Many years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and spiritual leader, posed a question to Marc Benioff, the co-founder and chief executive of Salesforce.
“What is more important, being successful or being happy?” he asked.
Mr. Benioff answered pretty much the way you would expect a Silicon Valley entrepreneur to answer.
“Both,” he said.
Thich Nhat Hanh cautioned that “if everything is important, nothing is important.” But for many years it seemed that Mr. Benioff, just like Silicon Valley itself, was able to have success as well as happiness — not to mention money, respect and influence.
Salesforce, which makes software to help companies sell better, became a hard-driving and influential tech company, the biggest employer in San Francisco. Mr. Benioff, 58, became a philanthropist, the advocate for a new model of capitalism and, at least in the Bay Area, as inescapable as the 61-story tower that bears his company’s name.
Then came 2022. Suddenly Salesforce made less money. The stock wilted. An activist investor, Starboard Value, bought a stake, never good news for management. Mr. Benioff’s co-chief executive, Bret Taylor, abruptly departed after only a year in the job. He was the second co-chief executive to do so, leaving the question of succession to Mr. Benioff’s 24-year reign at the company in doubt.
Last month, Salesforce said it would lay off 10 percent of its staff, a decision that seemed to go against Mr. Benioff’s repeated declarations that the company was one big family. He was chastised on social media for handling the cuts poorly. A second activist investor, Elliott Management, bought a stake in Salesforce. Then another and another and another. For those keeping count, that’s five.
“Marc believes you can have a great company, give great returns to your shareholders and help your community and your planet, all at the same time,” said Steve Fisher, a longtime Salesforce employee who was also a teenage friend of Mr. Benioff’s. “This is one of the times when that notion is being tested.”
Salesforce’s troubles, like those of many of its tech peers in this moment of turmoil, spring from the pandemic. Three years ago, it looked as if technology might save humanity. For tens of millions of people, tech was suddenly the interface between their couch and their job.
“In the darkest depths of the pandemic, I was like, ‘How will we ever get out of this?’” Mr. Benioff said in one of a series of conversations with The New York Times over the past week. Maybe, he thought, we would not. “I felt we were going to be pivoting much more aggressively to an all-digital day.”
Salesforce’s big pandemic purchase, announced in late 2020, was the remote-work app Slack for $28 billion. If everyone was going to stay on Slack all day long forever, it was cheap at that price. But they didn’t, and it wasn’t.
The troubles at Salesforce may be more wide ranging, but they are mirrored all over the tech industry. About 100,000 tech workers have been laid off since the beginning of the year, according to Layoffs.fyi. That’s a rounding error for the larger economy, but these workers were until recently among the best paid and best treated. The notion that free massages, say, might no longer be part of the Silicon Valley experience was yet more evidence that tech was losing its pandemic grip.
Salesforce never offered massages, but its corporate philosophy promotes the idea that its workers are special. A word Mr. Benioff tosses around a lot is “Ohana,” which he picked up in Hawaii. “Ohana represents the idea that families — blood-related, adopted, or intentional — are bound together, and that family members are responsible for one another,” Salesforce’s website says.
Mr. Benioff sees no contradiction between layoffs and the Salesforce Ohana. Families are sometimes difficult.
“I wish I offered lifetime employment,” he said. “But the reality is when you have a big company with 80,000 employees, there are going to be times you have to make a head count adjustment. Our layoff packages are some of the most generous ever.” The dismissed employees got a minimum of nearly five months’ pay.
It may have come as a shock to some, he added, but layoffs at Salesforce are nothing new.
“There’s been some hard times since we began in 1999,” he said. “It’s not all up and to the right. But this is the opportunity for growth. If you’re in a steady state, you don’t grow.”
A random sampling of laid-off Salesforce employees contacted through employment sites yielded few who wanted to complain about Mr. Benioff, even anonymously. “I think he got lost somewhere, had too many sycophants telling him what he wanted to hear,” one offered. That was as savage as it got.
Mr. Benioff, though, had lots to say, often by text — sometimes words but also photos, links and emojis. His mother, Joelle, said in an interview that he was “not a big talker” as a child but now has words to spare. At a virtual company meeting after last month’s layoffs, he talked for two hours.
Bad idea, he says now.
“We were trying to explain the unexplainable,” Mr. Benioff said. “It’s hard to have a call like that with such a large group and have it be effective, and we paid a price.” Other tech companies didn’t bother with hand holding: They just cut off their former employees’ access in the middle of the night.
It was a rough month at Salesforce. Mr. Benioff went to one of his favorite places, French Polynesia, for a 10-day digital detox.
“We are so addicted to our devices (at least I am) it’s very freeing to leave them all behind for a while!” he wrote in a text.
On an earlier trip, he had contributed $1 million in cash to local pandemic relief. For these and other services to the French, he is now a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. He made his family listen to the speech.
Any conversation with Mr. Benioff inevitably touches on his grandfather Marvin E. Lewis, a San Francisco trial lawyer and politician who was a major force behind BART, the regional transit system.
Mr. Lewis was best known for developing the concept of “psychic injury.” His most famous case, in 1970, was called “The Cable Car Named Desire.” A dancer, Gloria Sykes, said she had hit her head in a cable car accident, lost her “mental balance” and developed “an insatiable appetite for sex” as well as other problems, including at least one suicide attempt. With Mr. Lewis as her lawyer, Ms. Sykes was awarded $50,000 by a jury.
“He was truly a visionary,” Mr. Benioff said. “He was in business as a lawyer but made the world a better place.” He texted a photo of a tribute to Mr. Lewis in a BART station that calls him “a determined prophet.”
If a lawyer can scale these heights, why not a tech executive? Especially if he can make himself happy in the process?
“You’re not going to be happy if you’re not giving to others,” Mr. Benioff said. “A lot of my tech peers are extremely unhappy.”
Salesforce, and Mr. Benioff, have undoubtedly made major contributions to the well-being of San Francisco. But more questions are being asked these days about the inherent contradictions of working for the powerful to aid the powerless. As a reviewer on Amazon wrote of Mr. Benioff’s book “Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change”: “Benioff often seems surprised at the scale of the problems in the world, despite many of his customers playing a part in them.”
“Marc makes himself a target for criticism by positioning himself as much more than a rampant capitalist tech bro,” said Joshua Greenbaum, a software industry analyst with Enterprise Applications Consulting. “But if you don’t want your company to pay taxes” — Salesforce paid no tax, legally, on billions in corporate income — “what right do you have to lecture people on how to make the world better?”
And if your company is faltering, Mr. Greenbaum said, you have even less right. Mr. Benioff posted more than 30 times on Twitter in January about his initiative to restock the world’s forests, a cause he was promoting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There were no tweets acknowledging Salesforce’s turmoil.
“Marc has let the cash cow meander out into the weeds,” Mr. Greenbaum said.
That is the logic behind the stakes taken by the activist investors, which also include Third Point, Inclusive Capital and ValueAct Capital. Maybe Mr. Benioff can be compelled to bring the cow home faster, or he can step down in favor of someone who will. None of the activists would comment, but Mr. Benioff would.
“I’m as excited about our future as all our investors are — I’m a stockholder too!” he texted, adding a heart emoji.
Salesforce shares have rebounded since the layoffs were announced. But to fend off the activists and extend his reign, Mr. Benioff needs to improve profit margins. That quest is likely to prompt more stress in the Salesforce family, perhaps even more layoffs. Which means Thich Nhat Hanh’s question still hangs there — success or happiness?
“What do I really want? The answer is trust,” Mr. Benioff said. “Trust from our employees, trust from our customers.”
This is, of course, a salesman’s answer. From Marc Benioff, would you expect any different?