Tech bubble survival guide

There have been about 150 companies started in the last decade or so that have seen their valuations top $1 billion, earning them the nickname "unicorn." Once elusive, these high-flyers seem to be everywhere these days. Some of those companies are truly valuable, some aren't. Silicon Valley's unicorn infestation has prompted some speculation that this bubble is on the brink of bursting.

Frankly, the companies that will survive and thrive will not be focused on talk of valuations or bubbles. They will be focused entirely on the customer and providing real, quantifiable value for businesses of all sizes, in various industries, while also understanding where the market is headed. Unicorns and bubbles make for great click-bait — they likely got you here (thank you, by the way) — but neither will make or break a company. Here is a "survival guide" for what will.

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1) Put the customer first. Marc Benioff, my former boss at Salesforce, recently predicted that soon we're going to see some dead unicorns. Although he has confidence in the market as a whole, he's concerned that companies are more focused on their valuations than on customer satisfaction. "The most important thing in business is customer success," he's said. "If you have customer success, you're going to have growth, and if you have growth, you're going to get through this [correction]. And the way to get growth is by having those happy customers."

He's right. If your customers are successful, so are you. If your customers can't live without you, they won't. That's why the companies that build customer success into their core will survive a downturn.

2) Provide measurable value. So, what exactly is "customer success?" Customer success goes beyond customer service or support; it's about providing real, measurable value, and helping customers fulfill their missions as quickly as possible. Enterprise companies need to make their customers successful in order to be highly valued — both by customers and investors.

For consumer applications, the value is the experience: never having to hail a cab because you can depend on Lyft or Uber, listening to your favorite album on the go with Spotify or Apple Music, or taking an incredible underwater video of your friend with your GoPro. All enhance the consumer's life in some way. Enterprise solutions and services need to provide not only a great experience for the end user, they need to provide return on investment for the organization. Customers need to know that if they invest a dollar in your service, they will get a dollar (or more) back in business value. The subscription model, which is now common for cloud providers, allows organizations to simply turn your services off if they don't see value. Okta's own Businesses @ Work data report indicates that cloud apps and services can be readily ousted by newcomers. So unless your service is a foundational tool that delivers quantifiable value, it will be easy to get rid of your service when the bubble bursts.

3) Stay one step ahead. To truly provide value to customers and make them successful, businesses need to do more than provide value in the present moment — they should be one step ahead, anticipating what challenges customers will face next. Plenty of companies found early success because they went after newly-defined categories at the perfect time — Uber, Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, Box and Workday are a few examples — but the ones who come out on top (regardless of market conditions, but especially in a downturn) will do so because they know where the market's headed. When we started Okta in 2009, the cloud was still a new phenomenon. We took a big leap, foreseeing its popularity and the challenges companies would face as they adopted more apps and devices. We were on the right side of an undeniable shift in business, but we can't stop there — we need to continually provide our wide range of customers with value they didn't even know was possible.

4) Serve a diverse set of customers. When a correction happens, the first technology companies to feel the impact will be the ones that provide products that are only used and valued in Silicon Valley. When the money disappears for some, it will inevitably disappear for the superfluous services they use. Those safe from impact will provide much more than a superfluous service and serve people and companies in other regions and outside of the tech zones. If you have thousands of customers spanning various industries and geographies, you won't feel the pinch should any one industry or country suffer.

I vividly remember our first five happy, paying customers at Okta as a major milestone. Not just because they were willing to let us post their logos on our website when we launched, but because they spanned different industries like technology, media, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing. Our goal was to create a product that would impact a diverse set of companies and people. Now, thousands of customers later, that's still very much reflected in the range of logos on our site. That diverse set of customers is a healthy sign.

Commentary by Todd McKinnon, CEO and co-founder of Okta, a cloud computing agency. Prior to Okta, Todd ran engineering at and he currently serves on the Board of Directors for Family House, a non-profit that provides temporary housing for the families of children receiving treatment at UCSF's Children's Hospital. You can follow him on Twitter @toddmckinnon.