What I Learned From Pitching Marc Benioff My Startup at Dreamforce

In October of 2014, I broke through Marc Benioff's security entourage to pitch him my startup idea at Dreamforce. This is the story of how it all went down.

(This article was first featured on Entrepreneur on July 14, 2022)

In the Fall of 2014, Jeremy and I had just begun working on our first ‘real’ startup together.  We both had day jobs.  Jeremy was working for a small marketplace startup in San Francisco, and I was selling enterprise software for an analytics company in New York. 

What we both realised in our day jobs was how difficult it was for our employees to share constructive feedback in a way that would help our company and leaders grow and improve.  There needed to be a safe space for employees to share feedback on their professional experiences and the people they work with.

Me pitching Marc Benioff on ‘Backdoor’ at Dreamforce in October of 2014. Photo credit to Victor White.

Jeremy and I became obsessed with this problem.  Jeremy spent his evenings learning Ruby on Rails to code the first version of our app.  The site was called ‘Backdoor’; However, we didn’t own backdoor.com (dare you to see who does).  Unfortunately, we owned checkmybackdoor.com, which wasn’t much better.  

The idea was simple and the interaction was basic.  A public forum to provide anonymous feedback on your work colleagues with the ability to  ‘Thumbs up’ or ‘Thumbs Down’ and add a comment on a work colleagues profile.  We validated an employee’s connection to their colleague based on LinkedIn’s data (which we almost got sued for. We’ll save that story for another day).  In September, we launched Backdoor to a small group of folks at our day jobs.

As you can imagine with any anonymous feedback platform, particularly one that was professional, moderation was important.  We saw a few bad apples on the site, but almost 85% of the content on Backdoor was constructive and positive.  That was good enough for us.  We had a functional MVP.  We had real users.  We had organic growth, as others were pulling their friends and work colleagues into the network.

I began seeding the network by emailing employees at companies where their work colleagues had been reviewed on Backdoor.  We grew to 500,000 profiles on the platform, and with that traction, I was convinced we were ready to raise a seed round.

However, Jeremy and I had no idea how to raise capital.  We read Paul Graham’s essays on fundraising and spoke with a few friends that had raised small seed rounds.  It felt like a crap shoot.

From my days in enterprise software, I always found success the higher I sold into a company.  With that in mind, I asked myself, who is the most influential person in enterprise SaaS, that valued company culture and would understand the problem we were setting out to solve.  The answer:  Marc Benioff.

Marc would be a perfect investment partner.  But how the heck does someone get in touch with the ‘the Colossus of Cloud’? 

In October, my good friend Victor had received an extra pass to Dreamforce from his company that they weren’t planning to use.  He asked me if I wanted to attend, as it might be a good opportunity to learn about ways to grow and scale Backdoor.

 I knew that was my window.  

Take the shot that no one dares to take

On the first day of Dreamforce, I hovered outside of the Moscone Center to see if I might get the chance to pitch Marc.   We waited for almost 2 hours and I’d almost given up hope when I saw the cameras flash and a giant security entourage funnel out of the theatre.  It felt like a US President had just left the building.  Coincidentally, it was the end of a keynote that Tony Robbins and Marc shared center stage.  

I looked at Victor and told him, “I’m going in”.  Victor replied “you’re crazy”.  

Marc was escorted by three bodyguards, so I decided to approach him headon so as not to get tazed or arrested.  I reached past the lead security guard, extended my hand out to Marc, and said.  “Marc, we haven’t spoken before, but I know you care about Salesforce’s culture. I’m building a better version of LinkedIn and we already have 500,000 users on our platform. Would you be open to learning more?’

After Marc realised I wasn’t there to assassinate him, he waved off his bodyguards and pulled out his phone.  He asked me for the name of the site.  I responded firmly, Backdoor.com.  Marc raised his eyebrows.  I clarified, ‘well, technically we don’t own the domain for Backdoor.com.  It’s actually, Checkmybackdoor.com’.  Marc smiled and said, ‘you guys need to hire a proper marketer.  Email me at CEO@salesforce.com and we’ll take a look’.

Bam!  We got the meeting.

That evening I emailed Marc.  Two days went by.  No response.  I sent a follow-up.  Four more days went by.  No response.  I emailed a third time.  Finally, Marc got back to me with an introduction to John Somorjai, Salesforce’s Venture and Strategy leader.

We met John and a few of his associates at Salesforce HQ to share the pitch.  Marc wasn’t in attendance, but John asked a ton of questions about our growth plans and our team.  We exchanged ideas about the future of HR Tech and Salesforce’s position around employee experience.  In the end, John let us know that we were too early for an investment from Salesforce.  More specifically, we didn’t have a strong data moat for the network we were building, and we were highly dependent on LinkedIn for our early growth which wouldn’t be sustainable.  

It's okay to take no for an answer, but understand the "why" behind it

It sucked hearing ‘No’, especially on the back of a referral from the Sultan of SaaS.

But John’s feedback helped us think critically about the business we were building, as well as how we approach different profiles of investors and venture firms based on the size and stage of our business.  

Jeremy and I pressed on, pivoted to enterprise feedback and found an early market growing in the enterprise messaging app ecosystem.  Checkmybackdoor evolved into Growbot, the first application for employee feedback built on the Slack platform.

Fast forward a year later, and we met Phil Libin, founder of Evernote and mmHmm, and former partner at General Catalyst.  Phil saw our vision of building a healthier and happier workplace.  He took a chance on Jeremy and me, leading our seed round.  When Phil asked us who else we had on our list of prospective investors to fund our company, there was only one name that we knew we had to get involved.  

Two years later, we had a term sheet from Marc Benioff as our first and only angel investor in Growbot.

To this day, I’m not entirely sure if Marc remembers me as the guy that bull rushed his security entourage and pitched him the idea for Backdoor.com.  But maybe he did, and maybe that helped him gain conviction that we were in this for the right reasons.  I’ll have to ask him someday.  

A couple of closing thoughts.

  1. Take the shot that no one dares to take.  You might get arrested, or you might just get a term sheet.  
  2. It’s OK to take no for an answer, but understand the why behind it.  Thank you John Somorjai for teaching us that.
  3. The source of capital matters.  Similar to the ideal customer profile in an enterprise sales cycle, you need to be laser focused on the ideal investor profile (stage and size) that can help your business.

Justin Vandehey

Entrepreneur & Podcaster

Justin Vandehey leads partnerships and business development for Culture Amp, the industry leader in employee engagement solutions. Culture Amp acquired the company he cofounded, Disco, which Justin grew from $0 to seven figures in ARR (and profitable).