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Innovation in Business Practices: Part of the Oracle Culture

02 July 2009

I was honored to be included in the “Conversations with Early Innovators” section of Oracle Corporation’s  Innovation Showcase, which is now being featured on its website along with a 100-day countdown to Oracle OpenWorld. As the founder of Oracle’s inside sales group, I stressed the innovation of Oracle’s business practices while others interviewed focused on the company’s technology innovations.  There’s a fun story about Ted Codd – the father of relational database – in there, too.  Here’s the interview in its entirety:

Anneke Seley was the twelfth Oracle employee and the designer of the company’s revolutionary phone sales operation that is now called OracleDirect. She helped to organize Oracle’s first user conferences, which were the predecessor events to Oracle OpenWorld. Currently, she is the CEO and founder of Phone Works, a sales strategy and implementation consultancy that specializes in helping companies incorporate phone and Web selling into their sales models. Seley is also the coauthor of a new book, Sales 2.0: Improve Business Results Using Innovative Sales Practices and Technology (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

Q:What was innovative about the telephone sales organization that you started in 1985?

A:It wasn’t typical for a company to sell complex enterprise software by phone, but in 1985 that’s basically what I was recruited to do. I had joined Oracle in an entry position in 1980, but in 1985, when we were releasing products for the PC, the old distribution model of having a field sales organization sell every single copy of Oracle was no longer practical or economical. So I started the phone sales organization, which everybody in the field thought was going to be a total disaster. They said, “Who would buy software on the phone? This is really important, complex system stuff that people run their companies on. Who’s going to buy it, without seeing somebody in person?”

Q:How successful was this new sales organization?

A:We started out with two employees. By the end of the first year, we had about 20 people. It was the fastest growing sales organization in the company. And now, you can see what happened—OracleDirect brings in hundreds of millions of dollars. We did very well. Prospective customers were very happy to talk to us—and buy products—on the phone, as long as we knew what we were talking about.

Q:Did your sales staff do a lot of cold calling in the early days?

A:No, because we had a very active and successful demand generation marketing program that would drive leads into the company. We also had advertising. I recall one early ad, created by Rick Bennett, which had a picture of a biplane [representing Oracle’s competitor] being shot down. It got a lot of attention for being so aggressive.

Q:The book Sales 2.0, which you coauthored, has a chapter about Oracle. Would you give us some highlights?

A:It shows how Oracle in the 1980s was very forward thinking. Nowadays, it’s really common for organizations to launch or have a big part of their distribution strategy include an inside sales or phone and Web selling component. It wasn’t so common in 1985. But a key point about Sales 2.0 is to sell in the way the customer wants to buy and to align your resources appropriately—given the profitability, the size of the deal, the size of the customer, and whatever makes sense. For a lot of customers, it was totally fine not to see a salesperson. Sales 2.0 is about more effective and more efficient selling for both the seller and the buyer that’s enabled by technology. Innovation is not just about the technology, but also about the business practice that you enable with the technology.

Q:You also helped to organize the first Oracle conference—what do you recall about that?

A:It was in 1982, if I remember correctly. I think we called it the Oracle User Conference, and we held it at the Hyatt Union Square in San Francisco. I know we had fewer than 1,000 attendees because I remember it was a big deal when we had the second annual conference and attracted 1,000 attendees. The audience was mostly developers. It was an incredible success—and a useful venue for enabling direct contact between the Oracle developers and the Oracle staff and the customer base.

Q:Any speakers stand out in your mind?

A:Tedd Codd, the father of the relational database, was the keynote speaker at our second user conference. It was held in San Diego at the InterContinental, which was a big step up. I was a kid then, and here was this historical figure who was so important to the company, and we were honored to have him at our user’s conference. I believe he was retired from IBM at the time. My job was to keep the conference on schedule and to deal with the logistical side of things. And here was Ted Codd speaking before the audience, and he wouldn’t stop talking. But we had to get to our next session. So I asked him at least three times—you know, “Thank you, it’s such an honor to have you here, and now we’re ready for the next session.” But he just kept on talking. It was definitely a moment that I’ll never forget. He wasn’t a schedule kind of guy. I think he was really enjoying himself. And, I don’t want to assume anything, but these technically brilliant people want to see their inventions become reality. It was meaningful to him that Oracle had done just that, by creating the first commercially available relational database. [Editor’s note: Oracle founders used Codd’s published description of a working prototype for a relational database as a model for the Oracle database.)

Q:What drives Oracle’s culture of innovation—does it come from the top?

A:Absolutely, it comes from Larry. Larry was a technical guy. He loved technical innovation, and he hired people that were really, really good. We didn’t necessarily follow the rules that other businesses follow. We’d hire people like me—who graduated with a degree in human biology from Stanford—and let them start a sales division with no sales background. The idea was to give smart people a project and let them figure it out. That’s the essence of the culture at Oracle. It started with technical innovation, and then it expanded to other parts of the business.

How is your company’s culture innovative? How are you transforming your business practices to be as innovative as your product or service offerings?