Q&A with Katherine von Jan ’93
Katherine von Jan ’93 has spent a career innovating. She describes her career as “two decades of seeking and seizing bold opportunities for good.” After beginning her career as an entrepreneur and starting five businesses, von Jan now spends her time as an intreprenuer, leveraging design-thinking, science, and technology to create new products with her team at Salesforce. She is also an avid speaker, sharing her views on culture, technology, and innovation with media outlets including BBC, MSNBC, and Wired magazine.
Paul College: Briefly describe your role as VP of Strategic Innovation, Ignite Incubator at Salesforce.
von Jan: Ignite is our market-facing innovation team that works with customers to tackle their boldest challenges and pioneer opportunities and experiences that delight people, create unprecedented business value, and improve the state of the world. We empower people, teams and organizations to do incredibly impactful work, and have a blast doing it.
Paul College: What does innovation mean to you?
von Jan: Getting different, desired results by doing things differently.
Paul College: Technology is constantly changing. How do you continuously innovate in an industry that moves at such a quick pace?
von Jan: First, stay curious! We love to learn, love to experiment, and are fearless in imagining and trying new things. We’re learning from and with customers, partners, thought-leaders, and startups via Salesforce Ventures. Technology innovation isn’t a job, it’s a passion and obsession.
Second, we aren’t afraid to fail. In fact, we celebrate failure. Our team aspires to fail fast, and we fail a little every day. We’d say, if you aren’t failing 50% of the time, you aren’t trying hard enough. We even have an “Innovation Blues” activity, where some of our awesome musical colleagues play the blues, and we make up songs about the things we’ve tried that didn’t work. It takes the stigma out of risk-taking, and ensures we’re always trying to push the art and science of the possible. If you don’t try impossible things, they won’t ever become possible, and if you do try, you might just surprise yourself!
In terms of delivering innovative products—from day one Salesforce has been committed to three releases of our products a year, making updates and advancements available to all of our customers so they can take advantage of the latest and greatest if they choose to. (So, think about the old days when you had to “buy” the next version of a product you already own, or you wouldn’t get the updates. And those updates would happen every couple years. We flipped that model, and give every customer the three updates a year automatically.)
We also have an open customer success community where customers can suggest and vote on ideas, features and fixes for our roadmap. The more popular ideas get, the higher they are prioritized. And our product leaders are actually compensated based on implementing those features.
We’ve linked our business model to innovation through our subscription model, so we’re motivated financially to keep innovating. We need to make sure that we are providing the most value available in the marketplace to enable our customers’ growth and success better than anyone.
Paul College: How did Paul College (WSBE) prepare you to be able to take on a leadership role in fostering innovation at Salesforce?
von Jan: The best part of my experience at WSBE/Paul was the professors. I can name many, and still talk about some of those professors and experiences, like (associate professor emerita of organizational behavior) Rita Weathersby who was an amazing female leader, with rich global experience. She challenged all of us in every interaction to open our minds and stretch how we might understand situations, systems and strategies.
I also had an amazing internship advisor. I was about 3-4 months into a terrible internship experience—I mean, a totally sleazy boss, and my work taken advantage of without reward. When I explained the situation and my desire to go start my own company, and learn by doing my own thing, my advisor encouraged me. I started a company, found a couple other students to do it with me, and we made it a wild success. I have her advocacy and belief in me to thank. I’m proud to say I started my first company (out of 5) before I even graduated at UNH.
Paul College: How do you foster a culture of innovation at Salesforce or within your unit?
von Jan: Innovation is one of our core values at Salesforce. In fact, I would say every single employee at Salesforce is an innovator and trailblazer. Innovation is also a key part of our culture, which is embedded into how we work, our products, programs, and our relationships with customers and partners. Salesforce has been lauded by Forbes as one of the world’s most innovative companies since they started the list six years ago.
One tactic is obvious. We hire for that innovation DNA. In terms of recognizing and fostering an innovative culture, these are some attitudes and behaviors my team lives by every day in every interaction:
Courageous Co-creation: We pioneer, inspire and advance our best future with our employees, customers and partners, wielding world-class design-thinking methods, market foresight, thought-leadership and technology to co-create meaningful solutions, experiences and results that market leaders crave.
Infectious Fun: As trusted advisors within our community we breathe fun, excitement and joy into our relationships and processes. We delight, surprise, amaze and smile in the face of adversity and opportunity, and make our customers smile, too. Fun is FUNctional—it improves the quality of our work, relationships and outcomes.
Grit: Scrappy, hungry and nimble, we stay true to our core, leading by example with an action-biased growth mindset. We are relentlessly focused on delivering outstanding, tangible impact—fearlessly experimenting, learning and persevering to make the seemingly impossible happen. Our intensity, integrity and devotion to our customers, craft and quality permeate everything we do for customer, company and community success.