How salesforce.com changed an industry, Appirio and me

March 7, 2014 Narinder Singh

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Origin Stories: Aspirations of Becoming a Superhero

I’ve always particularly enjoyed origin stories in comic books: how Superman came to earth and his isolation, Spiderman gaining powers and the guilt of inaction and the Hulk becoming green and the struggle against oneself. They provide a light on who we are and our struggles to escape or honor our pasts and beginnings.

So with the 15th anniversary of salesforce.com approaching I have been thinking a lot about their origin and my own as one of the founders of Appirio. Salesforce.com, with its tagline of “No Software” and the high energy, brash, but philanthropy-focused Marc Benioff, nearly single-handedly started the entire cloud computing industry. In a style that has always reminded me of Muhammed Ali, Marc and Salesforce loudly claimed (and then delivered on) the promise to “shock the world” of enterprise applications. And as aggressive as they were with competitors, they were equally captivating in their relentless drive to promote the importance of giving back, with philanthropy taking a prime spot in every major corporate or industry event they led.

My own beginnings were not so uncommon – as an engineer, I was trying to escape the label of only being skilled at technology. Even after moving beyond product development to take a position in corporate strategy at SAP, my origins framed my perspective. So the style of a CEO talking about vision but not being afraid of code first drew my attention to Salesforce. Yet, it was their focus on giving back that changed my career journey and, in many ways, led to the founding of Appirio.

While I worked in the office of the CEO at SAP in 2005, I was on the board of a small non-profit called the Sikh Coalition. We sought to grow the organization and needed to track and accept donors and donations to scale. Being across the country from the organization, I needed something I could help with from wherever I was. I recalled a speech I heard Marc give (that I saw when I was researching Salesforce for SAP) when he said the first 10 seats of Salesforce would be free for every non-profit. So I tried it. It worked. And it was easier to work with than any enterprise solution I had ever encountered.

In retrospect, the founding of Appirio seems almost inevitable from there. I reunited with co-workers from my previous job. Chris Barbin had gone to work for Borland Software where he experienced first-hand the contrast from legacy approaches that Salesforce could provide. We were both struck with not just the solution, but the focus of the salesforce.com team on succeeding through disruption – re-examining the nature of business technology based on new paradigms from the Internet. It inspired us to want to work with salesforce.com, but also to create our own disruption.

We started Appirio in 2006 with the same mission we still have today – to disrupt the way the entire professional services industry works. Our focus on cloud, social and mobile, our emphasis of creating our own technology on top of cloud solutions and the creation and expansion of a 600,000 person design, development and data science community all came from that same inspiration. Today, at nearly a thousand employees across four continents, we retain that same hunger to “shock the world”.

Yet it was more than inspiration that intertwined our path with salesforce.com. They were the first company we worked with, even though it meant casting aside most of the professional networks we had spent years building (since almost none were involved with cloud). Even when Appirio was just a few of us, we pushed on the need for the industry to think differently. Marc, never one to shy away from big ideas just because they came from a startup, highlighted us in a keynote he gave at Software 2007 in front of thousands. We went on to demo our solutions with him in dozens of keynotes at salesforce.com events across the world, including the keynote of Dreamforce (the largest cloud computing event in the industry). In 2008, salesforce.com became part of the first round of funding Appirio ever raised. From there, in an era where customers were used to upgrading (improving) their applications every 3-4 years, Appirio pushed customers to absorb the latest innovations from salesforce.com every 3-4 months – completely changing how they thought of and worked with technology. This has led to our work with salesforce.com customers being highlighted in more salesforce.com events than any other company.

I look back now and see that I had always wanted to be able to work on business initiatives and still geek out on the technology that powered them. I  had hoped to start a company, but didn’t want to lose my soul in the process. I wanted to believe that technology would be the center, not periphery of large companies overall success. Salesforce.com helped show me that those apparent contradictions didn’t require one to choose. If you were willing, lucky and skilled (in that order), you could write your own story. Our origin stories are all unique, but mine would have been very different without salesforce.com. So thank you, happy birthday, and may your teenage years help you retain the rebelliousness that made you want to shock the world.

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