If Adobe wanted to weather the stormy seas of box software-turned-SaaS services with the style that they have, they couldn’t have chosen a savvier CEO than Shantanu Narayen. As he shared in his keynote address at Adobe’s Summit conference this March, they were doing well enough selling graphic design products but change was afoot and Narayen knew it.
“Adobe was the undisputed leader in creative desktop software,” Narayen shared in his talk with the 17,000 people who attended Adobe’s Summit event. “We sold software like Photoshop and After Effects and Illustrator and Acrobat. Mostly through distribution and resellers. And we were only able to deliver that fundamental innovation every 12 to 18 months.”
Narayen is the man behind the company’s transformation to a subscription-based sales model. It’s a move that’s upended the software industry and put them on their current path to even greater profitability. “Preserving the status quo is not a winning business strategy,” he said in an interview. “This is a belief that drives so many of the decisions we’ve made at Adobe.”
Since he became CEO in December 2007, Adobe’s stock price has surged more than 600 percent to $307.88 which has endeared him to the company’s investors. Market capitalization has grown dramatically, starting at a modest $24 billion before bounding up to a staggering $125 billion. Narayen’s achievements have not escaped the notice of industry experts, either.
“[He] pivoted the company to success,” said Brent Thill, managing director of internet research at Jefferies. “I’ve covered software for 20 years and watched all the players. If I was offered the opportunity to work somewhere, it would be Adobe. The company’s position, culture and market … are phenomenal.”
Their SaaS model put the customer’s experience front and center, Narayen explained, and helped them embrace the reality that digital business never stops moving. In some ways, the Indian-born CEO has remade Adobe as a marketing company with customer interactions at various points of contact driving their delivery of a ‘personalized’ experience. Whether their products are counting visits to a brick-and-mortar store and tracking what is purchased or evaluating user interest in email promotions and monitoring social media for brand mentions – Adobe does it all. According to their chief technology officer, Abhay Parasnis, Adobe’s new approach to marketing is a natural evolution for a company that’s always “pushing the limits of creative expression and storytelling.”
Narayen’s own story starts in Hyderabad, India, where he grew up in a family that highly valued education. He describes his upbringing as being crucial to the development of his leadership philosophy, style and career path. He advises that people should cultivate their curiosity – even if they’re a long-timer within an organization.
As a naturally inquisitive person, Narayen’s original career aspiration was to become a journalist. He ultimately pursued training as an engineer – first graduating from Osmania University with a bachelor’s in electronics engineering and then attending University of California, Berkeley, for his MBA – he’s maintained that same keen interest in the world. After school, he held product development roles with both Apple and Silicon Graphics before deciding to strike out on his own with his own photo-sharing app startup, Pictra.
Narayen joined Adobe after a chance business encounter between Pictra and the maker-of-Photoshop ended with him working at the aforementioned. He rose quickly through the ranks, becoming COO in 2005, CEO in 2007 and board chairman in 2017. He has been named one of world’s best CEOs by Barron’s magazine in both 2016 and 2017 and is the current vice chairman for the US-India Strategic Partnership Form.