Curiosity Saves the C-Suite
How A Beginner’s Mindset Keeps Businesses Agile
Bret Taylor knows transformation in tech: He’s been the incumbent and the disruptor, on both sides of mergers and acquisitions, involved at all stages of scaling, and an initiator of many major products: Google Maps and Google Maps API, for starters.
As the founder and CEO of Quip, Taylor became president and COO of Salesforce at acquisition — a move he had experience with, having created FriendFeed and becoming CTO of Facebook with that sale. Since arriving at Salesforce, he’s played a major role in its acquisition of Slack, MuleSoft, and Tableau, with a strategic eye toward the future of work.
At the core of his leadership is a willingness to learn, stay curious, and adjust his approach as the product — and the world — demands.
“The best founders are the most curious people in the world,” says Taylor. “At every stage of your company — especially as an entrepreneur, because it changes so rapidly — you need to bring a different version of yourself.”
The grit and growth-oriented humility that approach requires has paid off in Taylor’s experience, and it’s centered on proactively hearing from customers. Rather than treating consumer listening as just some nice-sounding tagline, Taylor actually seeks out and deeply considers direct customer input, insisting that insularity and navel-gazing are company death knells.
So, what is Taylor looking toward for the post-pandemic future of the information workforce? An all-digital work-anywhere world, to be sure, but one that goes beyond trying to recast the previous in-person office onto a screen. At its center, he believes the future is about investing in and developing products to support asynchronous work for a distributed workforce — while not underestimating (or ignoring) the importance of company culture and values.
In this installment of Greylock’s Iconversations series, Taylor talks in detail with Greylock’s Sarah Guo about his vast experience, and how it applies to the current reorganization of work.
Listen to the conversation on the Greymatter podcast here.
Watch a video of the interview on Greylock’s YouTube channel here.
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Greylock’s Iconversations. I’m Sarah Guo, a general partner at Greylock, and I’m thrilled to be joined by Salesforce president and COO — and former Greylock-backed founder and CEO of Quip — Bret Taylor.
In addition to leading operations at one of the most important tech companies in the world, Bret’s an extraordinary product leader who has helped conceive, create, and commercialize technologies that have touched hundreds of millions of lives. He’s the co-creator of Google Maps and the Google Maps API, and joined Facebook when his startup, FriendFeed, was acquired. Bret served as the CTO of Facebook for three years before founding productivity startup Quip, which partnered with Greylock and was acquired by Salesforce in 2016.
Since joining Salesforce, Bret has pushed for innovation and has been instrumental in the company’s acquisitions of Slack, Tableau, and MuleSoft. Bret also serves on the board of Twitter.
Most recently, Salesforce, already a dominant SaaS company, has been a leader in the all-digital work-anywhere world. Those companies have had to digitally transform through the pandemic.
Bret led the Slack acquisition, bringing Salesforce and Slack together to create the digital HQ, which we’ll get to hear more about.
Bret, thank you so much for being here. It’s a pleasure. I have so much respect for you, Kevin, and the extraordinary Quip team. I remember telling John Lilly when we invested, “This is a company I’d consider joining full-time.” And it was one of the first times I thought that at Greylock. Thank you for continuing to be part of the family.
Thanks for having me. It’s great to see you. And it’s been a long time.
Bret, today you’re running operations in one of the largest tech companies in the world; you’ve scaled zero to one to tens of thousands of reports, and across consumer to enterprise. You remain an extraordinary technologist and product leader, but you’ve also obviously taken on a good market. It’s an incredible story of just personal growth. Tell us about how you got to now.
Sure. I went to college at Stanford, was a computer science major, code terms. I got a master’s degree. And I was there during the dot-com bubble, so it was interesting. The career fair my sophomore year in college was free pizzas for every student in the computer lab, jobs falling from the sky. And by the time I got there for my junior year, it was like tumbleweeds going through, as every single one of those businesses had gone under.
I ended up at Google largely through luck in the sense that there just weren’t that many companies left after the carnage of the dot-com bubble bursting. But most importantly is Marissa Mayer. I was a section leader while she was a teaching assistant in a class, and [she] had ended up at Google and started what became the associate product manager program at Google. And I was a member of the first associate product manager class.
It was probably the first kind of career change I made, in some ways, because all of my other job opportunities were to be a software engineer. Marissa had made the case that I should consider product management. I not only didn’t really understand Google’s business model at the time, I didn’t know what product managers did, either. But I really liked Marissa and I loved Google the product. So I kind of took a leap of faith, and it turned out to be a great decision.
Probably my crowning achievement at Google was Google Maps, but I worked on a bunch of products while I was there. And then right around 2007, I got really obsessed with what at the time was called Web 2.0 — the read-write nature of the web. And Google wasn’t really that interested in making products that were social at the time, anyway. The Facebook envy came a little later.
I tried a lot of proposals to build more social capabilities and maps at the company, but sort of fell on deaf ears. I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to work in that space, I’d probably have to do it outside of Google. So I left and started FriendFeed.
Give us a sense of scale: How big was Google when you joined, and when you decided to go do FriendFeed?
I want to say it was between 200 and 500 people when I started. We were in one small building in Mountain View. That was before we moved into Silicon Graphics’ old campus. We had a lot of contract employees doing support at the time, and I’m not sure how they play into the employee numbers. I’m not totally sure, but certainly under 1,000. And when I left, probably over 12,000. It was just a rocket ship over five years.
I left having made Google Maps, so the last thing I did at Google was our first developer conference, because the Google Maps API — which ended up being used by Trulia and Yelp and others — was sort of my passion project. I wrote it, product managed it, marketed it. I was more of a one-man band on that. And it was the first real developer product. We had an API for ads system, but not really other than automation. There wasn’t a true developer product.
And there were a number of early products there, [so we] kind of herded those cats and made our first developer conference in San Jose, which was about probably three weeks before I left the company. I was really proud of that, and seeing what Google IO is now is pretty cool — to see that evolution over the years.
I became passionate about social software. I started FriendFeed. I joke we were sort of the Apple Newton of social networks: not commercially successful, but we invented a lot of the interactions in the newsfeed that I think a lot of other social networking services adopted, much to our chagrin.
At the time, we had a good reputation in the Valley. It was a real, classic fly high and fall quickly. In the middle of, I think it was 2008, it might’ve been 2009, we were this big spread in the middle of Business Week and kind of the darlings of Silicon Valley. And then by the end of that year, Twitter had totally kicked our ass.
And so, in that six month period, I was like, “This is viable. We found product-market fit. We’re going to take over the world.” And six months later, we’re like, “OK, we’ve lost, there’s no silver medal in social networking.” We ended up running a process we knew that we had lost.
We debated pivoting, but decided that we really wanted to work in social software. We were passionate about it. So we decided that M&A was probably the better approach, ran a bit of a process, and chose Facebook at the end of that.
We had a few different offers, this was a pretty emotional decision, but chose Facebook, and I ended up CTO there. Only for about, I want to say, three years, maybe three and a half years there. I saw it through the IPO, which was really fun. I’d been at Google during the IPO, but not in an executive role. And it’s a really different vantage point to see scale.
And you talked about my career trajectory. [Facebook] was really where I learned how to become a manager, from Mark [Zuckerberg], but also from Sheryl [Sandberg], who’s really amazing. She spends a lot of her time quite generously mentoring. She taught a lot of the Facebook management team what it means to be a manager.
And so, I learned the hard way. I definitely wasn’t perfect there, but the organization scaled much larger than I ever had before. And I’m very grateful to this day that Mark gave me that chance and that opportunity.
It’s still funny, though, because I think I was 29 at the time and often the oldest person in the room at Facebook that year. It’s just a different, other company [now].
The big transformation there was mobile. Facebook is doing so well now, I think people often forget that, when we went public, our stock was depressed for almost the entire first year, in part because our user base had moved to the smartphone, but our monetization hadn’t. And so there were a lot of questions about Facebook as a business.
What became our mobile app, installed ads, and a few other things [happened because] we were in real-time trying to move our business model to mobile. [We were] still dominated by the right rail of ads on the side of Facebook and a browser.
We similarly had lots of fits and starts and just adopted into the smartphone revolution. [It was] a famously poor application for a while. I led the reimplementation on iOS and Android. And we got through all that, but [with] a lot of battle scars from that experience.
On the other side of it, I realized just how much our consumer lives have shifted to the smartphone, but enterprise software hadn’t, and became obsessed with that. And that’s where Quip came from. It was one angle of saying: If you were to reimagine the way we work around push notifications, around the smartphone, around the tablet — which at the time seemed like it was going to be bigger than I think it turned out to be — what would you build, and how would you re-architect the way we work?
I started Quip at the end of 2012. And then, as you mentioned, Quip ended up being acquired by Salesforce, and I’ve been here for about five and a half years. So a pretty long time.
It’s been that long. Oh my gosh. It’s an extraordinary set of companies and products that have changed the world.
You mentioned that you had to learn to be a manager and a leader. You have — as one of an exceptionally small group of people — managed both very small teams having a big impact, and then very large teams having a big impact.
One analogy we use with entrepreneurs at Greylock is: If you’re lucky enough, you have rapid organic or enterprise adoption, and each year your company is suddenly two or three times bigger. And I personally haven’t grown as a leader two or three times in the past year. It’s a really hard thing to ask of people. It sounds like there are certain people who helped you, like Sheryl, for example. What helped you stretch back and forth across these different modes of operating these different scales?
Yeah. I mean, one of the things that I’ve learned, as a CEO and as an entrepreneur, but in general with my jobs — I think the flaw, and the mistake I made early in my career that I’ve gotten better at, is, rather than trying to conform your job to you, think about what is the most important thing this job demands of me and change yourself.
I remember when I first became CTO of Facebook, everything from my staff meetings to just the cadence of my job was sort of what I wanted to work on. And I realized over the course of some swings and misses in that experience, that, if I approach the state and say, What’s the most important thing that I want Facebook to achieve, and how can I affect that outcome?, it would really transform my day and transform the way I worked.
I look at scaling a company, and really early on in a company’s life cycle, probably the answer [to that question] is products, right? You don’t have one yet, you need to work on it. And you need to spend a lot of time with your early customers and make your product useful.
If you’re on the enterprise side, you need to make your customers successful and create enough value that someone will actually pay for the thing. It’s a lot of rapid fire for the duration. You might get to that next phase, where you found product market fit, and maybe the thing that’s most valuable for your company is recruiting and finding the leadership team that you need.
Maybe you’re the effective chief product officer, and you need a chief product officer for the first time. Maybe you’ve gone from a sort of grit-driven sales [team], and you need a real head of sales. You’re going to really need to scale that motion. Maybe you’ve relied on PR and word of mouth for marketing, and to get to that next level, you actually need to optimize your paid customer acquisition.
And then, later, you might find that your leadership team’s not working, and you need to dive in and fix something or change out your leadership team.