Pando

At Dreamforce, Marc Benioff attempts the impossible: Making Travis Kalanick seem folksy

By Dan Raile , written on September 17, 2015

From The Travis Shrugged Desk

You have to hand it to Marc Benioff.

The Salesforce CEO is not satisfied with changing the laws of geography: Dropping a temporary city of his own within the borders of the existing city of San Francisco this week as the annual Dreamforce conference swells to 160,000 attendees.

Nor is he happy simply reconfiguring the rules of time: Delivering his “opening keynote” address some 36 hours after his conference had begun.

On Wednesday morning, Benioff attempted his most incredible feat yet: Softening the image of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, live on stage before a crowd of tens of thousands. Eat your heart out David Blaine.  

Still, acting as Kalanick’s PR spokesperson was the least Benioff could do -- Uber is a Salesforce customer after all, and Benioff strives above all else to keep his customers happy. A knack Kalanick himself is yet to pick up.

The two Great Men took the stage at Moscone Center first thing Wednesday, hours before Benioff’s official opening keynote, and wasted no time presenting the uncritical alternate history of Uber, and conjuring an alternate Kalanick, and broadcasting these from two jumbotrons set in the middle of a closed-off section of city street. Themes were reprised from Kalanick's continuing tour of public image rehabilitation. 

Where did the idea for UberPOOL, where riders share an Uber ride, come from? Why, it’s simply a logical extension of the company’s founding vision, not a good idea Lyfted from a competitor.

Why have Uber and Kalanick received so much negative press?

“If you’re a black box, and you’re not going out and telling your story, then people fill that box with whatever will get clicks,” Kalanick said.

“Learning what it’s like to be a bigger company is the biggest thing in my personal growth. I’m still that same guy. It’s how I grew up, my parents always told me “actions speak louder than words.””

Apparently the image problems can be chalked up to Kalanick’s reluctance to brag about all the good Uber does for the world.

“In Europe right now there are all these migrants, we are doing something… moving supplies and clothes and things those migrants need. We are just doing that… We do these things at the local level everyday, with UberMILITARY for people coming back from war. When there is a storm we donate to the Red Cross. This Christmas season guess what, our drivers will again bring toys to kids. We do it all the time, we just don’t announce it. It’s just part of what we do.”

When he talks about Uber’s “moving supplies” to migrants, he is referring to UberGiving, the company’s partnership with charity groups in Europe to provide free collection, by Uber drivers, of donated clothes books and toys. Those donations will either be sent directly to migrants, or sent to charity stores for resale, depending on Uber's local partners' operation. The free collection offer lasted for around eight hours last Wednesday, with collection rides during that time paid for by Uber. The actual distribution of the donated items is handled by the partner charities.  When asked by IBT, Uber would not disclose how many drivers took part in the collection drive.

Kalanick also revealed that he was in the process of creating something he calls his “philosophy of work.”

“What you do should be more than just work. It should matter, it should be something you believe in. You have to have heart.”

Inspiring stuff.

Benioff helped Kalanick along a good deal, prefacing questions with talking-point statements such as “you’re an incredibly empathetic person…” and “it sounds like there is a lot of focus on making the driver successful and making sure that driving is a good experience…”

For his part, Kalanick seemed well-coached (if nervous, his leg bouncing and hands restless throughout the talk): he used female pronouns when referring to riders (he used male pronouns to refer to drivers, but always referred to them as “partners”), availed himself of the politicians’ favorite plural noun (folks), and constantly circled back to his primary talking points (reliability! affordability!)

He even borrowed a page from the Benioff book by transforming a statement of incredible market ambition (formerly, Greed) into one of devotion to the public good.

“When I look down from the top of a building, and see all the cars, I ask: why aren’t those all Ubers?”

“If they were, the world would be a better place. If all those cars were Ubered, there would be no traffic. What could you do with the time you saved? You could donate that time to your community, your family, yourself,” he said.

It was an impressive spectacle -- albeit one which raised the obvious question: Why is the CEO of the most highly valued private company in Silicon Valley history going to such lengths to foster a cuddly, positive image? If one didn’t know better, one would guess that Kalanick is positively embattled. One might even suppose that, while Kalanick’s body walked off stage in San Francisco, his mind had already wandered to another event that was just getting started on the other side of the country. More on that here, from Pando’s Sarah Lacy.  

Benioff, for his part, has moved on to his next challenge, the one that will occupy him for the remainder of the week: making enterprise sales software seem sexy, and thereby raising the profile of Salesforce to the top rung of tech companies.

I’ll be here all week, keeping you posted on his progress.

To be continued….