Fortune

BENIOFF IN BLOOM

SALESFORCE COFOUNDER AND CEO MARC BENIOFF RUNS ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST INNOVATIVE BIG COMPANIES. HIS SECRET? RELENTLESSLY FORWARD-LOOKING LEADERSHIP.
Marc Benioff photographed on the “Ohana” floor of the Salesforce East tower in San Francisco on Oct. 11. The name comes from the Hawaiian word for family.

INNOVATION, LIKE CREATIVITY, is an amorphous concept. It’s the holy grail of business, but achieving it—even merely explaining it—is lightning-in-a-bottle difficult.

In that way, Salesforce is a major outlier. Despite the fact that its products are mundane business productivity tools, Salesforce has nevertheless managed to bake innovation into its very corporate fiber. It’s a company that was innovative in the way it started doing business, in how it sold its products, and in the articulation of its corporate mission.

Indeed, asking cofounder and CEO Marc Benioff, 53, to describe how Salesforce is innovative is a bit like asking Plácido Domingo to hum a few bars of a favorite aria. With little provocation Benioff will rattle off the three ways Salesforce has been a trailblazer since its inception nearly two decades ago. “I think our top three are a technology model which is now known as the cloud, the subscription business model, and our 1-1-1 model,” he says, referring to the company’s philanthropic commitment to give away 1% each of equity, products, and employee hours.

These now widely copied practices are merely the beginning. Under Benioff’s quirky, obsessive, and dripping-with-chutzpah tactics, Salesforce is as original a product marketer as exists in enterprise (or nonconsumer) technology. It has proved adept at predicting and embracing technology shifts, the latest being an aggressive move into artificial intelligence. Salesforce even innovates in the realm of financial accounting, having waged a multiyear battle to persuade standards boards and regulators to adopt its methods of revenue and expense recognition.

These accomplishments help explain why Salesforce has landed atop the inaugural Fortune Future 50 list of innovative U.S. companies (ranked No. 1 on the “Leaders” list of corporations with a market value above $20 billion). Based on analysis by BCG, Salesforce earns its ranking from a variety of factors including Wall Street’s expectations of future growth and public messaging that communicates a

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