Dreamforce powers Salesforce's market rise

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Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, shown here at Dreamforce 2014, works to imbue his personal interests and ethics into the company's annual customer conference, which this year will draw a massive 150,000-strong crowd to San Francisco. (Photo: Jakub Mosur Photography)
570 CONNECT 224 TWEET 273 LINKEDIN 1 COMMENT EMAIL MORE SAN FRANCISCO – A dozen Salesforce executives have gathered at a home on the western edge of town to watch a rough cut of a video that will open Dreamforce, the cloud-computing juggernaut’s annual conference that starts Tuesday.
The short film hits scores of chest-thumping high points, befitting a company whose market cap has tripled in five years to $45 billion, leading to loud acquisition rumors involving names such as Microsoft and Oracle.
As the video touting the benefits of using the company's cloud-based sales software ends, the execs to turn to their Hawaiian-shirt-and-jeans-clad leader and today's host, CEO and founder Marc Benioff. He isn’t thrilled.
“This focuses a lot on the tech revolution we’re in, but the story we want to tell is about a customer revolution,” says Benioff, who invited USA TODAY to observe the planning meeting. “There’s also a myopia there, it’s too much about us and not enough about our customers. Let’s hit the reset button.”
If you’re wondering why a CEO is steeped in the minutia of a four-day conference with more than a thousand sessions, you don’t know Benioff or Dreamforce.
The former is an outsized, hands-on corporate leader who made waves last spring by leading a group of tech CEOs in taking a stand against religious freedom laws and whose deep philanthropic bent informs his company’s giving practices.
And Dreamforce, 13 years old now, has grown from a small group filling a ballroom to an invading army of 150,000 customers and developers that threatens to outgrow its 800,000-resident Bay Area home.
'I’d rather use the sharing economy more to keep it here, because if we leave (and move Dreamforce to Las Vegas) we lose far more than we gain.' - Salesforce founder Marc Benioff
Dreamforce so challenges this city’s infrastructure that Salesforce urges its conference attendees to leverage the crucial assistance of two tech world upstarts, Uber for transportation and Airbnb for lodging. If you are on the hunt for a hotel, prepare to pay $900 and up at many central properties, if they still have rooms.
In a novel move, the company has opted to bring in a Celebrity Cruises ship for added lodging. It’s been dubbed the Dreamboat, and all of its 1,073 cabins are sold out. Excessive? Not for Benioff, who asks his staff, "Can we get two next year?"
Voices: Dreamforce conference is tech's hot event
He may also need more real estate, especially since the Oz-like Safesforce Tower, destined to be the city's tallest at 61 stories, won't be completed until at least 2017. This year, some 19 venues around the city’s Moscone Center will be taken over by Salesforce events, and an entire city block will be shut down to form a pedestrian mall compete with Airstream trailers for more rustic-minded event campers.
Dreamforce attracts big names from the world of tech, such as 2014 guest Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo. Among this year's speakers are Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)
“There’s been pressure for me to move this to Las Vegas and really blow it out,” says Benioff, sharing a plate of warm oatmeal cookies a chef has brought to the group. “I don’t want to do that. I’d rather use the sharing economy more to keep it here, because if we leave we lose far more than we gain.”
San Francisco is hardly complaining. Last year, Dreamforce contributed $226 million to city coffers, according to San Francisco Travel.
“The economic impact of Dreamforce supports our local small businesses, our arts and cultural institutions, and helps us fund needed social services for residents,” says Mayor Ed Lee, a reference in part to the millions of meals provided to the homeless last year (this year’s focus is on books) and the hundreds of millions raised for the University of California-San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital (from both Dreamfest concert benefits as well as Benioff’s checkbook).
Many large corporations stage conferences to tout products to its consumer base. Microsoft has Build, Apple has its Worldwide Developers Conference. That said, few confabs seem to boast the almost dizzying scope of Dreamforce.
While many sessions indeed will be dedicated to optimizing the 16-year-old company’s sales-focused software, there will also be lectures on mindfulness with actress Goldie Hawn, talks on women’s issues with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and Oprah pal Gayle King, and a blowout rock concert on a pier for 35,000 people with The Killers, Gary Clark, Jr., and the Foo Fighters.
“It’s TED Talks meets Davos (World Economic Forum) meets Woodstock,” says Elizabeth Pinkham, who has helmed every Dreamforce to date. She and her team also attend Hollywood events such as the Grammy Awards to inject what Benioff calls “a sense of being at a cultural movement” into Dreamforce.
Under the direction of CEO Marc Benioff, Salesforce's annual Dreamforce conference is increasingly becoming San Francisco's dominant tech industry confab. (USA TECH, USA TODAY)
One new attendee is Satya Nadella, the first Microsoft CEO to make a prominent appearance. He spearheaded a 2014 partnership between the companies, and his recent visits with Benioff launched numerous reports that Microsoft was offering $55 billion for Salesforce, which Benioff rejected.
Nadella says he will focus his Sept. 16 keynote address on changing nature of work due to growing collaborations between big software companies, as well as the transformative power of today’s big-data feedback loops.
“Marc is a larger than life character who thinks broadly, and that’s admirable in the multi-constituent world we now live in,” says Nadella. “I’ve learned from him, and I look forward to seeing how Dreamforce reflects his progressive mission.”
Although it’s easy to see an event such as Dreamforce as the business version of bacchanalian romps staged by Roman emperors, the event plays a vital role not only as a customer retention and recruitment tool but also as a fiscal thermometer for Wall Street.
“Dreamforce is the only time the Street gets to interact with vendors and partners, and get insights, positive or negative, into spending trends and product absorption,” says Daniel Ives, an analyst with FBR Capital Markets.
“There’s lots of pomp, but that’s what’s needed to bring people together. Cloud computing is white hot, and this is a 360-degree view of how customers view this vendor for the coming year,” he says.
For his part, Benioff says Dreamforce is a “critical part of Salesforce, because the energy that’s created at an event like this serves as an accelerant for the company.”
That’s why over the course of two hours – during which he gets up only a few times, once to let in an ocean breeze and other to get a cup of yogurt with fruit – Benioff hammers away on a range of issues.
During Salesforce's annual customer confab, Dreamforce, some 150,000 are expected to descend on San Francisco, filling hotel rooms (and cruise ship suites), cabs, Ubers and open spaces with speaker events and concerts. In this session from 2014, founder Marc Benioff addresses the crowd. (Photo: Jessica Lifland, Jakub Mosur Photography)
He’s worried about hecklers at the mindfulness sessions (“Someone always has something to say at those things”), curious about magician David Blaine’s plan (“He says he might want to appear outside patients’ windows at the hospital, can he do that?”), and wondering if one cruise ship is enough (“Can we get two for next year?”).
Benioff also checks in his Salesforce.org president, Suzanne DiBianca, who reports a nearly 20% jump over last year in the number of attendees from non-profits (10,000 expected), including schoolkids who will be on hand to take coding classes.
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A good deal of the meeting at Benioff’s expansive home is dedicated to Trailhead, the name of customer-training tools for Salesforce products. Benioff is fired up about the National Parks-themed vibe of the product, and asks whether employees could don park ranger hats.
There’s a bit of I’ll-check-on-that murmuring from his team. Then one exec says that perhaps Benioff could make a surprise guest appearance at the Trailhead pavilion with a man dressed in a bear suit.
“A bear suit?” Benioff asks. “How about a live bear?”
There’s lots of laughter – but not from Benioff.
From where he sits, if the sales-building extravaganza that is Dreamforce were to feature a bear, it would most certainly be a real one.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Marco della Cava @marcodellacava .