I can still remember logging in to PeopleSoft at my first job to see what deductions had come out of my paycheck. Now, all these years later, I’m interviewing the man who wrote that very code. Todd McKinnon, my guest on this episode of Venture Voice, began his career at PeopleSoft before moving on to Salesforce and ultimately founding Okta. Todd’s company is now worth over $25 billion. This episode takes you on Todd’s entrepreneurial journey, from the Powerpoint deck he presented to his wife (subtitle: “Why I’m not crazy” for quitting my job at Salesforce) to the initial product idea (with a name that sounded “like a French perfume”) to successfully completing an IPO. Listen now on Apple Podcasts.
“You had to be able to have enough confidence that you’d be able to build this iconic tech company around this initial idea. A lot of initial ideas — people will pay for them but they don’t have that long-term staying power. They become a feature.”
Todd McKinnon is the founder and CEO of Okta, a $25 billion publicly traded software company that you may never have heard of, but it solves one of the most annoying 21st century problems: having to remember all of your various log-ins and passwords. Thousands of companies use Okta Identity Cloud to manage access and authentication for their employees.
I can relate to Todd’s experiences as a scrappy entrepreneur and the challenges of founding and growing a business. My job as CEO has changed tremendously as my own companies, Muck Rack and The Shorty Awards, have grown from just a few employees to about a hundred today. I wanted to learn how Todd scaled to thousands of employees.
“I think I try to combine the best parts of Salesforce and the best parts of PeopleSoft and throw in a little bit of my personality on the side, and let the chips fall where they fall.”
As you’ll hear in this episode, Todd got his first taste of what technology can do for customers while working at PeopleSoft. From there, he moved on to Salesforce, where he had a front-row seat to the early days of SaaS — as well as the opportunity to work for Mark Benioff before he became a multi-billionaire. Todd was the first person to lead the Salesforce engineering team, scaling it from just over a dozen people to hundreds. Those professional experiences and the cultures of the two companies would stick with him and inspire many of the decisions he made as he embarked on his own start-up journey.
“There was part of me that wanted to be the boss, and part of me that wanted to attack the challenge of creating a company from scratch, knowing that the odds are very long… I couldn’t be the person who didn’t take a shot.”
Todd points out that whenever there’s a big disruptive technical shift — like the transition to the cloud — there’s an opening to build a new business. And young companies, which don’t have all the baggage of the bigger, more established players, are often better positioned to take advantage of that opportunity. Still, the odds are long. So when he sat down to sell his wife on the idea of quitting his very good job at Salesforce to start his own company, he says he “did what anyone would do, you know. I wrote her a PowerPoint deck presentation.” The deck included nine slides that explained how, when it didn’t work out, he could just get another job. Fortunately, though, he didn’t end up having to fall back on Plan B.
“As a CEO, my decision-making process really slowed down…you have to make sure that you get involved in the right decisions, you don’t overly involve yourself in all of them. And you have to be ready to make them.”
Now matter how much experience and insight you have from working as a leader in a big company, you’re going to encounter a steep learning curve once you start scaling your own business as its CEO. I w