How Larry Ellison grew Oracle into a multi-billion dollar behemoth

Larry Ellison, the fifth-richest person in the world, is known for founding mega-tech giant Oracle in 1977 with just $2,000. Today, Oracle is worth an astounding $300 billion and Ellison spends most of his time on Lanai, Hawaii's sixth-largest island, which he owns. 

Oracle’s successful 40 year rise can be credited in part to its legendary sales organization, which boasts some important alumni including Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, who worked there for 13 years as Ellison’s protege. Today, Oracle has one the largest sales teams in the world, with over 50,000 reps and managers. If you work in technology sales, you’ve most likely met a colleague who has done a stint at Oracle or heard firsthand about their hard-charging sales culture. 

Early Oracle Sales Culture

Kathryn Gould, Oracle’s founding VP of Marketing described Ellison as a CEO who wasn’t always selling, but who would turn on the switch at the right moment, usually in a potential customer’s boardroom. She described his sales style as irresistible, with his ability to get the engineering leaders excited about product architecture and technical vision, while still charming the non-technical executives in the room. 

People who sold at Oracle in the early years have noted Ellison’s involvement in the sales organization. He was known to ask the sales team to “bring him all objections” so that he could help them overcome with proper responses and have the product team develop new solutions based on the feedback. Ellison fostered a sales organization that was competitive but rewarding. Reps were expected to hit their quota or they’d be let go from the team (some reps who realized they wouldn’t hit their number would gracefully resign). But the sales team was highly compensated, with no cap on success. Ellison was okay with sales reps being the most highly compensated employees in the organization, provided they produced. This strategy helped Oracle attract the top sales talent in the 1980s and scale the business to hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. 

However, in 1990, Oracle reduced its workforce by 10%, which amounted to approximately 400 employees, due to inaccuracies in its financial accounts. This issue arose from Oracle's aggressive sales tactics, encouraging buyers to purchase the maximum volume of software upfront. Sales reps would then recognize the income from these anticipated future software licenses in the current fiscal quarter to increase their bonuses. This strategy backfired when the anticipated sales did not occur as expected. As a consequence, Oracle was compelled to revise its financial statements on two occasions and reached out-of-court settlements for lawsuits related to the overstatement of its financial performance. Ellison, reflecting on the episode in 1992, admitted that Oracle had committed a significant “error in judgment.”

Modern Era

While Ellison remains executive chairman and CTO of Oracle, he now lives the life of a successful tech billionaire. He sits on the board of Tesla and engages in philanthropy for medical research centers. He’s a licensed pilot and owns several planes, and spends quite a bit of time on the water with his passion for yacht racing — he founded the Oracle Team USA yacht racing team in 2003 which competes in racing competitions around the world. 

One of Ellison’s lasting legacies will be the sales culture at Oracle, which has influenced many of the sales organizations that exist today. The Oracle sales training program is renowned, considered by many an Ivy League education for sales reps. A year or two as an SDR or AE (if you can make it) at Oracle is a golden ticket that recruiters and sales leaders look for. Many Oracle sales alumni have gone on to become successful sales executives or start their own billion dollar companies. However, there will always only be one “Larry.”

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