It’s clear to anyone who has watched these acquisition dances unfold that Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is being awfully loud in his no-commenting about his interest in buying Twitter.
We’ll dub it Benioffian — a way to describe a highly entertaining billionaire tech exec who has managed to play it coy, obtuse and blindingly obvious all at the same time. He’s in! He’s out! He won’t pay too much for this muffler! He really wants this company bad! But not that bad!
You get the idea. We are amused.
But one thing is for sure: It was Benioff who set off a round of activity that could lead to the possible sale of the high-profile social communications giant, which has been struggling with growth and revenue despite its clear cultural prominence.
A report in the Wall Street Journal recently channeled Benioff’s intentions:
“Data is the currency in software’s new world order,” he said in an interview this past weekend, though he wasn’t specifically speaking about Twitter. “I’m looking hard at unique data-rich companies and what I can do to make them more powerful and innovative if combined with Salesforce.”
Translation: He was absolutely talking about Twitter, having lost LinkedIn to Microsoft. Thus, Benioff is now aiming for a sexier property to goose up Salesforce, which is in need of a shot of that.
Now, as Recode has reported, with Google and Disney looking and then moving on from the process, it is Benioff who has the upper hand if he makes a decent enough offer for Twitter. With a growing legion of detractors among investors and the potential for an activist shareholder to come in if nothing happens, Salesforce’s next move will be critical.
And while the voluble Benioff makes a perfect ringmaster for this circus, it might be more valuable to pay attention to a much quieter Salesforce exec.
That would be Bret Taylor, the co-founder of Quip, the real-time collaboration tool that Salesforce bought in August for $750 million. Along with interesting tech, Benioff got Taylor, who had sold one of his first companies — FriendFeed — to Facebook, largely because he lost out to Twitter at the time. Taylor then became CTO of Facebook for a critical time as the company tried to figure out its transition to mobile before leaving to start Quip.
He’s a smart and savvy techie, with deep experience in social media, and his name was even bandied about as head of product at Twitter.
That did not pan out, but he did get a better Twitter gig: Taylor joined the board in July, installed by CEO Jack Dorsey, who is a big admirer.
Yes, that. While he’ll obviously have to recuse himself if this deal proceeds, the presence of Taylor will be fascinating and perhaps comforting to those at Twitter worried about a fit with Salesforce.
Luckily for you, we just did a very long podcast with Taylor on Recode Decode and he talked a lot about Twitter.
So, here are the pertinent parts of the transcript, and you can listen to the whole thing below — Taylor is a very thoughtful and considered entrepreneur and says a lot.
On why FriendFeed lost to Twitter:
KS: Why didn't it succeed? It was similar to Facebook, but not the same.
You know, actually I would say it's probably more similar to Twitter in the sense that it was a follower model and most of the profiles were public. And that leads to people following people they're interested in more than necessarily just following their friends. And it was very oriented around discussion, so commenting and liking.
KS: Sort of like Reddit too.
Yeah, very similar. And you know, we were big in Turkey and Iran — the typical death of a social network.
KS: [laughs] Orkut, remember? I remember Google people saying, "You know we're big in Brazil." I'm like, "You're acting like that's a good thing. It's good for Brazil but not for you."
You know, looking back, everything's easy in hindsight. I think we ended up where we were sort of an awkward hybrid between what Facebook did and what Twitter did. If you were a public figure on FriendFeed, people's comments would sort of be attached to your post. So you would almost feel like these random people were spewing stuff on your profile page. Which works in Facebook because it's your friends, there's social etiquette involved.
KS: So friends you know spewing.
Yeah, exactly. Politics aside. Whereas Twitter, you know, even though I think it's somewhat flawed the way that replies work, it wasn't really on your profile. It was on their own. So we ended up creating a thing where I don't think we were opinionated enough about whether we were for friends or for followers. Despite that, though, I think the product was good in its own way.
KS: Does it make you think why does something stick? Is it luck or is it ...?
Consumer products are hard because there's the product quality but [also] time and place and marketing. It was interesting, when we lost to Twitter, which I think is fair to say we did, we, like ... in a sense, I don't think we were really competing against Facebook directly. It was when Oprah and Ashton Kutcher and Obama sort of all in succession adopted the product.
KS: Twitter. Not FriendFeed.
Yeah, Twitter, not FriendFeed. And we realized we weren't really focused on marketing and outreach and all these things that, being a bunch of geeks, we were just hopelessly naive about. And so, you know, you look back and was it the product, or was it that, or was it a combination?
On selling FriendFeed to Facebook over Google and Twitter:
KW: Who else were you guys talking to? Like who else were you shopping the company to?
Yeah, yeah. We talked to everyone, just about. Twitter, Google, you know. We really ran a process, because we were trying to solve a company so it wasn't like we were being cagey about it. We sort of sent the word out that we were shopping ourselves. And interestingly enough — and I didn't really appreciate this at the time, it was my first company — but the offers were all kind of different. You know, it's just sort of like the structure and who you work for, so with Google it wasn't just the money. We were like, "Do they actually get social? Will they actually want to do this?"
KS: No. I shall answer that for you. Even today.
We respected the people there, we knew them, but we really wanted to work on social networking, like we were passionate about it. So, it was interesting that at first you sort of think you shop around, you get a bunch of price tags back, you pick the highest one. And I learned through that process that actually the relationships and the conversations turned out to be as meaningful as the financial part of those deals.
KS: Was it even close?
Yeah. I think we really respected Twitter as well. So I think because we wanted to work in social networking that was probably the one we seriously considered.
On how Quip will be integrated into Salesforce:
KW: We were talking about this right before we sat down. This trend where companies acquire someone and then they just try to be hands off, right? So, you guys are going to continue to operate independently, essentially. How's that going to work, number one? And then, number two, has this been happening more often, where a company will acquire like a WhatsApp or Instagram, and just say, "We're going to let you keep doing your thing, but under our umbrella."
Yeah, that's a really good question. We are going to be independent, like we're in our own office. I work directly for Marc [Benioff]. So they do want Quip to exist, which is great. The structure's interesting. The interesting thing is I don't want Quip to be completely independent because then we're just in the same position we were the day before the acquisition.
KS: Yeah, you want help.
Yeah, and so the interesting thing is where you decide to integrate and how you decide to integrate. I think the best acquisitions are where they chose those membranes really thoughtfully. So, I think with Instagram, the way they've done account integration, the way your friend list makes its way into Instagram, like really thoughtful things that I think have probably accelerated Instagram's growth, but the product experience and the culture of the product really feels unique and separate. That's sort of the process we'll have to go through once this closes is just figuring out, "Okay, what is Quip and where do we want to actually leverage this amazing organization that we're now a part of." The interesting thing is, I do think that YouTube, Instagram, like some of the most notable successes have changed people's perceptions of how to do acquisitions and integrations, and I think it is really great that those exist.
On joining Twitter's board:
Honestly, a hundred percent of it was because I love the product.
KS: Because you were a competitor against them.
We were. I mean, my social network FriendFeed lost to Twitter and I really believe in the service, which I kind of feel like the follower graph leads to this real-time news-oriented service that I think is really important for the world. And they approached me and I was worried mainly about time commitments — I've got three small children and a startup. And I'm very sensitive about taking on commitments.
KS: Obviously, you have a nice wife. But go ahead.
And it was interesting because everyone's sort of aware of the problems they have. But the thing that's so unusual about Twitter is it's so important in the world. Like in this election, in the Olympics. A lot of people read about things that happen on Twitter. But they're not personally creating accounts and engaging in the service. And I really felt like there's an opportunity to close that gap. I spend a lot of time with [Twitter Executive Chairman Omid Kordestani] and [Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey] and I felt optimistic about working on that. And, I knew that there was going to be a lot of business complexity in the business for obvious reasons that everyone's been writing about, but I just care so much about the service that I chose to do it.
KS: It’s more than a business. I was with Mike McCue, who was an ex-board member and they were competitive and that's why he came off the board. He has Flipboard, and he was talking about that he really thinks that the problem is Twitter is more of a phenomenon than a company. It does have a phenomenon feel to it, as you were saying with the Olympics. Donald Trump is the best Twitterer ever right now, if you really think about it.
You could call it a phenomenon, but it's interesting because there are news articles about things that happen on Twitter. Like its importance.
KS: That's because journalists lack creativity, but go ahead.
That's perhaps true, but there are also these interactions that only happen there. It gives you the ability to participate in these real-time significant events and actually sort of feel like you're a part of it, and participating in it, in a way that's very unique. I think all of us who use Twitter a lot really do feel that. And I think the opportunity is that gap. It's like, can we actually produce an experience where more people want to create an account and experience that for themselves? And articulate that value that I feel in the service in a more broad and mainstream way? The whole "it's a feature not a company, it's a this, not a company," I also find those very reductive. There's a lot of nuance to it, but I just feel like there's a lot of really meaningful stuff that is only on Twitter. And I think most people in the world would benefit from experiencing that, but the company is struggling to provide that value proposition to enough people.
You know, I don't know exactly why. I just joined the board. I only know stuff from afar. But I do think the company's gone through a lot of management transition; it's gone through a lot of product leadership. I think the company hasn't had a lot of stability, and it's hard to know what's cause and what's effect, but I do think there's been some execution problems. I really believe in Jack's ability to turn it around, to kind of focus on more and execute faster, frankly.
On his role on the board:
KW: What's your role going to be on the board? You see yourself as like a product adviser?
Certainly, they didn't bring me on for my financial expertise, so ... [laughter]. Yeah, it was actually the main question I had when they approached me. It was like, "Why do you want a product person on your board?" Because I've generally felt like the board is the wrong level to have product discussions. And I think they just felt they had a lot of traditional representation on the board for things like …
Yeah, media, finance, things like that. And they just wanted to have a board where the user and the product were represented more directly. So, that was sort of my expectation going in.
On Twitter's product/management issues:
KW: When you first joined, this is before the Quip sale had been announced, there were a lot of people who thought you might then go run product at Twitter. It sounds like, though, you're pretty squarely seated at Salesforce.
Yeah, no, I'm set at Quip.
KS: But in the idea of this execution, you had seen the errors you'd made at FriendFeed.
KS: Or not the errors — it just didn't work. One of the things that's interesting about Twitter is how many execution problems, how many management mishaps, can happen to one company with so much promise. I think everyone agrees the promise is there. People are worried about the product, whether the product is iterated enough. I think that's always something they talk about in Silicon Valley — it should succeed.
Yeah, it's true. I mean the best part about Twitter is how much the community who uses it really loves that product. But it also makes it hard to make changes. You know, I think a few months ago they announced we're going to rank timeline and there's this big uproar. And the thing that I think, the reason why I feel optimistic about the company is because Jack is in charge and I think Jack has the credibility to change that product in a way an external manager wouldn't. And you know the community trusts him and he obviously gets what makes Twitter special. So, a little bit is I do think they've had trouble with execution and I do feel like bringing on the founder is one of the few ways you can actually start to make changes with a product that's had execution problems in the past. I don't know if I would have joined the board had Jack not been there.
KS: Of course, that's fraught, too, because of the double CEO stuff.
KS: I'll just tell you, recently I've gotten called by a lot of financial people — and you know who they are; every one of them a shark — who are all thinking of attacking on that thing again, like having the same thing. The noise around it is just extraordinary. And some of it is deserved, some of it not deserved.
It's challenging to be a public company and have issues in your company and have to make change. And we've seen this with Yahoo, we've seen this at all these other companies and even LinkedIn and others. So, it's really hard to have that scrutiny. You not only have the complexity of employee morale and employee retention and the product issues, and on top of that you have the scrutiny of investors. But that's why I joined the board. I want to help. I really just care about the place.
KS: So, you just run into a building on fire [laughs].
It's interesting, it's true. And there was a lot of commentary from my friends and colleagues about this, but I just love Twitter. I mean I really do. I don't know. It's like I worked on a very similar product, I want it to exist, I want it to be healthy, and if I can in any way contribute to that, I want to do it. And it's a little bit hopelessly naive but that's the way I think about the world and I really care about the product, so …
KW: Yeah, you tweet a lot, which separates you from some of your board members.
Yeah, I love the service. It's interesting. I largely tweet about tech and Stanford football. People get annoyed on the weekends.
I've connected with so many people I wouldn't have on there and I'm engaging with people I wouldn't have engaged with and I just derive so much value from it. I can't imagine watching a live event and not having Twitter open. Whenever the internet's bad at Stanford Stadium, I'm like, I can't fully experience [the game]. And I believe that that experience is a mainstream experience and the company just hasn't to date made it a great experience for enough people. But I believe it can be and that's why I joined.
On Twitter's abuse problem:
KS: I want to do one more thing with Twitter and then finish up with talking about Silicon Valley in general. The recent controversy, which I think — I just had lunch with the CEO of Reddit — the cesspool nature of it. And how Twitter's talked about how it's not a technology problem. It's a technology problem, too. Is that an important thing as a board in general to think about this? Because it really is something that can bring companies down.
Oh, absolutely. Abuse is a very important issue. And I agree with you, it needs to be fixed and should be fixed.
KW: Did you deal with it at FriendFeed?
Oh yes. Every social service does.
KS: Except Facebook, where you just get inundated with squirrel videos or cat videos, which is just as abusive. No, not just as abusive.
The interesting thing is ... I'll speak more to Facebook because it's a little bit simpler for me to talk about since I'm not on the board of it. The interesting thing is you have a lot of tools at your disposal. You have technology, you also have social mechanisms. So, how did you deal with bullying?
KS: Right. They did.
And you can do it, and instead of just technological things, you can report to the teacher, and so I think that you just need to have a team work on it. You need to use every tool at your disposal, both the social things and the technological things. But you have to take it really seriously and get in front of it. And I think it's a very important issue.
KS: Why is it that it's so vexing to these companies? All of them? Because the two things ... they're like, "We're the smartest people in the world, oh we can't do anything about diversity and also abuse." And you're sort of like, "I thought you were super smart at math?" Or, "I thought you were super fantastic." Is it a priority thing? I mean, be honest with yourself.
The companies where I've seen it fail — I'll just take again products that I'm not on the board of — it's like you look at things like Reddit and others, it does run up against some concepts that might be culturally important to the company, like free speech. Which comments do we suppress and why? And to define a framework by which you deal with abuse that doesn't run up against what were very real values of the company when it started is really challenging. So, you end up probably not taking assertive enough steps because you start to run up against some of those deeply held beliefs that were probably the reason the product became successful in the first place. And I saw a lot of the discussion around Reddit that were, you know, on one hand you can be like, "That's totally simplistic, you can block this totally racist stuff." On the other hand, you can see why internally there's strife.
KS: Yeah, it's a slow process. When Steve Jobs was talking about it, he goes, "Sometimes I want to let it bloom and sometimes it's like, no that's enough."
I don't think anyone has bad intentions. I do think, though, the media should hold people accountable. Like there's no excuse why there's diversity issues in Silicon Valley and they haven't found a way to solve it, but it's wrong. You're right, it's just wrong.
KS: Is it because you all, and I'm not saying you're the white guy here in the room, but you are. But you don't get abused as much, you're not subject to some of the things, so it's hard to believe when people complain about it.
On the abuse issue or diversity? You're talking about both?
KS: Yeah. I think they're so linked.
Oh, that's interesting. I wouldn't have said it; I need to think about that more. On the diversity issue, a lot of these things are sort of self-fulfilling. If you don't source aggressively enough early in your company's life cycle and you end up with a team that is not diverse, it's harder to fix that issue later because you don't want to be the only person from your minority social group at a company. Because you're then ... you encountered all the problems that everyone who's in a less represented group understands. And so really you have to be assertive from day one and if you're not, turning that around is even harder. You have to work way harder on sourcing, you have to work way harder on fixing the cultural issues that manifested themselves because you weren't diverse. And I just think companies aren't trying hard enough. And I agree with the criticism.
KS: I think they just feel it's not their fault and they're trying, and that's not good enough.
Trying is not good enough. It's like you wouldn't have an earnings call and say, "We tried really hard, but the earnings just didn't come through."
KS: That's Yahoo. You see what happened there?
[laughs] So I think the criticism is completely correct on this issue and it is harder because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You do have to find the right candidates. It's harder to find qualified candidates, but you have to try harder in that part of the pipeline if you actually want to achieve the end goal that you have to have your employee base represent the population. And I don't think we as an industry have actually treated it with like that level of accountability and we should.
On how he would change Twitter's product:
KW: I have one more Twitter-related question, before we jump to Silicon Valley stuff. As a die-hard user of the product, what feature are you just excited for? You have Jack's ear so you're at an advantage.
Yeah, that's a good question. Every feature that Twitter's added that lets me put more stuff in my tweet, cards, photos, I love it. And I want tweets to be more expressive and I'm excited. I don't know all the stuff that they're developing there but I feel like 140 characters is just the beginning and I love that my timeline has ...
KS: Yeah, look at what's going on in China and everywhere.
Yeah. Every time I see a video or a quote or a this or a that and all the stuff people are stuffing into screen shots, I feel like there's so much opportunity there.
Here is the whole podcast, in which Taylor covers a lot more:
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.