Veteran tech journalist Kara Swisher has been interviewing Marc Benioff for a long time but never as intensely as she did last week at the Upfront Summit. Or at least that’s what the newly embattled Salesforce CEO felt compelled to point out multiple times throughout their long conversation, which was recorded for this episode of On With Kara Swisher. Benioff has been in a news a lot as of late — from losing his co-CEO to public criticism over how Salesforce handled its recent layoffs (co-starring Matthew McConaughey) and struggles with activist investors. Swisher asked Benioff about these troubles and a whole lot more.
They get into everything from generative AI to the Salesforce succession plan, the future of working from an office, Benioff’s defense of Elon Musk, and how Benioff has had to figure out progressive corporate activism on the fly. And Swisher made it clear just how much she loathes the company’s “giant-ass” office tower in San Francisco. Below is a lightly condensed transcript of most of their conversation.
On With Kara Swisher
Kara Swisher: So, let’s start with … I’m giving you a softball here.
Marc Benioff: Oh.
Kara Swisher: This week’s earnings report. Salesforce beat profit estimates, issued stronger than expected forecast, and announced an expansion of the share buyback … Does that give you some breathing room with your 103 activist investors who are upset with you?
Marc Benioff: Yeah, it’s a good question. We had a great quarter.
Kara Swisher: Yeah.
Marc Benioff: We did 17 percent growth. We did 29.2 percent in our margins. For the year, we did—
Kara Swisher: Higher? It was supposed to be 27, correct?
Marc Benioff: Well, that’s for next year. We’re going to do 27. We’re really going to be about 22, which is where we have been. We delivered four additional points for this year. We’re doing four and a half additional points for next year. Then, we delivered $7.1 billion in positive cash flow for the year, which is very healthy for a company our size, and it was a great quarter. Then for next year, we’ll do about $35 billion in revenue, and we’re, gave the punch line, 27 percent margins. We’re heading toward this 30 percent number very fast. We think we’re going to get there in fiscal year ’25. So that’s very exciting.
Kara Swisher: So, essentially, you Bob Iger–ed it, but what happened?
Marc Benioff: I Bob Iger–ed it?
Kara Swisher: It’s now a verb.
Marc Benioff: I love Bob Iger, by the way.
Kara Swisher: Okay, fine. But it’s now a verb. I just made it one.
Marc Benioff: Yeah.
Kara Swisher: So you had these activist investors — he had just one — you have many … I believe it’s five, is that correct?
Marc Benioff: I am not sure exactly.
Kara Swisher: There are a lot.
Marc Benioff: I actually need a CRM system just to keep track of them all.
Kara Swisher: In 2021, you told me you’d double revenue in the next five years. It’s now 2023. You want to revise that projection for 2026? Or are you still on track?
Marc Benioff: What was the question?
Kara Swisher: In 2021, you told me you’d double revenue over the next five years. You did.
Marc Benioff: Whoa. I would just say … Oh, you mean last year?
Kara Swisher: Yes.
Marc Benioff: Where am I going to be five years from now?
Kara Swisher: Yes.
Marc Benioff: I’m trying to figure out where I’m going to be five minutes from now.
Kara Swisher: Okay.
Marc Benioff: So—
Kara Swisher: All right, all right.
Marc Benioff: I can say that this year, we just finished at $31.4 billion, and next year, we’re going to do about $35 billion. And the economy is not where it was—
Kara Swisher: No.
Marc Benioff: Here’s what happened. I think for a lot of tech companies, there is a story that is not really being well told. Forget about our fiscal years for a second and just go to calendar years. In 2021, it was the best year tech ever had. It was incredible. It was the best buying environment. Our fourth quarter in that year, which is only 12 months ago, was the best quarter we’ve ever had. And this was true for a lot of companies.
Kara Swisher: It was.
Marc Benioff: And everyone — us, all of our peers — we were all surging employment to get ready for another year like that, because we thought that was the normalized buying environment, but then, we started to see some unusual macro issues. Currency has really started to change aggressively. We saw inflation start to come up. The stock market basically imploded. And the buying environment changed, and CEOs, especially, became more measured. When that happened, that’s when, all of a sudden, everybody had to start thinking about, well, we need a slightly different plan here. And we’re kind of looking like, oh, that year was an anomaly, then we’re back into a new normal. So that is kind of what happened. To get through that year and deliver like we did, that was an incredible moment.
Kara Swisher: What did you do to do that? Because you clearly had to show these investors. You had to sort of slap them around a little bit, presumably.
Marc Benioff: It’s not really about them, though they would like it to be.
Kara Swisher: Right.
Marc Benioff: I would say it’s really about our customers. I think when you focus down on the customer success, probably the best metric in the quarter is that we hit a record low attrition in customers. And the reason why is that when you focus on customer success, which is really in concert with trust, our highest value, everything starts to work for you. And that is what we did. We doubled down — especially in our fourth quarter. We took 90 days extreme focus on customer success, and we were able to deliver some phenomenal numbers. We did not think we would do $8.4 billion when we started the quarter. We thought we were going to do about $8 billion.
Kara Swisher: So you feel like you had no pressure — that activist investor didn’t get you going? All of them?
Marc Benioff: It has actually been a lot of fun, and I’ll tell you why. I’ve been doing this 24 years—
Kara Swisher: Yeah, Dan Loeb’s a laugh riot, but go ahead.
Marc Benioff: He has been a longtime friend of mine. I think over here, you know, we understand how to run our business, make our customers successful, innovate — this is what we do for a living. Now, some of these investors show up, I’m like, Oh, let’s get to know them. I like to talk to people, so I’ll talk to them. You have a wide variety of folks in this category, and they have a variety of expertise, especially when it comes to our industry, which is highly specialized.
So while some of them add a lot of value, some of them don’t. Some of them have great ideas. Some of them don’t. I just enjoyed getting to know them.
Kara Swisher: All right, let’s go down from there to Vivek Ramaswamy, who’s running for president. He invested through Strive. He is an activist noted for his anti-wokeness. It’s core to his presidential bid.
Marc Benioff: So you’ve rejected his vice-president partnership, is that it?
Kara Swisher: I did. Indeed. Yeah. Especially when he—
Marc Benioff: Okay, I see.
Kara Swisher: —thought gay and lesbian people should be reformed. So I felt that was bad.
Marc Benioff: All right. That didn’t go over well with you.
Kara Swisher: It did not, I would have to say.
Marc Benioff: And how did you feel about that?
Kara Swisher: I felt badly.
Marc Benioff: Okay.
Kara Swisher: Not really, but whatever. I know some are saying his quote “ridiculously puny steak,” which I agree is—
Marc Benioff: That was Sonnenfeld’s comment, right?
Kara Swisher: Is he going to get you less woke? He attacks you personally. You and I have talked about this. What do you make of this?
Marc Benioff: It’s a political motion. I see that a lot, because we are a big company. We do have 70,000 people. We are one of the three largest software companies now in the world — Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce — and we see a lot of political shenanigans. And whether it’s a politician running for president who buys a share of stock or it could be a governor of a state or (we’ve been through these) could be all kinds of folks. Not just here. It could be all over the world, and they’ll try to use or manipulate.
And the worst part is when they want to discriminate against our employees. I think that this is what is the saddest part, and you and I have talked about the story, but just to bring everyone up to speed, it really started in Indiana. That is what got us going. And in Indiana, there was a governor we all know, Mike Pence, who was a friend of mine, and I was working with him, because we’re the largest employer in Indiana, tech employer, and a very successful operation there. Great people in Indianapolis. Great city. We have the Salesforce Tower in Indianapolis. And my employees started saying to me, “Marc, you’ve got a big problem on your hands.”
I’m like, “What problem do I have?”
“Well, the governor is going to sign a law that is going to discriminate against the LGBTQ community.”
And I’m like, “Explain that to me.”
This is going to happen. This is going to happen. This is going to happen.
I’m like, “It’s not possible. No one would ever sign such a law.” I’m a fourth-generation San Franciscan — born and raised in the city. This is the home of gay rights, the Gold Rush. Everybody knows San Francisco. In my mind, it’s not possible. So then they call me again. “You need to send them a letter now.”
“I’m not going to. Why would I send him a letter? Why are you getting me involved in this?”
“No, you need to send him a letter.”
I’m like, ”Fine. If it’s important to you, we’ll send him a letter.”
Then they call me back. “You need to send him a second letter.”
What? “You can’t believe this is still happening. It’s still happening.”
Okay. He signs the law. I could not believe it. I was in a car, an Uber on the way from the Rosewood hotel in Palo Alto — very nice, swanky — on my way home back down 280 to San Francisco. Maybe I had had a couple of glasses of wine. It was a nice night. And I’m reading on my phone that this has happened—
Kara Swisher: He signed the bill. Yes.
Marc Benioff: And I just go to Twitter, and I said, “Well, if he is going to discriminate against our employees, then we are going to de-invest in the state of Indiana, because we can’t send our employees and customers to a state where they’re discriminating against the LGBTQ population.” I went to sleep that night. Fine. Everything was fine. I wake up. In the morning, it’s 8:00. I turn on the television. My tweet is on the TV. I’m like, I’m watching CNN. Is this a bad dream? Is it a nightmare? What is happening? This can’t be true. But it was right on the television. And I was like, Well, I hope I spelled everything correctly.
Kara Swisher: And you’re committed.
Marc Benioff: A number of my friends in tech were on at that point. Then I realized my phone was filled with voice mails. What was amazing was that over the next 24 hours, more than 200 CEOs of companies all over the country said that they were going to do the same thing.
Kara Swisher: Same thing. Okay, so drunk-tweeted.
Marc Benioff: And Mike Pence called me, and he’s like, “Marc, how are you?” I’m like, “Mike, how are you doing? It’s great to talk to you.” And he said, “Listen, what’s going to happen next?” I’m like, “I don’t know, Mike. I guess we’re going to have to have rolling economic sanctions against the state of Indiana.” He’s like, “What does that mean?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I just made it up.”
Kara Swisher: Right.
Marc Benioff: He’s laughing. I’m laughing. I’m like, “Mike, listen, why don’t I just put a couple of attorneys on an airplane? We’ll come out here. We’ll negotiate this. This will all be resolved.” And that is what we did, and we worked it out, and that’s the way it should be done. Having that kind of dialogue, and we were able to reduce that. Now, it wasn’t the end of the end.
Kara Swisher: Certainly not.
Marc Benioff: It was the end of the beginning.
Kara Swisher: Right. Right.
Marc Benioff: And that was how it started. Then we’ve seen there’s other moments—
Kara Swisher: So you get dragged into this. I mean, beyond incredible naïveté that he wouldn’t have signed this, I’m just telling you — of course he would’ve. And you’re drunk tweeting. It makes a fascinating story. But how do you feel when you get pressured that way in terms of being the woke CEO? Do you feel nervous about it? I know you are nervous about going to see Trump.
Marc Benioff: I don’t feel like I am a woke CEO. It’s funny. I feel like I’ve got my employees back. That’s all I feel. In my heart, all I want to know is that my employees — whoever they are, whatever their sexual orientation is, their race, their gender, their religion — that they know we want them to have a great work experience and we’ll have their back. And if someone is coming after them, like in that case, we’re going to step in and do what we can. We can’t do it in all situations, but we’ll do our best. And I think that we have. Then it was a moment in business, and it was scary for me, because it’s not like you take a class in business school at USC — a couple blocks away from here where I went in 1986 — on this kind of … let’s hear it for USC, right? Yes. Half the school is here. Congratulations. Fight on. But the thing is that there’s no class there. Or maybe there is now. But there’s no class on how to handle—
Kara Swisher: Vivek Ramaswamy.
Marc Benioff: Or gender equality. There’s no class on how business handles environmental — all the things that are important today to our employees. This is new. And I think you have to kind of dive in.
Kara Swisher: All right.
Marc Benioff: You’re going to try things. There are going to be mistakes, but you go, you go, you keep going. That’s all you can do.
Kara Swisher: All right. Speaking of which, it leads us into these layoffs. One of the things you used is the word Ohana for family.
Marc Benioff: Yes.
Kara Swisher: A lot. Which, sometimes, I’m like—
Marc Benioff: It’s the family word of—
Kara Swisher: I know what it means, but lately, it has felt a little more like the Soprano family at your company.
Marc Benioff: All right.
Kara Swisher: You announced—
Marc Benioff: “You keep getting me out. Now you keep pulling me back in.” Darren is going to cast me in his new movie.
Kara Swisher: Okay. All right. No, that’s The Godfather. Get your murderous mobsters correct.
Marc Benioff: All right. Thanks.
Kara Swisher: But nonetheless, you’re laying off about 8,000 workers like a lot of tech companies. Again, a far cry from the pandemic years, when you hired 30,000.
Marc Benioff: Yes, that’s true.
Kara Swisher: Is 8,000 enough to get you through?
Marc Benioff: Well, like I said, when we started this, when the pandemic started — call it January of 2020. Here we are now in March of ’23. Between 2020 and March of ’23, we went from 50,000 employees to 80,000. And now, we’ve produced, just like you said, by 10 percent. I think that that’s the story for every large tech company. Anyone who’s telling you that they’re not doing that — they probably were not doing that well during the pandemic, because they weren’t riding that buying motion.
Kara Swisher: Well, Apple hasn’t, but go ahead. That’s the only one.
Marc Benioff: Yeah, I think for the large companies in our area, it’s consistently true.
Kara Swisher: So is it enough?
Marc Benioff: Well, you can see by the numbers that we’ve had a great result. And I feel good about our trajectory. The key is that this is not my first recession. I went through it in 2001 and 2002. That was extremely difficult. We had to have an employment action. We went through 2008 and 2009. We had the same situation. And here we are today. I think that, over 24 years, it’s not the same company. The company has transformed. It has changed. It has evolved, grown, done all these things. But what happens is that as the company matures and grows, you have to constantly reshape it. Today, we don’t have the one product we had in 2000. We have 75 products and a constant need to recalibrate the company.
Kara Swisher: But some of your employees are upset. They point out that you said Salesforce was a family. You used that term quite a lot.
Marc Benioff: Sure, it is.
Kara Swisher: Did you think you did a good job of handling the cuts, and what could you have done better?
Marc Benioff: I prefer Microsoft’s strategy. I really looked at it. It had a layoff that night they had Sting at a party in Davos. That was one way to handle it. I think the other way is that I’m a “lead from the front” person. You know that. So I’m not afraid to get on an all-hands call for two hours. And it was tough, because you’re having to explain the unexplainable. And, yes, exactly what you said. We don’t have lifetime employment. And it’s sad, because we do feel like these are family members and we are working to place them into our ecosystem and take care of them. A lot of them we’ll hire back. But it’s not easy. There’s no rule book here. And there are different ways to handle it. I could just have not said anything. That’s much easier. But I don’t think that that’s the right thing to do. The right thing to do is to actually take the bullets.
Kara Swisher: Is there one thing you could have done better?
Marc Benioff: I think that you have to be willing to take the cuts. Over 24 years, I’ve had a lot of cuts. They could be difficult situations — just like this. That’s how you end up with thick skin. It’s just a hard situation. In business, there are hard situations, and that’s one of them. It’s just difficult. But still, we’re working with people every day to make sure that they land well.
Kara Swisher: All right. You got heat for that $10 million contract with Matthew McConaughey, but what other costs do you need to cut?
Marc Benioff: I really am executing a four-point plan, and the first point is short-term and long-term restructuring. So I’m looking at the whole company and saying we’ve been through 24 years of growth. What are the things that we can do structurally to address our cost structure? Yes, we’ve delivered great profits. Yes, we have great margins. We delivered a 29.2 percent margin in the quarter, but the company has more long-term restructuring to do. Just looking at it, all the acquisitions we’ve got. Mark Zuckerberg runs the conference. He was, like, our first acquisition when we bought Coral. And we’ve done about 60 acquisitions to shape our vision of what customer 360 was. He was a critical part, actually, of that way back in the beginning. I think, based on that, you can say we’re going to have short-term and long-term restructuring. You know, when you go through the pandemic, we definitely are seeing that we still have things we need to do in productivity and performance improvements.
Kara Swisher: Yeah, you talk. I’m going to ask about that in a minute.
Marc Benioff: For sure. It’s important. And No. 3 is, as I said, we have 75 products, but the world in our tech industry is changing rapidly, as you know. And the prioritization of those products is changing, and putting certain products first will let us invest in the right areas. And the fourth thing is that we have to improve our relationships with our shareholders. It’s incredibly important right now. Because of what happened last year, we have to be much more diligent in how we’re communicating with them. Much more clear, much more specific. Like this morning, when I woke up at 8:30, I’m on the phone with our top investors explaining exactly how the quarter is, not just letting them read about it in the newspaper.
Kara Swisher: What about selling off any of the many companies you’ve acquired? You were an acquisition fiend in lots of ways. You said you disbanded the M&A Group. Do you feel like that’s done? That the growth through that is over for Salesforce?
Marc Benioff: Well, there are two different things there. One thing is — no, I think that we have some great assets. We took one, well, Exact Target, a major company we bought, which is how we became the largest tech employer in Indiana. When we bought it, it was doing about $300 million in revenue to about $3 billion. We look at MuleSoft — again, the same thing. It went from a couple hundred million to a couple billion. Also Tableau — sub billion, a couple billion. Then Slack, which is exciting, where again, we bought it for less than a billion. And we’re looking at it being a multibillion-dollar product. These are jewels. And the key is we’ve been able to weave them together — some at different rates than others. But our long-term vision is very clear that we’re building a platform that lets our customers connect with their customers in a whole new way.
Kara Swisher: But not on a buying spree. You don’t see Salesforce being on that same kind of buying spree?
Marc Benioff: I think we we have enough—
Kara Swisher: Some people criticize the Slack acquisition, for example.
Marc Benioff: Yeah. I think that we have enough right now, and that’s a great product. Honestly, I just love it.
Kara Swisher: It is a great product.
Marc Benioff: I use it constantly during the day. How many people here are on Slack? Raise your hands. Enough said. So it’s like 60 or 70 percent of the audience has raised their hands.
Kara Swisher: Do you push back on those investors who say it was overpriced and you shouldn’t have bought it, for example?
Marc Benioff: That’s not a conversation with our investors. I think when they see these numbers, there was no conversation like that. I would tell you if there was, by the way. But I have not had a conversation with any investor like that ever actually. So I feel very good about that. Journalists asked the question, because they love Slack. Most of the journalists — like at Time, we are on Slack. A lot of media companies are on Slack.
Kara Swisher: I would say love is a strong word for that, but yes, like it, certainly.
Marc Benioff: I would say love is a good word, accurate.
Kara Swisher: “It doesn’t suck,” is how Mossberg would put it.
Marc Benioff: I would say it’s great. I like the sounds, and the whole thing is a very good product.
Kara Swisher: Let’s move on. In 2021, you told me CEOs at other Fortune 100 companies were angry at you for saying publicly that we’re not going back to the office. Do you feel validated? Have you changed your point of view?
Marc Benioff: It was my first pandemic. What can I say? I think that we are in a post-pandemic reality, and because of that, we have a much clearer sight over the last three years. And I’m sure everyone here who went through this, we all went through this together as one humanity, would say, “Well, next time we have a pandemic, how about this, this, and this instead?” But we learned. So when we look at business today, for our new employees who are coming in, we know empirically that they do better if they’re in the office, meeting people, being onboarded, being trained. And if they are at home and not going through that process, we don’t think they’re as successful.
Kara Swisher: So now you’ve shifted. In December, you sent a Slack message saying that workers hired during the pandemic weren’t as productive.
Marc Benioff: This is the most homework you have ever done for any interview that we have done. Usually you’re just shooting from the hip like randomly.
Kara Swisher: I have some shooting from the hip coming.
Marc Benioff: This is really impressive.
Kara Swisher: Thank you.
Marc Benioff: Like, you have a staff person who’s helped you or something.
Kara Swisher: Thank you. I do.
Marc Benioff: I can’t believe it. You’ve gone to another level of excellence. It’s impressive.
Kara Swisher: Well, thank you. I appreciate the compliment.
Marc Benioff: Well, you’re just usually not that organized, but it’s good.
Kara Swisher: Are you bringing back people to your big-ass, giant-ass, idiotic building in San Francisco? Boom.
Marc Benioff: That is the kind of thing — you get away from the cards, and you’ll be much better.
Kara Swisher: Yes, it’s right here. “Giant-ass building.” I typed it myself.
Marc Benioff: So we have a lot of those. We have a great gorgeous New York one and a brand-new one coming to Chicago and Sydney. We have London, Tokyo, right on the Imperial Palace grounds, the whole thing. And the thing about that is that I think we have two kinds of people. This is how I think about it. We have people who are remote, and if your manager agrees that you’re remote — now by the way, 20 percent of all of our employees from day one have always been remote, that is, they are at-home workers. That’s going to increase. It’s going to increase dramatically. How many of you work at home? Raise your hands. How many of you work in the office? Raise your hands. This is the world we’re moving into.
Kara Swisher: This hybrid.
Marc Benioff: We’re going to have remote, and we’re going to have return. Then for return, it’s going to be different by — like engineering, we’ve said only comes in ten days a quarter. For G&A, if you’re not classified as remote, we’d like you to be in three days a week — Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Then, if you’re sales and marketing, we really expect you to either be with a customer, because that’s what we prefer, for go out and meet the customer in their office. And if not, we’re going to want you to be in the office. That’s more of a four-day-a-week executive.
Kara Swisher: In other countries, they’re much higher — 70, 80 percent back in the office. Do you think the U.S. will do that? Do you see forcing people back in to the office? Is that critical if they’re not as productive?
Marc Benioff: I don’t want to force anybody. I think you’ve got two things. You’ve got mandates and reasons. If you do a mandate, like what you just said, are you going to force them back in to the office? You’re going to be in a bad situation with attrition. And we don’t want to lose our stars. So we don’t want mandates. We want reasons. We want to show them, “Here are the five reasons why we think you should be back in the office.” And they’re like, “You know what? I moved to Timbuktu, and I just want to be classified as remote.” I’m like, “Great. I totally resonate with that. Let’s go. You can be remote.” So this is the right way for us to think about it. Probably every company thinks about it differently. If we talk to some of the big banks in New York, they have a whole different—
Kara Swisher: They do.
Marc Benioff: … perspective. Some tech companies say they’re going to be 100 percent remote forever. I think that may work for some companies, and by the way, it’s worked for some great companies like WordPress — they’ve been 100 percent remote.
Kara Swisher: Sure, they have been forever.
Marc Benioff: We own a significant part of that company, and I’ve been very inspired by Matt and how he runs his company virtually. But I think that for us, our folks are going to be better, especially the new folks, people who really need to learn—
Kara Swisher: To be in the office.
Marc Benioff: Yeah, meet people.
Kara Swisher: What about your commitment to places like San Francisco, where you need people in the office? Is that still important to you?
Marc Benioff: It’s really more important, I think, to them. I don’t think this is about me. It’s more about that I want the best for them. I want them to be successful.
Kara Swisher: The employees?
Marc Benioff: Yeah. I want them to learn the products, make money, enjoy the environment, enjoy the culture. It’s not just a big building. It’s pretty gorgeous inside. You’ve been there, and it’s stunning.
Kara Swisher: I have issues with your building, but go ahead.
Marc Benioff: Well, I’d like to hear about that.
Kara Swisher: It ruined my view. I have a beautiful view, and I’m always looking out, and there’s the penis. There it is.
Marc Benioff: Thank you. I didn’t build the building, so I apologize on behalf of Boston Properties.
Kara Swisher: And yet you approved it.
Marc Benioff: I apologize.
Kara Swisher: Honestly, I hate your building, but go ahead.
Marc Benioff: I ask the whole world to forgive me, and I will forgive the world.
Kara Swisher: Okay, all right. So it could be a mixed thing is what you’re saying. You think you’re validated in saying this is going to change rather drastically. I know a lot of you were out in front of that.
Marc Benioff: Yes, we’ve written our business plan for fiscal year ’24, which we started February 1, and it’s called a V2MOM process. We are collaborating. I’m collaborating directly with our employees on Slack, and there are employees who are passionate about being at home, and my message to them is this: Just ask your manager to classify you as remote.
Kara Swisher: To figure it out.
Marc Benioff: … and it’s totally great.
Kara Swisher: So you want to make a big deal out of it.
Marc Benioff: We have one person in particular — I’ve gone back and forth with her maybe a dozen times, and she’s like, “Oh, no.” I said to her, “What’s right for you may not be right for all 70,000 folks.” It’s not right what she’s saying, which is she just wants the company to be 100 percent remote. The right thing to do is that different classifications of folks should have different approaches. And if her manager says that it’s fine that she’s remote, in my opinion, she should be remote. She’s doing a task that I think can be done great at home, fine. But in some cases, folks should be in the office.
Kara Swisher: All right. Speaking of not in the office, Bret Taylor left at the end of January as your co-CEO after playing a large role in the $27 billion acquisition of Slack. Slack’s CEO, Stewart Butterfield, left in January, and Tableau’s CEO, Mark Nelson, left in December. Why the exodus? And tell me if it’s problematic, because obviously heir apparent is something that’s on the list of things people talk about, and you’re not the only one. It would be Iger at Disney, lots of people, Schultz at Starbucks talk about this.
Marc Benioff: Well, I think No. 1, Bret is amazing. You know that.
Kara Swisher: I do.
Marc Benioff: And very inspired. I think he’s very inspired with the next generation of AI. He has recruited this head of Google to start this new company. He has announced the new company. Look, I have to fully support him, you know that, and of course, I don’t want him to leave the company, but I realize he’s an entrepreneur, a great one, started many companies, and I have to let him do what he’s going to do. And it’s impressive — his vision, his ideas, it’s great. A lot of folks in Silicon Valley, and you know this, think that we are about to go into an AI tsunami, and there is a wave of that going on, and he’s in that wave. Stewart is a little different. That was something that we planned for a long time, and he did very well on the acquisition.
Kara Swisher: Living his best life.
Marc Benioff: Thank you. And he’s a great person. I think he’s probably one of the greatest people in my—
Kara Swisher: But what about your succession here? You’ve had a co-CEO before Keith Block — this role for 18 months. Why not Bret? Was he spending too much time with Twitter? That jumped up in the middle of nowhere but—
Marc Benioff: That was definitely, I’m sure, a major component. But I would say that, for me, I believe that every executive should always have a successor in place and ready to go, and I require all of my managers to do that, and I’m required to do that by our board. And I have that successor in place. So if something happened to me—
Kara Swisher: Who is that?
Marc Benioff: Like, for example, it’s not something that I’m currently discussing, the name, but something happens to me here with you onstage, we’re ready to go, if that’s what you’re asking.
Kara Swisher: Okay, so you have a succession plan in place.
Marc Benioff: Of course.
Kara Swisher: You do.
Marc Benioff: We have to have governance. This is an incredible company.
Kara Swisher: Were you attempting to do it with these? What was this then about these co-CEOs? I never like a co-CEO, but that’s just me.
Marc Benioff: I understand that. And I think because—
Kara Swisher: Especially when one is as big a personality as you.
Marc Benioff: Well, I had a really great conversation last week with Ray Dalio, who has been a mentor of mine, and he was telling me, “Marc, the co-CEO model’s a great model. You need to execute it.” I’m like, “Ray, I just did that twice.” Right now, I can’t jump completely back to that. I do think it is a great model. I’ve said this before, but these are big jobs. It’s great when you’re two in the box. It can really work. It was working, I think, really well with both of these executives, but at the same level, you want to always make sure you have your successor in place. That is the key thing, and that is a requirement for an executive at my level.
Kara Swisher: But they didn’t leave because you wouldn’t go.
Marc Benioff: No.
Kara Swisher: I mean, there can be only one Marc, Iger, Schultz. No. You feel like—
Marc Benioff: No. In those cases, those executives did leave.
Kara Swisher: Yeah. Then they came back.
Marc Benioff: They came back, because they unfortunately had to. I don’t think any one of them really, I know them very well. I didn’t leave, by the way—
Kara Swisher: No, I know you haven’t left yet.
Marc Benioff: Are you trying to get rid of me?
Kara Swisher: No.
Marc Benioff: I am the best-performing enterprise-software executive of all time. Just so we have a little clarity on that. There has been a 5,000 percent shareholder return since we went public in 2004.
Kara Swisher: I’m going to let you have that one.
Marc Benioff: Just wanted be clear about that.
Kara Swisher: But you have a successor in place. This is a concern of yours.
Marc Benioff: You know what Harvard and Yale say about me, don’t you, Kara?
Kara Swisher: No, but you have it right there, and I wish you wouldn’t read it. All right then—
Marc Benioff: I don’t have it, but I should have it actually. If I had your assistant, I’d be ready. You have 50 cards, this is crazy—
Kara Swisher: Stop touching my cards. Fuck you.
Marc Benioff: Oh my God. I’ve never seen so many cards.
Kara Swisher: You know what? I’ve had them in my head before.
Marc Benioff: This is not right.
Kara Swisher: It’s right.
Marc Benioff: People should look at your other interviews with me — zero cards. Much easier.
Kara Swisher: Let me just say I did have cards. You’re wrong.
Marc Benioff: This is like, “Trrr.” It’s like, “Whoa.”
Kara Swisher: “Whoa.” That’s right. You’d better be ready with your red shoes, et cetera.
Marc Benioff: This is awesome.
Kara Swisher: All right. Speaking of overwhelming CEOs, you and I have butted heads—
Marc Benioff: I wore these for you.
Kara Swisher: I wore these for you.
Marc Benioff: Thank you.
Kara Swisher: You and I have butted heads over your defense of Elon. I texted you—
Marc Benioff: Oh yeah, you did. I forgot all about that. That’s so funny.
Kara Swisher: You praised him on Twitter, an hour a half—
Marc Benioff: What did I say?
Kara Swisher: Well, let me just say, you praised him on Twitter. And I get the visionary part. I think that’s what you were going for. But it was almost immediately after he posted an incredibly homophobic tweet about Paul Pelosi.
Marc Benioff: You were angry.
Kara Swisher: I was quite angry.
Marc Benioff: You were super-angry.
Kara Swisher: I was, because I expected more from you. I was like, “Really?”
Marc Benioff: No, you were just angry already before you ever saw my tweet.
Kara Swisher: No, I think that was appalling that you praised him.
Marc Benioff: You were pretty pissed off.
Kara Swisher: I was, but you were not pissed off—
Marc Benioff: And I had to call you, because you were so mad.
Kara Swisher: You know what? You weren’t pissed off enough. How about that?
Marc Benioff: I didn’t even know what you were angry about.
Kara Swisher: That’s correct. I think you needed to be.
Marc Benioff: You had to educate me. I was actually responding to something completely different, then I got into your reality, and I’m like, “Oh, I am so fucked right now.” This is like—
Kara Swisher: I agree.
Marc Benioff: Because it was horrible.
Kara Swisher: Well, it was unlike you. That’s the thing.
Marc Benioff: I just felt I was getting taken apart by you, and I didn’t even know why. I’m willing to agree when I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I did something terrible.” I’ll fall on my sword. Boom.
Kara Swisher: We had an argument, the same thing about Laurene Powell Jobs, if you remember that when you said—
Marc Benioff: I don’t remember that either, but oh God, let’s not go there.
Kara Swisher: You called her the widow of Steve Jobs, but anyway, that’s okay.
Marc Benioff: Oh God, I’m sorry.
Kara Swisher: I think she’s a person in her own right.
Marc Benioff: No, she is. Absolutely. She’s amazing.
Kara Swisher: And what was nice is you actually said that, and said, “I was wrong, and I learned.” But talk about this.
Marc Benioff: I’m usually wrong, by the way.
Kara Swisher: No, I know you were not aware.
Marc Benioff: But how do you remember all these things?
Kara Swisher: Because I follow—
Marc Benioff: Do you have a catalogue of all of the things I’ve done wrong. Is this what it’s going to be like when I get to heaven? You’re the one who’s going to be there.
Kara Swisher: Yes.
Marc Benioff: And say, “Now you know, Marc. I’ve got your card here.” And I’m like, “Oh fuck.”
Kara Swisher: Let me just say I have all the texts of everybody.
Marc Benioff: Oh, all right, great. You’re looking at all of our texts?
Kara Swisher: Oh, I have them all.
Marc Benioff: ChatGPT, would you please summarize this conversation and send it to my email now? Thank you.
Kara Swisher: I have everybody’s texts.
Marc Benioff: Oh okay. Thank you.
Kara Swisher: Marc Andreessen should probably be worried. Anyway—
Marc Benioff: Wow.
Kara Swisher: How do you separate him as a visionary?
Marc Benioff: Marc Andreessen?
Kara Swisher: No, not Marc Andreessen. Let’s not talk about him. He gives me a headache. Elon Musk. How do you separate the visionary part from what’s happening, which is clearly problematic. I think none of which you agree with. You are not antigay. You don’t do misogynist things. But in an interview this week, I’m going to read it all correctly. “Every CEO in Silicon Valley has looked at what Elon Musk has done and asked themselves, Do they need to unleash their own Elon within?” Explain what that means. Is it appealing to the id or “I can’t believe he did this. We should do it.” Because some of it is crude and against almost everything you stand for. I was angry on your behalf.
Marc Benioff: Yeah. And I think I’m able to separate the wheat from the chaff more than you can.
Kara Swisher: There’s a lot of chaff.
Marc Benioff: I know. I think there is good in everyone, and I see the good in everyone. Maybe I’m too focused on that. And maybe you’re the opposite. I am not always able to see the dark parts, and that’s why I like being friends with you, because you helped me to see all sides of the equation.
Kara Swisher: Well, it’s hard not to see the dark parts, because within every—
Marc Benioff: But I think in this case—
Kara Swisher: Literally, Scott Adams is great according to Elon. But let’s move on.
Marc Benioff: Okay. So in this case, there are parts of what he’s doing where I just, I think the tweet you got upset said, “Don’t underestimate Elon.” And this is a man who is landing rockets on surfboards in the ocean.
Kara Swisher: Got it. I agree.
Marc Benioff: He has got cars going down the highway by themselves. He’s drilling holes in the brains of monkeys, connecting them to video games without joysticks. And he thinks he’s going to drill a tunnel on Mars and drive a Tesla through it. And we are going to wake up with our own consciousness in the car, and I’m going to be a red car and you’re going to be a white car and we’re going to honk at each other and wave, “Hey Kara, how are you?” “I’m fine.” And it’s going to be like the movie Cars, but it’s going to be like how we are now. That’s his vision for his life, and I think it’s quite extraordinary. But I understand what you’re saying because, yes, our core values may be different, but we can look at that his level of innovation has been extremely—
Kara Swisher: Certainly, but you wouldn’t put up with this kind of shit from Mike Pence. So why do you put up with it here?
Marc Benioff: Well, I would just say that I was responding more—
Kara Swisher: Because he can land a rocket?
Marc Benioff: What’s that?
Kara Swisher: Because he can land a rocket? I would agree with all those things you said.
Marc Benioff: Yeah, I know.
Kara Swisher: Although I think some of them are bullshit promises. Some of them are real.
Marc Benioff: And in regard to some of the things that are these personal values you’re talking about, we’re at a moment in history when we have to try to actually understand people. It is better to listen, to understand, to try to understand who people are, look at their values, try more to find common ground. And at the same time, you’re right, that we have to hold up and stand up for what’s right, and I think I’ve done that. You know that.
Kara Swisher: Yep.
Marc Benioff: So it’s a balance.
Kara Swisher: So do you think he’s—
Marc Benioff: But I know I got you really upset. I mean, I haven’t really seen you that upset.
Kara Swisher: But it’s easy to say upset. I’m not upset. It’s appalling and beyond that, because it doesn’t just stop there. It goes everywhere. Do you think his divisiveness has been helpful to this world? It’s purposely divisive. It’s intentionally divisive.
Marc Benioff: I certainly think that the way I would handle certain things might have been different and have been. At the same time, I have a lot of respect for some of his ability to execute and innovate. So I think you have to look at that — there are two sides of the coin, and I understand the side of the coin that you’re looking at, and I was looking at the other side of the coin, and that’s where we are coming together—
Kara Swisher: I feel you need to look at both.
Marc Benioff: I feel like we’re in a living room right now having this conversation.
Kara Swisher: Yes, okay.
Marc Benioff: Versus being in front of a thousand folks.
Kara Swisher: You looked into buying Twitter. I’m going to let you off here.
Marc Benioff: I will just go back and just say that tweet said, “Don’t underestimate Elon Musk.” We put him on the cover of Time magazine, Person of the Year. I think if you go back, that was the right decision. It was incredible. He is somebody who is going to be a major player. Could he improve in some of these areas? We can all improve in a lot of these areas.
Kara Swisher: I think he has amazing power and he’s abusing it in a way that is unfortunate given how talented he is.
Marc Benioff: I completely understand how you feel.
Kara Swisher: Yeah, okay. That was a good answer.
Marc Benioff: Thank you very much.
Kara Swisher: You said, “I get how you’re feeling, Kara.”
Marc Benioff: How about a hand for her, because isn’t she doing a good job?
Kara Swisher: A couple more questions, and we’ve got to go.
Marc Benioff: Thank you.
Kara Swisher: You looked into buying Twitter.
Marc Benioff: Oh no, she’s still got ten more cards.
Kara Swisher: No, I’ve done most of the them—
Marc Benioff: We’ve got all night. Don’t worry about it.
Kara Swisher: I have two more questions.
Marc Benioff: The sign is flashing “out of time,” by the way.
Kara Swisher: I know that. We have two more questions very quickly.
Marc Benioff: Two more questions.
Kara Swisher: Just relax. You looked into buying Twitter.
Marc Benioff: Okay.
Kara Swisher: Are you regretful you didn’t buy Twitter?
Marc Benioff: Way back when?
Kara Swisher: Yeah.
Marc Benioff: Oh, yeah. I was very interested. I had a vision that was very different from what’s happened, but we don’t have enough time to talk about it. I think it’s one of the great companies, brands, platforms. It has huge potential, and I love it. I’ve always been in love with it.
Kara Swisher: So you still would be—
Marc Benioff: I feel like it’s a video game with no winners.
Kara Swisher: Okay. Well, that’s a good way to put it. Last two questions. Speaking, several years ago at the top of Salesforce Tower, which I hate, overlooking the smoke from the wildfires, you said Facebook was like—
Marc Benioff: You and I were sitting up there, and we couldn’t see out of the building, because the smoke was horrible.
Kara Swisher: We couldn’t because of the fires. But you called Facebook a cigarette company. You were one of the first CEOs who did stand up and talked about the problems. What do you think today? And let’s broaden it to Twitter, TikTok, and the rest of them.
Marc Benioff: I had a bet with Brad, that I just lost, that you wouldn’t ask this question. So it’s really upsetting that you did, because it’s going to cost me so much money.
Kara Swisher: Okay. You’re welcome, Brad.
Marc Benioff: I said, “There’s no way she’s going to ask me this again.” We’ve been talking about this forever.
Kara Swisher: It has changed. TikTok — there are issues around China, they’re passing bans on it, et cetera.
Marc Benioff: Brad, you are good. Anyway, my head of communications is here. He’s very good.
Kara Swisher: Okay, so answer the question.
Marc Benioff: Okay, here’s the answer. Business is the greatest platform for change. Let’s connect it to what you just talked about. Look, I think that today, business leaders do have a responsibility to have decorum, core values, look out for their employees. To act in a way of leadership that was not true maybe 20 years ago or even ten years ago. And that because of variations in society today, as well as with our political leadership, that CEOs have a requirement, a need. That even in the business roundtable has said there’s a purpose to a corporation.
Kara Swisher: Trust.
Marc Benioff: It’s stakeholder capitalism, not just shareholders. Milton Friedman said that the business of business is business. It’s all about profits.
But really, it’s about stakeholders. Yes, our employees are critical, our customers are critical, our partners, our communities. In San Francisco, we’ve given $125 million to our local San Francisco and Oakland public schools. You know that we’ve given hundreds of millions of dollars to our public hospitals. We’ve given significant money to our public parks. We’ve passed laws to increase the amount of taxes that businesses pay to support our homeless in San Francisco. Started research programs to support getting the homeless off the streets, which has happened. But I feel that, in my heart as a San Franciscan, with the CEO of the largest company in San Francisco, that’s a moral obligation, and that isn’t the traditional approach to business. I think that CEOs have moved more in that direction. Not all CEOs but a lot of them have moved in that direction, and it is important that we do the right thing. I’ve seen more CEOs in the last five years, since that Indiana example, do the right thing than in the previous 20.
Kara Swisher: You’ve deftly avoided the question. Do you still think of social media as a cigarette company?
Marc Benioff: I think, in those social-media companies, you can see that was a struggle for a long time. When we first started having the conversation, they were taking a long trip up the river Denial. And today, they’re a lot more snapped back into those things. You understand it probably much better than I do. I’d love to hear what your commentary is. Do you think that they’ve changed and transformed?
Kara Swisher: I think their business model is collapsing and Congress is zeroing in, finally, maybe. Not effectively, but the jig is up, so they have to find a new thing. I don’t think they’re doing it out of the kindness of their hearts.
Marc Benioff: What’s the one thing you think that those media companies need to do now that they’re not doing?
Kara Swisher: They should pass antitrust legislation, privacy legislation, and they need to be more transparent about the impact they’re having on our society. They should get out of the editorial business, because they just get sucked up into it. Lots of stuff.
Marc Benioff: And how do you think the—
Kara Swisher: And get out of the advertising business the way they are. Anyway, there’s lots of—
Marc Benioff: What do you think is going to happen with the Supreme Court and their decision?
Kara Swisher: On 230?
Marc Benioff: Mm-hmm.
Kara Swisher: They’re going to leave it in place. You could listen to them.
Marc Benioff: And do you think that’ll be a seminal moment?
Kara Swisher: Leave it in place? No, it’s just that it was bad case. There’ll be other cases. We’ll see. You could hear the judges.
Marc Benioff: Okay. Let me just go to my next question.
Kara Swisher: Okay, all right. No, my very last question.
Marc Benioff: Oh, sorry.
Kara Swisher: Very nice though. Well done. Last question: How do you assess the threat of generative AI to your business?
Marc Benioff: Didn’t we already have the last question? You’re like eight minutes over.
Kara Swisher: No, this was the last question. Oh, stop it. Relax. Will you stop?
Marc Benioff: Wow, you are good.
Kara Swisher: Listen to me.
Marc Benioff: This is the most organized I’ve ever seen you. It’s incredible.
Kara Swisher: Again, thank you for stressing it. But generative AI — last word on that. This crowd is interested.
Marc Benioff: I think we are in a threshold moment for artificial intelligence. And I was kind of joking, but it’s true that pretty soon, we will say something like, we’ll be at home or we’ll be on the phone and we will say, “Hey, ChatGPT.” I’m just using that as an agent. “Send me a transcript of this conversation I just had with Kara and summarize it to my email and text now.” And it’s always listening to what’s going on. We’re not that far away, and where there is a device, a commodity device, that is on our ceiling or on our floor that’s maybe moving around or following us or maybe that we’re wearing like the Humane device that is paying attention to what we’re doing and trying to augment our experience, and that is a new moment.
I think AI is not completely there. We can all see that ChatGPT is exciting, but we all have seen what the boundaries are as well. ChatGPT is the ultimate plagiarizer, right? All of the things that it’s learning it got from somebody else. So its boundaries are the boundaries of the content that it’s trying to grab. That said, we’ve seen incredible advancements in AI in the last decade. Machine learning, deep learning. Now we’re seeing generative AI. It’s going to continue, and this is something that’s going to require incredible innovation, growth. It’s going to transform how all of us work and live. I mentioned my V2MOM that I just have been writing with my employees. I’ve been using AI to help me do that. It will augment our human experience and that is probably the most optimistic, positive part of it. There are a lot of dark parts as well that you’ve articulated very well in the past. We don’t need to go there.
Kara Swisher: Well, we didn’t go there. But honestly, I think you’ll do just as well with drunk tweeting.
Marc Benioff: I have actually, will write a tweet, go to ChatGPT, and say, “Rewrite this tweet for me.” And it’s fascinating to see how it doesn’t edit or whatever. And it has trained me on my own writing — make this more inspiring, make this more motivating. Turn it into a song, turn it into a poem, turn it into a screenplay. It’s kind of cool. It’s fun to see how this stuff works.
Kara Swisher: You’ve got a lot of free time on your hands. Anyway—
Marc Benioff: I do.
Kara Swisher: Marc Benioff.
Marc Benioff: No, let’s keep going.
Kara Swisher: No, no. We’ve got to go.
This interview and transcript have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Rafaela Siewert with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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