Dreamforce16 - Being Benioff - walking with the CEO

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 6, 2016
A walk on the Dreamforce-side with Marc Benioff.

Marc Benioff

Are the monks over there? Let’s go see some monks!

There are moments at every Dreamforce when a reality check is in order - such as when you’re standing in the middle of San Francisco, surrounded by mighty modern buildings, a rock band is playing on a nearby stage and the CEO of Salesforce is about to sit down with a Buddhist nun called Sister Emptiness.

Marc Benioff is a busy, busy man, never more so than at Dreamforce where everyone, but everyone, wants a slice of his time. So I was very pleased when he invited me to accompany him as he toured the Dreamforce campus today. It was a chance to catch up, but in the process, I got some further insight into what makes this man tick.

I’ve known Benioff for over 15 years, but there are still things that surprise. Today was no exception. The intention is to wander across the Dreamforce central area - usually known as Howard Street, one of San Francisco’s busiest thoroughfares, but shut down for the week to play host to the Dreamforce delegates sitting out in the sunshine.

It’s not a long journey, but it becomes apparent that it’s not going to be a quick one either. The aim is to end up touring the expo floor, an ambition that ultimately will not be realised on this trip. But then while a straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, it isn’t always the most interesting.

Quips and distractions

As we walk, we talk about the conference and about the themes running through it and about the industry as a whole, but there are always distractions to catch the eye:

Is that a Quip Ranger?

What’s a Quip Ranger? We’ll come back to that in a bit, but suffice to say for now that it wasn’t such in this case.

Benioff wants to know how the Be a Trailblazer meme of the Dreamforce marketing is going down. I’m of the view that it’s been successful, but ask about comments he made the day before to the effect that it’s too patriarchal. What he means is that there isn’t enough of a sense of community in the term, gesturing a big hug to illustrate his point:

I had this experience when I was on the road that our marketing itself and the way we understand our community and how we look at this, is skewed. After this is over, I will take our marketing people in and I will re-conceptualise our marketing for them. We still have too much of an ‘us and them’ approach internally, versus it’s all one collective. What’s going on and what’s exciting is that these customers all love each other.

We’ve reached the artificial grass that covers Howard Street and Benioff’s taking in the sight of customers playing lawn games, working in deckchairs or bean bags, listening to the band on the open stage and so on. There’s a question for the event organiser:

Do we have a climbing wall?

We don’t. Benioff sounds disappointed. I’ve a suspicion we might have one next year.

Benioff back
First selfie

It’s now that the first selfie happens. Having your picture taken with Marc Benioff is a big deal at Dreamforce. He could probably fill his entire day simply posing for photo opps with eager delegates. As it is, he’s happy to pose, but in the full knowledge that this is going to be a repeated request, his plea is to be quick.

A couple of happy delegates later and we’re back en route for the expo floor. But next up is  a genuine Quip Ranger. A Quip Ranger, for the uninitiated, is someone dressed in a park ranger’s costume, again tying back into the trailblazing meme, who’s handing out tee-shirts and getting delegates to sign up for Quip, the office productivity offering that Salesforce acquired last month.

Benioff is keen to know what the interest level has been in this new venture:

Are people excited by Quip? How many people have you signed up for Quip so far?

The answer is around 7000, it seems.

Wow, very exciting. Thanks very much”

But then, everything is exciting. There have been spoofs in certain media and analyst quarters around the subject of excessive enthusiasm from Benioff. Mildly amusing they may be, but they fundamentally miss the point that Benioff means it - he is genuinely excited.

Quip Ranger at work

He’s curious about everything going on around him at his own conference and eager to know that everyone’s happy. He takes an active role in this. The previous evening he spent a fair slice of time apologising via Twitter to party goers at the Dreamforce U2 concert who were complaining about the problems of getting back from the gig.

The enthusiasm is infectious it seems. A second Quip Ranger sneaks a photograph - this is the Selfie Tour - and is met with the question:

How’s it going being a Quip Ranger? What have you learned about the company and the product?

The Ranger looks ecstatic at being asked:

Oh it’s amazing. It’s such a great tool. I think I’m going to get rid of Google Docs and switch over to this one.

That’s the right answer:

Oh awesome, well done.

As we move on, I ask if this is the response he expected. It seems it is, based on his conversations with customers on a pre-Dreamforce tour to road-test the keynote messages:

What came out of the tour was that customers were way more excited about Quip than we realised. We always knew the company was great and the CEO was great, but we didn’t realise that the customers were going to have this, like, emotional reaction to it.

It’s a reaction to the product, they love the product. They have a huge pain point internally in that office productivity has not been satisfied in the organization, which was a surprise. We showed it to customers integrated with Salesforce and that was a big surprise.

Wasn’t Office365 integrated with Salesforce supposed to be the solution though? Benioff doesn’t miss a beat:

Yes, but the problem with that is that it is still not the level of what customers want. As an example, on your phone, if you try to use Office 365 on your phone, it’s not any good. That’s the painpoint customers are having to solve. The mobile experience of Quip is phenomenal. There is still a long distance for us to go.

Monastic mindfulness

There’s a relatively short distance for us to go to get to the show floor at this point, but now we’ve arrived at the monks. There is a small area outside of the conference hall that has been turned into a mindfulness area, hosted by monks who come from the Plum Village Buddhist meditation center in France.

Benioff points out to me an elderly lady in robes sitting among the traditional jeans and hoodie-clad tech conference goers. This is Sister Emptiness and she’s been a nun since 1963, before Benioff or I were born. As I said above, it’s slightly surreal, but it works. It totally and utterly works.

It’s also been a big success. The Sister has had a crowd around her all morning, while a guided meditation session earlier in the day attracted the kind of numbers that might not have made the fire officers entirely happy.

The monks are as pleased to see Benioff as he is to see them:

Thank you for joining us. We are so glad to see you. Thank you for allowing us to create this space. Everyone is just so touched.

Mindfulness is a big deal for Benioff. He’s ordered the creation of mindfulness and meditation zones in all the Salesforce offices around the world for employees to find some downtime and inner peace:

Mindfulness and meditation are going be far more important skills for everybody to have because we live in an always on world now. Twenty-years ago, mindfulness and meditation were also important, but everybody didn’t have a phone and everything was not always on. Now, more than ever, you need that time to open up and take a break and relax. This is increasingly important. As we get more and more connected, as human beings we need this ability to stop.

And he’s brought that to Dreamforce, telling the monks:

Normally this is not the vibe that’s going on right here. These people [at the show] will all leave with this experience. You’re going to touch a lot of people. They’re not surprised to find you here. This is Salesforce, they just expect to have a monk around or a nun.

For their part, the monks see being here as a great opportunity for their own growth and outreach. Their sincerity is tangible, as Brother Phap Dung tells me:

This is making us look at our own community a little differently after meeting Marc and Salesforce. The Monastics are becoming kind of like a company. We are in the business of helping to spread kindness. That’s our product - kindness, generosity, peace even, peace of mind. It is like a company, the way that people come and learn mindfulness and we need to take care of them.

Our teacher has always wanted us to engage, but how to do that without losing ourselves? There can be a lot of success, but the burn out is there, the emptiness, that is what we are learning. This is something with the Monastics as well. You can be a monk for ten years, but if you don’t protect what we call a mind of love, then you can be empty as well.

In a way there is a parallel world I see that Marc is coming from with Salesforce and us engaging in that. And they are helping us to run our business a little bit better. We’re getting trained. We’re not very savvy yet, but it’s something very interesting in the relationship.

Yes, the monks are also Salesforce users.

In a strange co-incidence, Dung and Benioff have discovered that they went to the same college, but the journey to Dreamforce began when the latter invited the Monastics teacher to his house to meet with other CEOs. Dung tells me:

Anywhere there is good intention, we will go and support. I remember Marc telling us to come down from the top floor. We were relaxing on his couch - you know how monks are very lazy - and he comes up and tells us, ‘Hey you guys, there’s a bunch of billionaires and millionaires down there, go down and talk to them and help them out and maybe they can help to change the world’. I see that his heart is like that, that he wants to help. If you already have success, spread it. That’s why we are here.

Before we move on, Benioff wants to speak with and pay his respects to Sister Emptiness, which results in some very personal exchanges that affirm that this aspect of Dreamforce and of the wider Salesforce culture is something genuine.

Benioff and Sister Emptiness

I watch as Benioff and the elderly nun chatter away to one another and it’s difficult to judge whose grin is the bigger. Benioff explains to her about Dreamforce and the live streaming of the event, telling her that 15 million people might be watching her online when she’s on the conference stage the next day.

What’s interesting while all this is going on is that, although a crowd has gathered, there’s a peacefulness and respect in the mindfulness area. There’s no-one asking for selfies at this point.

Or at least there isn’t until Benioff turns the tables and decides that it’s time for him to have a photograph with Sister Emptiness. But he’s not getting away with that without all the monks crowding around excitedly to be in shot.

That done, we make our way onwards. Benioff’s assistant is getting concerned at the time as he needs to attend a meeting at the Executive Summit upstairs.

So the show floor trip is postponed and we make our way up to the top floor of the conference center. En route, Benioff points out the advertising banners hanging from the ceiling with a frown:

You see those banners? We take one person and a quote and a logo. Bad. Never again. We will never do that again. We are a community but we don’t market the community. We’re only marketing individuality, but we’re not about individuality. We are about family. We have the family spirit, like we’re all on a family camping trip. We need to bring it together.

We enter the Executive Summit area, also bedecked out like a wildlife trail, but with some ornate national park-style furnishings for the C-suite executives to network in comfort. Benioff’chuckles:

Oh my god,  it’s like a lodge.

And it is. With that, it’s time to get back to business as Benioff has to go and meet with the CEO of General Motors. I make my farewells and wander back out across the campus. The monks are doing their thing, a different band is playing and ‘the family’ is at peace with itself.

This has been Dreamforce. And that’s a wrap.

Image credit - Stuart Lauchlan

Disclosure - At time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.

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