Lessons from Tom Siebel: Own the market and stay in school

Legendary technology executive outlines his latest work and implores MIT Sloan students to make the most of their education

October 11, 2013

Tom Siebel

Tom Siebel

Tom Siebel is not stopping anywhere below market domination. Anything less, he told MIT Sloan students, is not enough.

“When the market turns, the market leader is the only one who can generate cash flow,” said Siebel, whose career as an executive, entrepreneur, and philanthropist has brought him to his current role as founder, chairman, and CEO of smart grid analytics company C3 Energy. “You’re playing a game. You want 50 percent share. Think about that every day.”

At his Oct. 11 talk on campus for the Dean’s Innovative Leader Series, Siebel hinted at deals in the works for C3 that will make the company that type of market leader. And he showed students how that aggressive goal made his last company, Siebel Systems, the worldwide leader in customer relationship management software, with more than $2 billion in revenue in 2001.

He credited Siebel Systems’ success to the recruitment of a top-notch team.

“It was not a fair fight,” he said. “You want to make sure it is unfair. You need to build your company every day for when the music stops.”

Siebel emphasized the same investment in human capital at C3, which began in 2008 when he invited 50 people, including a number of leading technology executives, to California. There, the attendees were split into work groups who spent the next year examining how to apply big data, cloud computing, and “heavy analytics” to smart grid management.

Later, the company would develop a blockbuster board of directors and executive team. Siebel said their experience and leadership is critical to C3’s success as a startup.

“Sometimes it’s not just two people in a dorm room,” he said.

During his talk, Siebel encouraged students to make the most of their education at MIT Sloan and briefly discussed the Thiel Fellowship, which requires recipients to forego college. Siebel’s own scholarship program, the Siebel Scholars, annually awards $35,000 scholarships to 85 graduate students at 12 universities, including MIT. ( See this year’s Siebel Scholars at MIT Sloan.) As someone who introduced himself with “I’m a computer scientist from the University of Illinois,” he showed a strong belief in the value of higher education to business, science, technology, and innovation.

“Get to where you know something,” he advised students. He encouraged them to take jobs with companies like Google—Siebel joined Oracle Corporation in 1983—instead of attempting to bootstrap a startup directly out of business school. “In all fairness, you think you people were born geniuses?”