Why Okta CEO Todd McKinnon Likes Having Salesforce.com as a Competitor
Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff is a few hours away from taking the stage at his company’s huge Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, which appears to have taken over the city. Last night, I happened to drive by City Hall, and saw that an area outside it had been converted into a huge stage that will accommodate, among other things, a performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, marking the first shot in a sort of battle of the early-’90s rock bands between Salesforce and Oracle.
There’s another drama playing out ahead of Benioff’s keynote, concerning what he may or may not say about a series of features and services called Chatterbox that Salesforce is launching. Last week, Benioff surprised a lot of people by declaring at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference that he was gearing up to launch services that would compete with Box, the enterprise cloud file-sharing and collaboration service, and also with Okta, a cloud identity-management service.
Aaron Levie, Box’s CEO, said he had seen the service coming for a few months now, and that it was, in a sense, inevitable. Salesforce’s Chatter social enterprise service would in time need a robust file-sharing capability built into it, anyway.
Since then, I’ve checked in with Todd McKinnon, CEO of Okta. His reaction was pretty close to that of Levie’s. He has known that it was coming for awhile, and Salesforce had to do it anyway. “Salesforce is realizing that, with the cloud and a mobile work force, managing the identity layer is a key part of it,” McKinnon told me Monday. “They finally woke up to it. It’s a little unnerving when someone as big as Salesforce gets into your space, but it makes it clear to our customers and partners that this is a big deal we’re working on, so in that sense, it’s a big validation.”
With so many companies adopting cloud services and creating accounts for employees on all of them, McKinnon left Salesforce, where he had headed up its engineering efforts, to start Okta. The service gathers up all those cloud account credentials and passwords and creates a single sign-on for all of them, making them easy to manage. Salesforce.com is one of the 1,351 services it works with. Others include Box, Google Apps, NetSuite, Workday and Microsoft’s Windows Azure.
McKinnon takes some encouragement from the data he sees courtesy of his own service. Offering a service for unified sign-ons makes Okta sort of a barometer for the cloud ecosystem, he says. Chatter, Salesforce’s social service, is more or less central to Salesforce’s efforts to unify its many offerings, and is the company’s answer to services like Jive and Yammer that have sought to make the process of collaborating within a company a little more akin to using Facebook.
Salesforce’s promotion of Chatter helped Jive and Yammer seem more legitimate. “Salesforce put all this money and effort behind Chatter, but it didn’t kill Yammer or Jive, it only accelerated their business,” McKinnon said. Jive IPO’d last year, and Yammer was acquired by Microsoft for $1.2 billion over the summer. “Once Salesforce comes out with its identity management product, I think more people will look at us.”
So, how much of a competitive threat does McKinnon see from Salesforce? Some, but announcements aren’t products. And there’s the rub. Salesforce, McKinnon says, has a habit of making big announcements from the stage at Dreamforce, and then not following up, or at least not following up to the extent that the pronouncements from the keynote stage would seem to imply. “Salesforce is in many ways a marketing-driven company,” he says. “We’ll have to see how they execute. The real proof will be in how they follow up this Dreamforce announcement.”