Every fall, San Francisco is overrun by tens of thousands of salespeople, entrepreneurs, and techies. Hotels book up months in advance. Restaurants prepare for blocks-long lines. Roads clog with rented cars. For a week every year, the city becomes something almost unrecognizable.

All thanks to Dreamforce.

Over the past 12 years, Salesforce’s annual conference has evolved into a one-of-a-kind spectacle, a star-studded pageant that makes other industry shows look like book clubs. Late-night concerts, industry-shaking announcements, bizarre mascots ‒ Dreamforce is less tradeshow than cultural happening.

But it wasn’t always this way. Like most things, Dreamforce had humble beginnings that gradually gave way to the sales and software circus it is today.

In this post, we look over the last dozen years and trace Dreamforce’s path from industry trade show to all-out festival.

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In the Beginning

When it first launched in 2003, Dreamforce was not much different from other sales and software trade shows. Just over 1,000 people piled into the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco for a preview of the product’s updates as well as presentations on the theme of “Imagination You Can Use.”

Compared to the big names that filled the halls in subsequent years, the speakers at the very first Dreamforce were much closer to the wonk end of the spectrum than the rockstar side: Adam Bosworth, Halsey Minor, David Vaskevitch.

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In recent years, Dreamforce has become a place for product launches, celebrity pitches, and million-dollar competitions, but its inaugural year it stayed pretty by-the-book. Guests to the first event were invited to sessions of hands-on training with Salesforce experts as well as customers demonstrating their own Salesforce integrations.

“It is the goal of salesforce.com to foster open communication between our customers, developers and partners, to spark the imagination, creativity, innovation and collaboration of the salesforce.com community and the software-as-service community as a whole,” CEO Marc Benioff said in the press release announcing the first Dreamforce. While not exactly humble, this quote shows just how much bombast Benioff has added over the intervening decade.

It didn’t take long for Dreamforce to morph into what it has become today. Check out this infographic from 2012 showing the rapid growth (and significant changes) experienced in the first decade of Dreamforce’s existence.

History of Dreamforce

Growing Up

It only took about 5 years for Dreamforce to recognizably become what it is today. In the late aughts, the attendee totals first eclipsed 10,000 and the keynote speakers changed from high-ranking software executives to first-order celebrities like George Lucas and Neil Young.

These weren’t the only changes to Dreamforce, though. The conference experienced significant developments around 2009 and 2010. No longer squishing into relatively small hotel ballrooms, Dreamforce expanded to the much larger Moscone Center in 2005, and continued to add sessions, speakers and spectacles and breakneck speed.

Check out this infographic from Marketo a few years ago to see how things shaped up during Dreamforce’s adolescence:

History of Dreamforce Infographic


The Dreamforce of Today (and Tomorrow)

In the last few years, Dreamforce has truly exploded. This year’s event is expected to draw well over 100,000 attendees and feature the most sessions, speakers and special events so far. In this sense, Dreamforce is a good proxy for the company that hosts it: Everything Salesforce does these days is big. (Hell, their user manual is over 5,000 pages long.)

And in this sense, Dreamforce has finally fully embraced (and in some ways moved beyond) its original mission. Sure, it is still a great place to learn about Salesforce’s updates, features and success stories. But it’s also much more. It’s one of the biggest networking events in the world and a testament to growing power of technology and business software. More than anything else, Dreamforce is a celebration of innovation.

Although its humble beginnings have long since been obscured by the spectacle we see today, Dreamforce still fulfills its original promise of being a place where innovation is prized and direct communication between user and developer is central.

If you’re headed to Dreamforce this year, it’s worth keeping in mind just how much the event has changed in a relatively short period of time. Like software itself, it has moved from the margins of the world to center stage, and become an event in and of itself.

Now it’s time to enjoy the party.

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