Todd McKinnon took a major risk by leaving his big job at Salesforce to make his own mark on the cloud.
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Starting your own tech company is no easy feat, especially when it requires you to abandon a VP of Engineering role at an already established company well on its way to $1 billion in revenue. When Todd McKinnon was deciding 12 years ago to leave his job at Salesforce to pursue an idea that would become Okta, all during a recession, he first had to convince his wife. One PowerPoint presentation titled “Proposal to move to a new job starting a company (Why I’m not crazy)” and a fallback plan agreement later, McKinnon was ready to start a company that would take advantage of the budding shift to the cloud. He saw significant movement in the tech space and predicted the biggest companies of the next 10-15 years would be created during that time frame — and he jumped at the chance to become an entrepreneur.
While I’m sure many of us could have used that PowerPoint, McKinnon’s success was derived not only from having a plan, but also maintaining a willingness to push through hard times and pivot. When McKinnon’s initial idea for a company called SaaSure, focused on monitoring and reporting on the reliability of cloud services, proved unscalable, he and his co-founder Frederic Kerrest saw an opportunity in identity management instead. They recognized the pain point with passwords and logging into cloud services, and knew it was complicated to build the technology needed to log in to multiple applications through a single password. Enter Okta.
As McKinnon can attest, such a pivot when starting a company is easier the sooner it’s made. Only a few months into the endeavor and without customers or investors, McKinnon and Kerrest made the move to identity. The first 18-24 months were focused on building basic features and getting the first 5-6 customers. When cloud adoption was still building steam and companies weren’t yet pressed for an identity solution, doubt crept in, but employee and investor expectations remained high. As McKinnon advises, during challenging times, “sometimes you have to believe even when you don’t believe.” And believing paid off — Okta is now a $30 billion business and the leading provider of identity for the internet.
Another of McKinnon’s top tips from these tougher times: The creation of attainable goals is key. Early on, McKinnon and Kerrest thought they could secure 100 customers, but cutting it back to just 10 paying, live, in-production customers gave them more motivation.
A few elements quickly started working together in McKinnon’s favor: The market for cloud services picked up, Okta’s product got smarter and they hired a strong team better equipped to sell to customers. As Okta closed the quarter well above their target in the fall of 2011, McKinnon “felt like he had won the NBA championship” and finally thought his identity idea might actually work. Though the numbers back then seem minuscule in comparison to those Okta is pulling today, it was only the quarter prior that Okta fell over $120,000 short of their $200,000 target.
Fast forward six years and McKinnon would achieve the goal of many entrepreneurs — taking the company public. As exciting and rewarding as this achievement was at the time, McKinnon said he approached it like a “high school graduation” — it was a moment to celebrate, but he knew it was also important the team didn’t lose momentum for the goals they’d made for the next 10 years. And with Okta’s recent acquisition of Auth0, an important step forward for the company to address an even broader set of digital identity use cases, it’s clear the company hasn’t run dry on ambition.
The Okta team continues to deliver on the company’s vision to enable everyone to safely use any technology. Okta powers identity for the internet and gives customers the confidence to reach their full potential. McKinnon has a sincere awareness that Okta’s success is far from his alone, but that of the entire Okta team and their more than 10,000 customers. With a plan, a willingness to adapt and a commitment to long-term goals, McKinnon continues to make success happen.