The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
Dreamforce is an annual 200,000-person conference for users of a product called Salesforce, a piece of software that helps companies organize their sales data. “It’s kind of like a music festival but for customer relationship management nerds,” says Nikhil Sonnad, a journalist who attended the event in San Francisco a couple of years back. “You have thousands of people walking by with their Salesforce backpacks and their Salesforce shirts and their Salesforce hats and their lanyards.”
The most recent Dreamforce was held virtually because of COVID, but in past years it’s been a real rager. Dreamforce also includes some other slightly incongruous elements. Metallica performed at the 2018 event. “There’s this monk station where you can go hang out with these monks and they’ll give you advice or you just meditate there,” Sonnad recalls. “The monks are in this special monk zone.”
Hundreds of thousands of attendees, heavy metal bands, monks, all coming together to pay tribute to Salesforce. But what is Salesforce? Even after he’d attended the conference, Sonnad wasn’t totally sure: “I just became overwhelmed by the jargon that was just constantly being thrown at me. And I couldn’t really understand, and I couldn’t really get people to explain it to me in nonjargon terms.”
This is in fact a big part of the appeal of Dreamforce for its attendees: It’s a gathering where you can revel in this thing that’s totally bewildering to everyone else. “They all have this vision for what Salesforce is and can be, and they have this shared idea that it’s the coolest thing in the world, but nobody they talk to understands why that’s the case,” Sonnad says. “And so they all get together and they just have this grand moment of collective celebration of this thing.”
Salesforce is B2B software. It’s for companies, not consumers. It’s software for customer relationship management. And if you’re like me, your eyes sort of glaze over when you hear the phrase customer relationship management. But Salesforce is absolutely massive. It’s a crucial part of the infrastructure of American business. It likely touches your life in all sorts of ways you don’t even realize. It’s also getting bigger, making tons of acquisitions. Salesforce recently spent almost $28 billion to buy Slack, the workplace chat app.
At the helm of Salesforce is a man named Marc Benioff. He owns Time magazine. He’s been throwing his weight around politically for a while now, going to Davos, supporting various liberal causes. Some think he might eventually run for mayor of San Francisco, but he’s still strangely under the radar in some ways. A lot of people who’ve heard of Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos have never heard of Marc Benioff.
Benioff is about 6-foot-5, a bear of a man with slicked-back hair. He wears a lot of Hawaiian shirts and peppers his speech with Hawaiian words and phrases—he’s owned an estate there for a couple of decades now, and Hawaii is where he came up with the idea to launch Salesforce. Like many a tech billionaire, Benioff hasn’t been satisfied with merely creating a successful company and getting wildly rich from it.
“Benioff is a singular, fascinating person. He loves the stage. He loves being around powerful people,” says Aaron Tilley, a tech reporter at the Wall Street Journal. “I don’t think there’s any doubt he is a man with a big ego, and he needs to be seen.”
Before a company issues an initial public offering, there’s what’s called a quiet period, a time when executives aren’t supposed to say anything substantive about the company. While Salesforce was in the quiet period before its IPO in 2004, Benioff gave an extensive interview to the New York Times during which, among other things, he repeatedly ridiculed a competitor. The Securities and Exchange Commission ended up delaying the IPO. Benioff couldn’t even keep quiet during the quiet period.
Since then, he’s bought Time magazine and slapped his company’s name on the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco. He never misses a chance to schmooze at Davos. He’s the central figure of every Dreamforce conference—the garrulous MC, spouting quasi-spiritual platitudes and encouraging people to meditate with the in-house monks.
He can seem ridiculous. But Benioff came up as a sales guy at Oracle, and he remains a sales guy at heart. And what he’s selling, customer relationship management software, is sort of inherently dull. So Benioff spices up his brand with all sorts of tangential mishegoss. Sonnad says there’s a marketing strategy at work here to differentiate Salesforce from its competitors: “The main attempt is to kind of sex up this really unsexy thing. Business-to-business enterprise software is basically more focused on things like security and fault tolerance and not losing data, and so if you’re able to even a little bit make it feel like it’s fun to use or interesting, it’s going to take you far.”
Benioff has also tried to brand Salesforce as a vehicle for good in the world. “He’s really compelled by this idea that doing business well and succeeding at business is a good for society,” Sonnad says. “He believes it pretty strongly, and it informs a lot of what they do. So he’s just taken by this idea that you can sort of infuse business with these humanistic practices and make it a space for human development.”
Benioff’s motto is that business is the greatest platform for change. He’s an advocate for so-called inclusive stakeholder capitalism. And from its inception, Salesforce has preached what it calls the 1-1-1 model, pledging to put 1 percent of its revenue, 1 percent of its product, and 1 percent of its employees’ time toward the good of the community. Benioff is a San Francisco native, and he’s been deeply involved in city politics, vocally supporting causes like the effort to fight homelessness and calling out other Bay Area tech CEOs for not doing enough.
This all seems admirable, but when moral duty and corporate success collide, Benioff hasn’t always chosen the nobler path. In 2018, it came out that U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency responsible for separating immigrant children from their families, was using Salesforce to “manage border activities” and “modernize its recruiting process.” Salesforce came under pressure from inside and outside the company to cancel the contract with CBP.
Benioff tried to defuse the situation by donating $250,000 to RAICES, a nonprofit that provides services to refugees and immigrant families. The group turned down the money, and then Benioff made things much worse. According to a report in the Guardian, Benioff contacted the head of RAICES “to discuss the growing opposition to his firm’s contract—and then backed out of a call at the last minute, saying he was busy with vacation activities, the emails showed. ‘I am sorry I’m actually scuba diving right now,’ Benioff wrote.”
That scuba diving email was not a terrific look, and Salesforce never canceled the CBP contract. Benioff also made a big deal about treating employees right during the COVID pandemic, according to Aaron Tilley: “Early on in the pandemic, he had this 90-days ‘no layoff’ pledge. And, you know, 90 days had passed and he had a great quarter. He called this a victory for stakeholder capitalism. And then the day after [Salesforce reported record sales], he announces a thousand employees are being laid off.” Salesforce has described that move as a reallocation of resources. It says that some of the laid-off workers—Salesforce wouldn’t tell us how many—got rehired in new roles.
But it’s worth asking—especially since Salesforce seems intent on growing ever bigger and becoming the “single source of truth” for its customers—how much of Marc Benioff’s spiritual, do-gooder shtick is genuine, and how much of it is just a clever way to inject some deeper meaning into a product that mostly exists to help companies leverage analytics to improve the throughput of their sales pipeline. Perhaps the 1-1-1 model and the monks and the Hawaiian shirts are all just customer relations management.