The rise of Marc Benioff, the flashy billionaire founder of Salesforce

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Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff in 2001.
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Eric Risberg/AP

It seems like Salesforce CEO and founder Marc Benioff never leaves the spotlight.

Between Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce mega-conference in San Francisco, his philanthropy, and his ongoing fight against discrimination laws in places like Georgia and Indiana, Benioff seems like he’s always making headlines.

Here’s how Benioff, with a net worth of $3.9 billion, worked his way up to the national stage from humble origins.


Marc Russell Benioff was born in San Francisco on September 25th, 1964, the son of Joelle and Russell Benioff. Benioff is something of an anomaly among Silicon Valley CEOs — he was actually born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

His father, Russell Benioff, owned a local department store in San Francisco. “I learned my work ethic from him,” Benioff once said.

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Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff
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Business Insider

While in high school, Benioff sold his first app — software called “How To Juggle” for the TRS-80 Model 1 computer — to a computer magazine for $75.

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Gabriel Rojas Hruska/flickr

At age 15, Benioff founded Liberty Software, his one-man company making games for the Atari 800 computer. Titles included “King Arthur’s Heir,” “The Nightmare,” “Escape from Vulcan’s Isle,” and “Crypt of the Undead.”

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Matt Weinberger

By age 16, Benioff was pulling in $1,500 a month — enough that after he graduated high school in 1982, he was able to pay for his own tuition at the University of Southern California.

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Wikimedia Commons / Bobak Ha’Eri

While at USC, Benioff took a summer internship with Apple, working as a programmer in the Macintosh division under cofounder Steve Jobs. “That summer, I discovered it was possible for an entrepreneur to encourage revolutionary ideas,” Benioff would later write.


Benioff planned to stay in programming for the rest of his career, but a USC professor suggested he might have a mind for business. And so, he took a customer support role at high-flying database company Oracle right out of college.

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Oracle’s office
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Oracle

Young Benioff rapidly made it up the ranks. At age 23, Benioff was named Oracle’s “Rookie of the Year.” By age 26, he was named a Vice President — the youngest person to attain the role in the company’s history. And it came with a $300,000 salary.

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Oracle Challenger Plane
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Flickr/ D. Miller

While at Oracle, Benioff caught the attention of its billionaire playboy founder Larry Ellison. The two became very close, with Ellison mentoring the younger Benioff.

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Mike Nudelman/Business Insider

Carlye Adler writes in Fortune, “They sailed to the Mediterranean on Ellison’s yacht, visited Japan during cherry blossom season, spent Thanksgiving together, and even double-dated.”


After 13 years with Oracle, Benioff started itching for something new. With a few other Oracle veterans, he started working on a new company called Salesforce.

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Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff
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Business Insider

The big idea behind Salesforce was that where most companies — including Oracle — sold enterprise software that companies had to install on their own servers, they would let people access business apps from the web browser. For the late nineties, this was revolutionary.

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Salesforce.com’s “No Software” mascot
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Flickr/Jon Mountjoy

At first, Ellison was supportive of Benioff, letting him take a 6-month sabbatical while he split his time between Oracle and Salesforce. Ellison even gave Salesforce $2 million in funding from his own pocket to get it started, and sat on its board of directors.

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Ezra Shaw/Getty

But things turned sour between the two. Benioff found out that Oracle was working on a direct competitor to Salesforce. Benioff tried to force his mentor to quit the company’s board. Instead, Ellison forced Benioff to fire him — meaning Ellison kept his shares in Salesforce.

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Getty

It kicked off an epic rivalry for the ages, with the two taking shots at each other in the press. Note the Salesforce jet shooting down the Oracle biplane in this early Salesforce ad from 2001.

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Eric Risberg/AP

Salesforce survived the dot-com bust of the early 2000s and just kept growing, becoming one of the earliest and biggest companies in the modern cloud computing market.


And in June 2004, Salesforce held its IPO, raising $110 million at $11 per share. Today, it trades for around $72.77.


Here’s a fun fact: In addition to Ellison, real estate magnate Paul Pelosi — the husband of US House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — was an early investor in Salesforce, making them both a lot of money.

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Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

Beyond just business, Benioff is a best-selling author of the business book “Behind the Cloud,” a 2009 memoir on Salesforce’s early success.

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Amazon

Benioff is also a big believer in corporate philanthropy: Under his leadership, Salesforce invented the “1-1-1” model, where the company gives 1% of employee time as volunteer hours, 1% of its profits, and 1% of its resources to charitable causes.

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Marc Benioff

Benioff credits former Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Hindu guru Mata Amritanandamayi — who he met on a trip through India — with encouraging him to put Salesforce’s resources to work helping others.


Benioff’s belief in social justice also led him straight into the fight against proposed bills in Indiana and Georgia that would allow discrimination against gay people. He rallied other business leaders to the cause, with a positive result.

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Robert Galbraith/Reuters

All the while, he’s earned a reputation as one of Silicon Valley’s most boisterous CEOs. He rarely appears in public without his custom cloud sneakers.

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Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

And while he may not be the globetrotting playboy that his mentor Ellison is, Benioff has lots of friends in the celebrity and political worlds.

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Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

All the while, Salesforce has grown to a $40 billion company, while its annual Dreamforce conference has ballooned to take over much of San Francisco every autumn.

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Robert Galbraith/Reuters

(Dreamforce is also always a huge party, with acts like Metallica and Foo Fighters headlining its afterparties.)

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Salesforce/Glassdoor

Salesforce has gotten so big, that at one point, the company had to abandon plans to move into a new San Francisco campus, because it had already outgrown it. Instead, it’s building a massive Salesforce tower in downtown San Francisco.

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Cushman & Wakefield

Oh, and yes, Marc Benioff is distantly related to David Benioff, of “Game of Thrones” fame. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Marc Benioff