The CEO of Okta, a $1.2 billion startup, tells us about his growing-up moment

Okta CEO Todd McKinnon sharing his newfound, bigger vision at his customer conference Oktane

Last week, Todd McKinnon the co-founder CEO of Okta, stood on stage in front of 1,000 of his customers and did something he had been wanting to do for years: unveil a better website.

When he began the better-website project, he didn’t realize it would drag him through a series of exercises that he didn’t want to do at all. But this process ultimately changed how he thought about his own company, he told Business Insider.

It was a growing-up moment for McKinnon as CEO of his 6-year-old, 600-employee company that’s raised $230 million and was valued at $1.2 billion in September,

The project started in February, he said.

“The marketing team came to me and said, we need to do a ‘branding exercise.’ and I thought to myself, what is that? Why do we need that?”

The marketing team sold it to him as a project to build a new website, which he wanted. They hired an agency but McKinnon still really wasn’t on board.

Someone from the agency came into his office to quiz him about his company.

“We started this interview and I was pretty cynical about it and not very cooperative,” McKinnon said. “And I was like, why do I have to tell this guy this stuff? We need a new website, can’t he just do that? Do we really need to spend our time on a ‘branding’ project? Can’t we just get a new logo? Can’t we just get some new colors on the website?”

Zuora CEO Tien Tzuo

The agency had given him some references and one of them was his good friend and former co-worker, Tien Tzuo.

Tzuo and McKinnon were early employees of Salesforce. Tzuo is the co-founder CEO of Zuora, another skyrocketing startup that’s raised about $243 million and has about a $1 billion valuation.

Tzuo is also a really calm, chill dude, with a deep, radio announcer-like voice. He’s the perfect person to talk a fellow CEO out of a tantrum.

Tzuo told him that the process of having someone from the outside come in and tell you what your company is really about was fantastic for Zuora.

So McKinnon played along.

“I didn’t really hear much about the project for a few months. And then the team presented to me a progress update and it was a amazing. It wasn’t a website,” he said.

It was a different way to look and talk about his company: “what language to use. Of course we also got into visuals and a new logo.”

It made him realize, “We’re now at a size and scale that they can’t just get the essence of the company by talking to the founders. You have to do things at scale.”

So now instead of telling everyone that Okta is a startup that does “single sign-on for cloud apps” he’s now thinking of Okta as “the foundation layer for secure connections between people and technology.”

And while that new tagline sounds like the kind of marketing-speak that would come from a “brand” exercise, it really made McKinnon stop and think.

The “challenge” for himself as CEO was to stop thinking of his company in terms of its first and most successful product, the one he and co-founder Frederic Kerrest created, which manages employee’s passwords for cloud apps. Okta now offers a bunch of other stuff, too. Growing up meant thinking bigger, but he also had to learn how to talk bigger. And for an engineer like McKinnon, he needed help to do that, even if he didn’t think he wanted it.