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You heard all about Dreamforce 2013 last week. You couldn’t escape the hype even if you tried. The tech conference was so massive in scale that the 135,000 attendees swelled the local San Francisco population by a mind-boggling 15%!

And those 135,000 attendees weren’t just here to rub shoulders with industry professionals, learn best practices at sessions, or check out the buzz on new product launches from Salesforce or on the exhibit floor. All of these were great, but what was really the single one reason that drew all these fanatics to the Moscone Center?

Marc Benioff.

The founder of Salesforce.com has become such an incredibly influential figure, single-handedly bringing these guests to his party. Many of the attendees worship at the altar of Benioff and his company. It’s almost as if Benioff is a leader presiding over a cult of loyal followers.

Now, a cult typically carries with it negative connotations, something touched upon in this scathing article about Marc Benioff. The author – who remained anonymous – expressed some dissenting opinions about Benioff and Dreamforce, including his “self-love, the profligate spending, the phony philanthropy…the bullshit about saving the world.”

Those opinions couldn’t be further from the truth in terms of how we feel about both Benioff and Dreamforce; in fact, we’re huge fans of both! We believe that Benioff has done an incredible job building this “cult” of personality, and it has played a tremendous role in taking  Dreamforce – and by extension, his $30 billion company –  to the level it is at today.

Here are some lessons from Dreamforce 2013 on how to build a (good) cult.

1) Own the room

We already know that Benioff’s followers will follow him to the ends of the Earth…or at least to the Bay Area. But watching him preside as the Master of Ceremonies over his nearly three-hour-long keynote, it was plain to see: Benioff owned the room. He commanded the attention of every single person as he strolled the aisles, waxing on about his beliefs, his company, and the future of cloud computing (hint: it’s mobile connectivity). His mastery of the room is further proof that every great ‘cult leader’ is a fantastic communicator, capable of unifying the masses behind his message. Fortunately, we actually like Benioff’s message and were more than happy to be mesmerized by him.

2) Be a little crazy

It doesn’t hurt that Benioff is just a little out of left field, with a crazy glint in his eye and a history of pot-stirring and bold proclamations: just look at his personal history with Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, for evidence.

Or look at his feet. Marc Benioff has turned the question, “What shoes are Marc wearing this year?” into one of the conference’s hottest topics each year, spurring lots of chatter in the weeks leading up to each Dreamforce. The man is a showman and a marketing genius of the highest order. While other CEOs and keynote speakers are happy to saunter about the stage in plain old black dress shoes, Benioff always goes for the wacky, the flashy, and the memorable. He certainly did not disappoint this year, rocking a pair of multi-colored Christian Louboutin sneakers he endearingly termed “Cloud Walkers.”

3) Be a great party host

Why do cult members love hanging out at their cult events? Because of the great parties, of course! We’re being facetious here, but Benioff certainly knows how to throw kick-ass festivities that has partygoers buzzing, even well after the event. 

For a conference targeted at self-described “nerds”, one could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into a college party. There were renowned DJ’s spinning in every room, keeping the atmosphere festive. Green Day and Blondie brought the house down at AT&T Park. Tired from all that partying and networking? Take a load off at one of the many bean bags strewn about. Say hi to one of the many celebrities – Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, supermodel Petra Nemcova – strolling about. The stuffy, uptight tech conferences of yesteryear are antithetical to what Benioff believes in.

4) Be generous and philanthropic

We want our leaders and mentors to be generous, giving back some of their success and prosperity to the less fortunate. To that philanthropic end, Dreamforce 2013 was an unqualified success.

Benioff spent the first hour of his keynote discussing that very subject. He espoused his company’s “1-1-1” model – donating 1% of Salesforce’s equity, 1% of profits, and 1% of employee hours to charity. Supermodel Petra Nemcova and Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe talked about some of Salesforce’s charitable endeavors, as well as what they had planned on the horizon. All this charitable talk clearly had an impact on the audience; many of them immediately pledged their contributions as well.

The dissenting article we mentioned above cited much of Benioff’s public displays of philanthropy as a publicity stunt of sorts. To which, we counter: “Who cares?!?” If, by taking his philanthropy public – such as by inviting Prime Minister Lamothe up on stage or having a hospital named after him for his $1 million donation – Benioff is able to inspire even one other person to donate, wouldn’t that have been worth it in and of itself? Benioff has been an inspiration to many, including other companies who have pledged their support for the “1-1-1” program as well. To us, philanthropy is always a good thing, and is one of the things that Benioff does best.

5) Create a sense of community

Dreamforce “cult members” came for Benioff, but many of them stay because of the welcoming community that has been fostered there. The Salesforce AppExchange is a perfect example of this community, with thousands of like-minded users creating free apps that each other can use and benefit greatly from. At Dreamforce, Benioff gave out a $1 million Hackathon prize to the team of independent developers who could come up with the best AppExchange app.

Additionally, a new class of Salesforce MVPs was inaugurated at Dreamforce 2013. This is one of Benioff’s greatest creations – Salesforce MVPs are a proud bunch, part of an elite group of Salesforce superusers. Those that are not part of this exclusive club want to make it in, while those who are already members are always more than willing to lend a helping hand to their fellow Salesforce enthusiasts. This sense of community has turned every Dreamforce conference into a reunion of sorts, adding gravitas to the already-anticipated event.

6) Give the people what they want!

If Salesforce and Dreamforce were really all about Benioff’s bluster, celebrity friends and footwear, the event would have fizzled out a long time ago.  No, what the people really want is Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software that makes their lives easier and takes their businesses to the next level. To that end, Benioff continued to deliver at Dreamforce 2013.

The big product announcement at Dreamforce 2013 was the launch of Salesforce1. This new generation platform is all about next-level connectivity, expanding cloud computing into the mobile sphere. Apps were a big deal as well; Salesforce1 allows developers, ISVs and customers to develop and connect apps, unifying all these moving pieces under one huge umbrella. They say that globalization has shrunk the world; Salesforce and Marc Benioff is determined to shrink it – and the businesses operating within it – even further.

 

There were many takeaways from Dreamforce 2013, from the great networking opportunities to the amazing speeches and sessions, from the innovative products and software available everywhere to the grand spectacle of it all. Our biggest takeaway? Marc Benioff has created a cult, one that we are thrilled to be a part of. We’re already looking to celebrating our ever-growing cult at next year’s Dreamforce!

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