30: Tom vs. the Elephant: How One Billionaire Entrepreneur Keeps Going

Tom Siebel is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and survivor of a run-in with a five-ton elephant.

Tom Siebel is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and survivor of a run-in with a five-ton elephant.

To say Tom Siebel has had an interesting life would be putting it mildly. He’s a billionaire, a tech visionary, and the survivor of an elephant goring eight years ago that, by the odds, should have killed him.  

Several doctors told Siebel he would never walk again, much less sail competitively. But he does. 

So what do you learn about life when you’ve stared down death in the form of a five-ton elephant, been crushed by that elephant, and lived to tell the tale? What do you learn when you’ve invented one of the first killer workplace apps of the PC era, then sold it for about $6 billion dollars? 

After you’ve made all that, survived all that, why, at 64 years old, are you still inventing? 

Tom Siebel, now the CEO of C3 IoT, sat down with me for the at the Nasdaq Marketsite in Times Square to share some insight into what’s made him tick – and what’s helped him succeed. Here are some bits to chew on:

Never Say Die 

Tom Siebel had been on a walking safari with his wife and daughters when an elephant attacked him; he says that during his recovery he had 19 reconstructive surgeries and relied on an electric wheelchair to get around. One of his legs was almost completely shattered. Throughout the process, he kept looking for a doctor who could help him to make real progress. 

"I would go visit physicians, and they would explain that they're going to have to remove my leg, and I'd say OK, you're fired." Finally he called the maker of the device that was holding his leg together, and asked what doctor in the world had the most experience installing it. It turned out, the two best were just up the road in San Francisco.  

A few years later, Siebel made a full recovery.  

The lesson here is not so much in what to do if you're trampled by an elephant. (That's probably not going to happen to most of us.) It's in what to do if someone tells you that your goal is impossible: If that goal is important enough, don't just get a second opinion, get expert insight. 

Work for Someone and Learn 

Where did Tom Siebel learn to run a business? From working at Oracle. Where did the leaders at Oracle learn? Trial and error. I asked whether he thinks that's ideal. Actually, no, he says.  

“I think it might be a good idea to go work for another company first and learn about sales, learn about marketing, learn about accounting, learn about compliance, learn about human capital practices," Siebel says. "Maybe learn a little patience, get a little humility.” 

We tend to focus on the exceptions to the rules, people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. But many of the rest of us would be wise to spend a bit more time learning about business before trying to run one. 

Your Spark Doesn’t Need Approval 

After working for Oracle from its early days until it reached about $1 billion in sales, Siebel had an idea: Rather than just focus on databases, he wanted to build an application – a program that would help businesses keep track of their best sales prospects and close deals faster. He took the concept to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who said no. Was Siebel crushed? Discouraged? 

“I was satisfied that it was a good idea, I was satisfied that there was a market there. It was just not a market that Larry Ellison was interested in pursuing at that time," Siebel says. "And I mean, Larry is a very, very bright guy. His successes speak for themselves. But he didn’t have an interest. He didn’t see the market. I did. And I just decided to go for it.” 

Go for it, he did. Siebel Systems became a force in enterprise software, so much that Ellison tried to build his own version to beat it. Ellison eventually decided to buy Siebel out for $5.8 billion instead, with Tom Siebel's blessing. 

No matter how smart your friends – or bosses – are, they can’t make the big career decisions for you. Listen to their advice, and weigh it against what you’ve learned. If you believe you’ve got what it takes, go for it.