Inside the rise of Frank Slootman, the billionaire Snowflake CEO who ripped up the nice-guy Silicon Valley playbook to ‘kill the competition’

Frank Slootman

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In July 2017, two years before he took over as the chief executive of Snowflake, Frank Slootman raced 2,225 miles across the Pacific Ocean, from the California coast to the Hawaiian island of Oahu, on Invisible Hand, his sleek 52-foot sailboat made from carbon fiber and 3D-printed titanium.

The seven-day competition, the Transpacific Yacht Race, was a test of both mental and physical stamina, in which he navigated his boat with a 10-person crew while cold, wet, and sleep-deprived. Each member maintained a grueling schedule of three hours on deck followed by three hours of sleep, 24 hours a day.

Everyone, that is, except Slootman. He barely slept, said Ruben Gabriel, one of the crew.

“He would take catnaps, but he was always up,” Gabriel told Insider. He said Slootman would check the navigation at all hours of the night to ensure Invisible Hand held its lead.

“You’re in a battle, and the battle doesn’t end until you finish that race,” Gabriel said.

Slootman and his crew won by nearly four hours.  

frank slootman sailing invisible hand

“He was very focused on winning the races, and he won pretty much everything,” Robbie Murphree-Gabriel, the former logistics manager of Slootman’s sailing operation, said.

Slootman was winning so often that rumors started swirling that he had to be cheating. In 2019, Slootman’s boat manager, the former Olympic sailor Gavin Brady, was investigated by World Sailing, competitive sailing’s governing body on suspicion of concealing modifications he made to another owner’s boat. The investigation was dropped in February because of a technicality, and Brady was given a warning. But two sailing associates of Slootman said there was still speculation over whether the tech honcho knowingly greenlighted unapproved upgrades of his own to boost performance.

Slootman did not respond to requests from Insider for comment. His sailing group — which included the Hong Kong business mogul Karl Kwok and the real-estate investor Manouch Moshayedi — gradually dissolved amid squabbles over rules.

“Everybody was out to get him,” Gabriel said. “He was the king of the hill. They were all out there to foul us, to do whatever they can to trip us up. … And Frank got tired of it. Frank’s the type that he just doesn’t take any bullshit, and there was some shit going on and he said, ‘OK, I’m done.’ So that was it. It was swift.”

Slootman sold his seven-figure boat to a Chicago couple in 2019 to focus on what would end up being his biggest win of all: taking over as CEO of Snowflake, a seven-year-old cloud-based data-warehousing company, which had until then been led by ex-Microsoft exec Bob Muglia.

Seventeen months later, he took Snowflake public in one of the biggest tech IPOs of 2020, raising $3.4 billion at a $33.3 billion valuation. By the close of Snowflake’s first day of trading, its stock had shot up as much as 165%. 

Overnight, Slootman’s 5.9% stake became worth billions, and Snowflake was established as an elite Silicon Valley player — it was briefly valued more highly than IBM at one point not long after its IPO, though its stock price has declined more than 13% since the beginning of 2021. Experts say Snowflake, which today has a market valuation of nearly $77 billion, has been bolstered by the rise of remote work during the pandemic.

As for Slootman, he has reached nearly mythic status in Silicon Valley as he continues to captain the ship at one of the industry’s most prominent success stories of the past decade.

Insider spoke with 15 people who know Slootman, who is 62, including former Snowflake colleagues and those from Slootman’s past companies ServiceNow and Data Domain. Some spoke on condition of anonymity, but nearly all described a militant CEO who’s part of Silicon Valley’s less talked-about conservative wing, a group that includes Palantir’s Peter Thiel, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Oculus’ Palmer Luckey.

Insiders said Slootman has torn up the do-gooder playbook of Big Tech’s liberal elite and replaced it with a hard-charging, profit-driven ethos that doesn’t pay lip service to things like diversity and social justice. For Slootman, who has compared himself to World War II Gen. George S. Patton, the biggest driving force is his unrelenting drive to win.

“CEOs can sometimes suffer from a kind of weakness where they want to be liked,” Asheem Chandna, a software investor at Greylock and a friend of Slootman, told Insider. “He’s not somebody who has a need to be liked.”

‘He would drop f-bombs’

In April 2019, Snowflake’s board of directors announced that its CEO of five years, Bob Muglia, was being replaced.

Muglia received two days’ notice before Slootman was introduced to employees in an all-hands meeting. Staffers started frantically Googling their new boss.

Many of them found a May 2018 LinkedIn post by Slootman in which he compared working at the cloud-service firm ServiceNow and the data-storage company Data Domain to being in the Marine Corps.

“We did not come in peace,” he wrote. “You could not escape the combat mentality at our companies. We were in a shit fight all the time.”

The post raised collective eyebrows at Snowflake, former employees said. “It had an aggressive tone to it,” one former Snowflake executive said. “We all saw the LinkedIn and were like, ‘OK, we know what we’re getting into now. We’re getting a no-nonsense guy who quotes Patton.'”

Slootman brought this combative spirit to Snowflake, cutting spending and people he deemed unnecessary, insiders said.

He replaced a number of Snowflake’s top executives — including Chief Financial Officer Thomas Tuchscherer, Vice President of People Kathy O’Driscoll, and Vice President of Finance Jeff Balaguras — with his own trusted lieutenants.

Slootman’s long-time right-hand man, Michael Scarpelli, who had worked with Slootman at both ServiceNow and Data Domain, took over the chief financial officer job from Tuchscherer. Shelly Begun, who was also at ServiceNow and Data Domain, came on board as the head of human resources. Dominic Ruso, ServiceNow’s former vice president of finance, replaced Balaguras.

Muglia said that when he was CEO the board of directors encouraged a culture of free spending.

“I used to call it ‘drunken sailors’ spending. I would say, ‘We’re spending like drunken sailors,’ and they would say, ‘Yes, keep doing it.’ And it was the right thing to do,” Muglia recently told Forbes.

snowflake ipo

But all that changed when Slootman came aboard.

With Scarpelli’s help, Slootman started cutting costs. The beloved chocolate snacks disappeared, and daily catered lunches were replaced by an in-house cafeteria that was still free but seen by some as a downgrade. The annual employee ski trip to the Ritz-Carlton in Lake Tahoe was canceled.

Some employees were irked when the CEO shut down a leased WeWork office in San Francisco and instead rented a new office space in the East Bay area that happened to be a 10-minute drive from Slootman’s home, one former executive said.

“Bob was kind of like your dad, just very jovial and happy, would walk around and talk to employees,” the former executive added. “Frank would never do that. He was more insulated. You rarely saw him around the office.”

When Slootman attended all-hands meetings, he “would drop f-bombs and s-bombs,” the executive said.

Slootman told CNBC in October that he had no time for Silicon Valley’s “lattes and neck rubs” culture.

“Silicon Valley is very much a high-fiving, self-congratulatory culture,” he said. “They love to just do a victory lap. We’re not into that. People want to be patted on the back and feel good — I’m into not feeling good.”

Muglia, for his part, told Insider that he couldn’t comment on the personality of his replacement.

“I’ve literally never met the man,” he said.

‘They don’t need me to have bathrooms with all kinds of unintelligible signs on it’

Slootman may be one of the highest-paid tech CEOs in the US, but he defies nearly every stereotype in an industry where air-hockey tables fill conference rooms and companies are rushing to hire diversity-and-inclusion executives.

His conservative peers are some of the more controversial execs in Silicon Valley, like Palmer Luckey, who was ousted from Facebook after financing an anti-Hillary Clinton meme group, and Tesla founder Elon Musk, whose SpaceX political-action committee donated $119,000 to lawmakers who voted against Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.

Slootman hasn’t shied away from embracing his right-leaning tendencies in a liberal-dominant industry. He’s donated $14,550 to Republicans in the past five years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2017 and 2018, he donated $10,800 to the congressional campaign of Greg Gianforte, Montana’s now governor who made national news in 2017 after body-slamming a reporter and getting elected to Congress the next day.

In 2016, Slootman donated $250 to Ryan Zinke, the Interior secretary of President Donald Trump who stepped down in 2018 while he was the subject of several ethics investigations.

In a June 2019 Insider interview, weeks after he joined Snowflake, the CEO said it was “absurd” that the software company Palantir had been criticized for working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and he dismissed the issue of gender-appropriate bathrooms.

“They don’t need me to have bathrooms with all kinds of unintelligible signs on it for what bathroom you’re supposed to use,” Slootman said.

tech ice protest nyc

Slootman has no qualms breaking with convention.

Two years after Slootman came aboard as the CEO of ServiceNow, in 2011, he moved its headquarters to Santa Clara, in Silicon Valley. In a 2014 interview, he said he relocated the company north to tap into a larger talent pool — but also because San Diego’s culture was too relaxed.

“People would go surfing in the mornings, and they’d have these home-brew beer-making contests and all that,” John Wyss, who was a director of product strategy at ServiceNow between 2014 and 2016, told Insider of the pre-Slootman days.

“For many, this is very attractive,” Slootman said of San Diego’s laid-backness. “In the Bay Area, by contrast, it is raw ambition, singular drive, and unbridled capitalism in action.”

‘Win at all costs’

Genevieve Haldeman, the vice president of corporate communications at ServiceNow between 2014 and 2016, said she felt that Slootman’s leadership style could make for an abrasive workplace.

“It was not the kind of environment that I enjoyed participating in,” Haldeman said. “You know, win at all costs and don’t mind who gets caught in the crosshairs.”

There were no employee-resource groups at ServiceNow, she said, and endeavors like creating a diverse workplace were “not a priority.”

Slootman said he left ServiceNow in 2017 because “they started caring about things that I had no interest in.”

“You’ve got all the social-justice issues and all the politics that go with that,” he said.

In his 2018 LinkedIn post, Slootman wrote that he had “nothing against ‘diversity and inclusion’ as long as it results from our goal-oriented modes of execution. … Data Domain and ServiceNow hired you on merit, not because you checked a box.”

Slootman, who was born in the Dutch city of Huizen, 20 miles from Amsterdam, immigrated to the US in 1982 when he was in his 20s. He sees himself as someone who bootstrapped his way up, people said.

“I crawled on the shore in this country, literally with 100 bucks in my pockets, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that,” Slootman told Forbes.

huizen netherlands

In 2019, during an all-hands meeting at Snowflake, Slootman told the story of how early in his career he was rejected for a job he was well qualified for because the company needed to fill a quota of hiring more minorities, a former senior Snowflake employee said.

“But he felt as though he were a minority given that he was an immigrant,” the former employee said. “I think the moral of that story was don’t let failure get you down.”

In June, when Snowflake announced it was forming a diversity council, employees were surprised to see that the press release was written by Eve Besant, Snowflake’s vice president of worldwide sales engineering.

“It was not written under the name of Frank, which is telling,” the former Snowflake executive said. “I’m sure anyone who was a woman or a minority group or LGBT was like, ‘What the heck? Every other CEO of a company’s making statements about how they support diversity, but you’re not doing anything.'”

Kate Bullinger, who advises CEOs and companies on corporate culture at Weber Shandwick’s United Minds consultancy, told Insider that a CEO dismissing or ignoring social issues could harm the company’s ability to attract and retain talent. Companies that stand for something make employees excited to work there, she said.

“At the end of the day, there is a pretty fierce competition for talent, and people are going to vote with their feet,” Bullinger said. “So if it’s a company that people aren’t really interested in working for, it’s going to ultimately have an exodus of key talent.”

But one former senior employee defended Slootman’s approach to social issues.

“You’re going to always alienate someone whatever you do, whether you’re neutral or you take a stance,” the former employee said. “And so I think by remaining neutral, you can allow everyone the freedom to have their own opinion and then keep that separate from work.”

After all, the former Snowflake executive said Slootman made it crystal clear that his No. 1 job was to make the shareholders money.

“He’s very much like … ‘Don’t ask me to do things that optically look good or that are PC because that’s not Frank,'” he said.

As Slootman put it: “I’m not the leader of the free world. I’m just a CEO.”

‘Did Frank just call the customer our homies?’

The son of a military veteran and an artist, Slootman studied economics at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands, before moving to the US with a dream of working for IBM, the CEO told Forbes.

After an internship in the fake-leather industry in Indiana, Slootman made his first stride into the tech industry in Detroit, where he started working at Burroughs Corp., one of the largest computer makers at the time.

Then came stints as a products executive at the software companies Compuware Corp. and Borland Software, after which Slootman landed his first Silicon Valley CEO gig in 2003 at Data Domain. In 2007, he took the data-storage company public, and two years later, he oversaw its $2.4 billion acquisition by EMC, which was later bought by Dell.

data domain

In 2011, Slootman joined ServiceNow as its CEO. One year later, he took the company public with share prices that valued the company at more than $2 billion.

As ServiceNow’s CEO, Slootman established a hard-driving culture — embodied by pictures of race cars in the hallways of the office — but he knew how to charm the customers, according to Wyss, the former director of product strategy.

“He would always crash my executive briefings,” Wyss said. “That was kind of awesome. … He’d stay for 20 or 30 minutes, and the customers’ jaws would drop and they’d be on the edge of their seat. I’d just throw the deck out because forget about it, Frank’s here.”

Wyss said that every now and then Slootman would loosen up. He recalled one instance when Slootman referred to ServiceNow’s customers as its “homies.”

“You know, he’s this very formal, educated, Dutch, driven, business executive, right?” Wyss said. “Frank said, ‘So the IT service managers, those are our homies, right?’ And we’re all just like, ‘Did Frank just call the customer our homies?’ We’d all just roar with laughter. Because we think Frank was trying to say some Compton slang or something.”

Slootman retired in 2017, but the break was short-lived.

The Snowflake board member Mike Speiser, who invested in the company through his firm Sutter Hill and served as its first CEO, reached out to Slootman regarding a Snowflake board position, Speiser told Forbes.

But Slootman was more interested in running the show, and Snowflake seized the opportunity.

“When you have the potential [to build] one of the game-changing companies of all time, you should take the chance,” Speiser told Forbes.

In a December talk with Foundation Capital, Slootman said he had had “zero plans” to take on another CEO job.

“I never decided to go back or talked to anybody. I just kind of fell into it,” he said. “My wife’s still wondering what the hell happened.”

‘You constantly live with that terminal fear of not doing enough’

While Slootman had success before Snowflake, he reached a new stratosphere after the company’s IPO, his net worth skyrocketing to an estimated $2.2 billion

In 2019, before the company went public, Slootman made more than $60 million in total compensation. In December, Bloomberg reported that Slootman’s stock options were valued at $108 million monthly, thanks to its then market cap of $120 billion. 

Slootman and his wife, Brenda Crinson Biondo Slootman, a retired graphic designer, have two sons, Collin and Taylor. Collin Biondo also works in the tech world as an engineer at the email-security startup Abnormal Security.

The couple live in the Ruby Hill gated community in Pleasanton, a serene San Francisco Bay Area suburb where the typical home is worth $1.2 million. It’s about 40 miles from Snowflake’s San Mateo headquarters and a 3.5-hour drive from Lake Tahoe, where the Slootmans have owned a home.

The Slootmans also have a ranch in southwestern Montana. In October, Slootman was approved for a 20-year lease at a tiny airport near the home to park a private aircraft.

ennis montana mountains

After his retirement from ServiceNow, Slootman poured millions into his sailing hobby, people familiar with his sailing operation said.

A Pac52 sailboat like Slootman’s Invisible Hand costs between $1.8 million and $2.5 million. He hired up to 15 professional sailors and paid for their gear, travel, and accommodations for multiple races each year, which could cost as much as $1 million annually, according to his crewman Gabriel.

frank slootman invisible hand sailing

But sailing couldn’t keep him occupied for long. The former Snowflake executive recalled Slootman once saying: “I’m not good at hobbies. Business is what I’m good at.”

Just as his hero Patton was described as paranoid yet brilliant, Slootman said he lives in constant fear of inferiority.

“It’s a hard way to live because you always feel inadequate,” he said on a December episode of the “What Got You There” podcast. “You know, you’re not going far enough, you’re not going hard enough, you’re not going fast enough. You constantly live with that terminal fear of not doing enough.”

Slootman’s investor friend Chandna recalled when the CEO stopped by his home recently. Chandna mentioned a Greylock startup that planned on tripling sales.

“If you tell most people that, they’ll be like, ‘Wow, that sounds like an amazing company. Tell me more, Asheem.’ And there’d be some praise or whatever,” Chandna said.

“So Frank talked to me for two minutes and he was, like, ‘Wow. It sounds like they’ve got a great product-market fit. Why are they only tripling sales? What’s between them going even faster?'”

The former Snowflake executive said Slootman always set the expectations high, and then higher.

“He wants to kill the competition,” he said. “Don’t go to him for the touchy-feely feelings and advice. That’s not him at all. He wants answers, he wants change, he wants to grow the business. That’s it.”

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