It's starting to feel a little bit normal again for us.
That’s the assessment from a clearly bouyant Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, fresh from delivering the keynote address to this week’s real world Dreamforce event that is itself a return to form.
A couple of years ago, it was just Benioff, his now co-CEO Bret Taylor and a bush on video, while last year the firm managed a hugely health-conscious, mostly outdoors gathering of around 1000 people.
But this year, things are, as he says, a bit more normal. The conference might not boast the attendee numbers that it did pre-COVID, but there’s still around 40,000 people here on the ground in San Francisco, where the Moscone conference center hallways are once again buzzing and there is a tangible spark in the air.
It is, declares Benioff, “the most important Dreamforce ever”. That’s not a pitch that the firm came up with itself, he adds. Prior to every Dreamforce, Benioff and his team head out to road test the keynote on focus groups of customers. The ‘most important’ line came from one such focus group, he explains:
Bret and I have been on the road for several weeks, talking to people and trying to get dialled in, because we're rolling out a lot of new technology to them, so we're listening to them and and trying to explain what we're doing. Then one of our key MVPs [Most Valuable Professionals] said to us, 'You don't understand - this is the most important Dreamforce ever!' and all of [the group] really resonated with that.
The first time
At time of writing, it’s only Day One of the three day gathering, but there is a lot of excitement and it’s not just coming from seasoned Dreamforce goers, finally able to get back together with others in the Ohana once again. One of the most startling moments in the keynote came when Benioff asked how many people were here for their first Dreamforce. There were a lot of virgins who put their hands up.
And that’s not just the case among customers, Benioff says:
One of my big takeaways is we have a lot of new people here…We have a lot of new customers here. I was really surprised. Yesterday, when we did an employee event, we were really surprised by how many of our employees had never been to Dreamforce because we basically doubled our employee base over the course of the pandemic. So for a lot of folks just, this is their first Dreamforce.
There’s another demographic observation of note, he goes on:
A lot of our customers have brought very large teams. You'll find quite a few customers who have teams with more than 100 people here, which has been a big surprise for us.
Perhaps that ought not to be that surprising given comments made by both Salesforce and others in the tech sector of late to the effect that buying cycles have extended as organizations take more time to jump through all the approval hoops in the evaluation and procurement process. Are these larger teams perhaps indicative of a more wary decision-making environment as the Vaccine Economy takes shape?
Benioff has strong views on this idea, insisting that the buying environment is robust and the relevance of Salesforce has never been higher. Customers need these solutions to be successful, he argues. But COVID casts a long shadow:
We just went through two years [where] there was a fever. Not just a fever from the virus, but a buying fever. People were buying exhaustively. You can really see it in the e-commerce numbers. We've seen these big e-commerce charts that looked like [sharp upwards rises]
But if you connect the e-commerce graph from 10 years ago to today, you can actually see this kind of very steady ‘up-and-to-the-right’ motion. When you do data modelling, what I do is I always throw away the bottom number, and I always throw away the top number. I think that's kind of how you have to look at all of these markets and all of these products.
A reset is now happening, he adds:
What we went through over the last two years was obviously completely different than anything that any of us had been through. But now we have to kind of go back to where we were and connect the dots. It's still ‘up-and-to-the-right’, the markets are still bigger, the companies are still bigger, everything is still bigger. But there was definitely some overage that's going to have to be dealt with. I don't think anyone will disagree with that theory. It's all in the numbers. So there'll be some level of normalization, which is we're absorbing all the liquidity, we're absorbing all of the buying, we're absorbing all the hiring.
Salesforce’s own hiring is a case in point, he suggests:
Like I said, yesterday we had this employee meeting, and we're like, 'Stand up if you haven't been to Dreamforce' and the whole room stood up! I think that that's kind of a metaphor for really the whole world in a way. That is, everybody's kind of changed musical chairs in the last couple years. A lot of companies have shifted. We've been through a lot. We went through the Great Relocation, the Great Resignation, the Great Renegotiation with ourselves, with our families and with our employees. I don't think that’s rhetoric. I think it's actually quite real.
And now we're coming into our new day...and now that we're in the new day, it's a normalization from where we were two-and-a-half years ago, to where we are now, and then to where we're going.
What Dreamforce will show is that there is still a lot of business underway, he predicts:
This show is fully untethered, it's completely open and everything is transparent. Nobody's holding anything back. You can go to any session, you can talk to any customer, you can talk to any executive, you can do any interview, you can do any survey - it's all 100% transparent. I think that what you'll find is there's a lot of activity in this market and there's a lot of companies growing and it's very exciting.
That doesn't mean that there's not some things in the macro that we're going to have to pay attention to. I think that psychologically, we like to all think of ourselves as not connected to the macro. I don't want to think of ourselves as connected to the macro. But the reality is, we're all connected. We're all connected together, and we're all connected to the macro and together, we are the macro. I think we need to keep that in mind.
These are lessons that will need to be learned, but there will be a shift back to “a more normal, healthy, naturalized environment” over time, he predicts:
Everyone is re-assessing their lives and we're still going through it. It's not like some door closed and you had two years to reassess your life and if you didn't do it, now it's too late. It's like no, the pandemic is kind of over, but the reality is it's been a mass trauma for a lot of people. We've gone through this mass trauma on a global scale, and now we're in recovery and it's kind of like we have a little bit of post-traumatic stress disorder from the virus...I think we exited that [pandemic] period, and now folks are still re-evaluating their life.
What's really important is to make decisions that make them happier. People should do what makes them happy, and they should do less of what makes them unhappy.
What makes Benioff happy is clearly being back on the ground surrounded by his Ohana. There was a positively ‘Tiggerish’ bounce in his cloud sneakered step during the keynote as he bantered with co-CEO Taylor - a partnership that’s visibly enormously positive for both men - and donned bunny rabbit ears in a running gag about the firm’s latest mascot, Genie. (I’ll be catching up with Taylor on Thursday.) This week may not be a complete return to normality, but, to borrow his words, it’s definitely ‘up-and-to-the-right’.
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