What a tour of San Francisco startups reveals about the future of marketing

From virtual reality to bots, Marketing Week explores the latest advances in the world of technology and marketing.

San Francisco is home to many of the world’s most famous disruptor brands, including the likes of Uber, Fitbit, Pinterest and Twitter. While out in San Francisco at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference, we went on a tour of some of the next-generation of startups to find out what the future of tech and marketing has in store.

Taking VR to the next level

First on the agenda was Leap Motion, which put simply, creates virtual reality (VR) experiences. The company, which was founded in 2010, aims to scale up virtual reality’s power and “break down barriers between people and tech”.

According to the startup, the ways in which virtual reality technology is used “hasn’t increased in power”, and so it hopes to take VR to the next level by adding a user’s hands into the equation.

Leap Motion’s tech works as follows: the individual wearing the headset is transported into a virtual world where they can still see their own hands. They can subsequently interact with various elements presented in the virtual space – from creating different shapes by pinching their fingers together to stacking blocks, pushing things over and even turning off gravity, which leads all shapes to float through the air.

“Without using your hands in VR, you end up as a disembodied avatar. The minute you put hands in there, you can interact. This is extremely powerful,” said Caleb Kruse, chief of staff at Leap Motion.

“What touchscreen became for smartphones, hands will become for VR.”

Caleb Kruse, chief of staff, Leap Motion

He believes VR’s ultimate goal is for people to be able to wear a headset and “not feel like they’re transported into a 3D movie”, but instead that they’re physically present in the virtual environment. The company hopes the tech will be adopted by schools, healthcare professionals and even more mainstream sectors such as fashion or travel.

He explained: “Even if our tech becomes more powerful, what really matters is how we can use it. [Our technology means] people can interact with a virtual world in a more natural way. This is what’s next for VR, where you can interact with the world. We’re even starting to do it on mobile phones.”

Rise of the bots

Next on the agenda was Slack. When interviewed earlier this year, the brand’s CMO Bill Macaitis admitted he faced a big problem when he started his role – the startup’s own staff did not have a coherent idea what the company actually does.

It is easy to see why it might be difficult to define Slack. It aims to replace email, but as a service it tailors its messaging based on who it is talking to and their level of knowledge. But at the most basic level, Slack can be described as a messaging app for teams that aims to make people’s working lives “simpler, more pleasant and more productive”.

Slack’s head of product marketing Kelly Watkins talks about the brand’s benefits.

The start-up, which was valued at $2.8bn (£2.3bn) earlier this year, has also opened up its platform for developers to build their apps into Slack’s system. The brand currently boasts 10,000 registered developers, with more than 600 apps in its directory. Slack also holds an $80m (£65m) fund to invest in apps.

Going forward, however, a major focus for the business is bots, which it currently uses to educate consumers on its different features.

Read More: What brands should consider before jumping on Facebook’s chatbots

“We believe in-product communication is a great way for consumers to learn [about what we do]. We launched our own ‘Slackbot’, which will help answer any questions by pulling content from the help centre,” said Kelly Watkins, head of product marketing at Slack.

But it also sees wider use cases for bots. Other brands on Slack are steadily adopting bots to improve their business performance, while news outlet BuzzFeed has reportedly hired a developer whose sole focus is to build bots that work with Slack and CNN uses its ‘Chartbeat’ bot so it can have constant insight into how its articles are performing.

“We are trying to lead a bot revolution.”

Kelly Watkins, head of product marketing, Slack

“Lots of brands are building bots to take away certain stress elements in people’s jobs. For example, you could use a bot to do your expense reports. When they’re for work, they can play a big role in your life. But building bots with real intelligence is hard – it’s not an easy thing to do.”

Stripe co-founder John Collison addresses journalists during the Salesforce Innovation Tour.
Stripe co-founder John Collison addresses journalists during the Salesforce Innovation Tour.

The future of ecommerce

The last stop on the tour was Stripe. It brands itself as a “developer-oriented commerce company” aiming to help small and large companies accept web and mobile payments.

The startup, valued at $5bn (£4bn) hopes to overcome one of the internet’s hardest tasks: accepting money from customers. The 20-something founders started Stripe to “fix this incomplete part of internet infrastructure and grow the internet’s GDP”.

Read More: Three brand benefits of working with startups

Irish co-founder John Collison explained: “Stripe abstracts away traditional payment hurdles. We keep coming back to the questions: What is holding online commerce back? What does it need?”

As a result, the company has formed partnerships with Apple Pay, Amazon, Facebook, Pinterest, Visa and Mastercard and produced developer-orientated products to increase brands’ ecommerce abilities.

Collison added that many companies aren’t equipped to deal with online business. With only 5% of consumer spending done online, he claims this has created a ‘chicken and egg’ situation for many businesses.

“Brands say the [online] market isn’t big enough, so they don’t invest and it doesn’t take off. It’s a weird chicken and egg effect.”

John Collison, co-founder, Stripe

“Our business approaches this problem differently. It’s important to build the right tech platform first, focus on developers and then find the right partners.”

When it comes to legacy businesses playing catch-up, one of Stripe’s investment partners Keith Rabois said they often struggle as they can’t attract the right talent.

He explained: “Goldman Sachs launched an app this year that allows consumers to borrow money. They are essentially competing with local startups. And it looks like something out of the 1980s. No first class designer would want to work for the legacy players – they will always lose out to the Apples or Stripes of the world.”

Collison added: “Mobile banking apps are often the standard for bad app design. Traditional companies also need to understand that when you move into the online world, the competitive set you’re working with is much larger – you’re competing on a global scale. Companies that don’t internalise this fast enough will get into trouble.”

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