of its customers, despite being in the customer relationship management (CRM) space. Oddly, the rest of the executives would just nod their heads, saying, “That’s true, that’s too bad.”
Hu saw a way to fix it. Salesforce had massive amounts of data about each of its customer, but no one took the time to make sense of it. So he ran his own deep analysis on the customers and shared it with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.
“No one asked me for it. I just did it. And it solved the problem that they had,” Hu told Business Insider.
One of the key insights Hu discovered was the way Salesforce was acquiring customers. Until then, Salesforce was spending a lot of money on advertising, but Hu found out most of the new users were coming in through word-of-mouth and referrals instead. After Hu showed the data to Benioff, Salesforce stopped doing print advertising and started investing in sales people to do more follow ups.
“What I always try to do is listen to what people’s unarticulated needs are, and try to solve them,” he said.
In fact, in his book “Behind the Cloud,” Benioff also mentions this story, saying, “…on his own initiative [Hu] began to examine our sales process and analyse the effectiveness of our marketing dollars…We were shocked and none of us could believe how much money we were wasting.”
The same goes for Salesforce’s first small business product, the idea that Hu is best known for coming up with. He says he just randomly sent a note to an executive with a design of the product, explaining why Salesforce needed a product targeting the very bottom end of the market.
“If I had not given that feedback to the company, they would have never gotten that product, and I have to say that the small and medium business segment today is a huge part of Salesforce,” Hu said.
That thinking is also what led Hu to launch his own startup, Peer, last week. Peer is an employee feedback app that lets people send comments and performance reviews in real-time to each other. The app connects to the user’s calendar and prompts users to leave a comment after each event, like a meeting or a phone call, so the users can have a more contextual and continuous feedback system.
“If you ask most employees what’s the point of a performance review, I think a lot of them can’t even articulate it. It’s just what the company does,” Hu said. “If I can go online and see how my portfolio is doing in real-time, then employees should be able to know how they’re doing in real-time, too.”
Hu believes Peer can eventually grow into a broader career coaching app that fundamentally changes the way people think about performance reviews. But the eventual goal, he says, circles back to solving a problem people are not even aware of having yet.
“What I tell people to do is try and solve problems that people don’t even know they have,” Hu said. “You get a certain level of reward for doing what people expect you to do, but you always get an outsized reward by going beyond what people expected.”
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