Beyond communication, Slack wants to become the operating system for the future of work

Kevin McSpadden, 22 Nov, 2017

For many businesses, on-boarding Slack is a “can’t go back” moment — especially for older workers who still have nightmares of untangling hundred-page-long email chains just to figure out what steps to take. The collaboration tool Slack has turned these email chains into “channels” and turned the process into a discussion, rather than the multiple simultaneous one-to-one conversations.

Last Friday, the company localised its app for Japan — its third-largest market in the world — making it the first Asian country to have a Slack product built specifically for its language and culture. The company had previously localised the product in French, German and Spanish.

In a conversation with e27, Slack Co-founder and CTO Cal Henderson explained that this localisation process took about a year. The company had to build the infrastructure, hire customer support staff and keep the Slack personality in Japanese.

“We try and have a very particular voice that is playful but still not in a way that would be too weird in a workplace…[and it can be] very hard to translate. [It is hard] to actually figure out how the personality we have in english maps onto a different language but has the same meaning in Japanese,” he said.

Henderson did say that the next languages will move more quickly.

More importantly, the interview provided and opportunity to learn about Slack’s vision for the future, where it is heading as a company and how it overcomes specific challenges.

The key takeaway: The Slack team sees a fundamental shift in how information workers operate. Rather than a single vendor (Oracles, Microsoft or IBM) facilitating the transfer of documents and information, today’s workers use multiple products to perform niche tasks.

Slack wants to become the operating system for this kind of work. It wants to become Windows10 or macOS, but to facilitate a company’s Zendesk records, Salesforce leads or even book a ride home (In the US, users can book Lyft rides straight from Slack).

Below is an edited excerpt from the interview with e27. We hope you enjoy!

How do you find the balance between features to help users versus distracting them?

I don’t think that’s a question we specifically ask ourselves but it raises an interesting point. We have tried to make Slack enjoyable to use, so that means inserting a bit of playful culture into the workplace. That definitely has been part of what makes Slack successful. Now there is a fine line between fun and forced enjoyment and different cultures find different things fun. We want Slack to be an amplifier of internal culture. So you can crystallise some amount of culture of your team in how you communicate in Slack.

The primary way it differs from email is email by default is one-to-one. Slack is by default in a channel. So in an email, we have some back and forth, we are making a decision, that decision is made, and all of that communication goes to die in the black hole of our inbox and it’ll probably never be seen again.

In Slack, we might have exactly the same discussion and come to the same conclusion but there are colleagues directly on our team, or adjacent teams, who have a more ambient awareness of what is going on. Not just the decision that was made, but the context around it and the information around it. Who was involved, who and when it happened. So you get that sense of being more connected and being more involved in your team.

What about the decision to integrate Giphy? Because I personally think that’s secretly the reason you’re so successful. I just want to know the background of how that happened.

We didn’t build that integration ourselves. Giphy built it and I really wish the giphy integration was really good.

But that’s why it is amazing! Because it’s bad.

[Chuckles]. Yeah, the serendipity of what you get when you type in random phrases. 25 per cent of the time it matches what you say, and the rest of the time they just select from a bank of randomly funny things.

Giphy is a very popular integration and when we were first building the product, we knew we wanted to build this platform to let [employees]integrate with all the different tools that people use for work.

We hadn’t necessarily thought of all the things that aren’t work tools but are important for the way people work and how they interact.

We weren’t planning for Giphy when we built it, but we ended up building the surface area and capabilities that meant Giphy could integrate in an interesting way. They managed to capture a way that teams were communicating. Attaching funny pictures email was not invented by Giphy, but they streamlined it in Slack.

What are you doing with the enterprise stuff? It seems like you are making a play towards that? You described yourself as an enterprise software, but this feels more like, and you might hate me saying this, a Microsoft strategy.

Many of our customers are really large companies. So when we first launched the product, before we came out of beta, our first early adopters were other companies like us in Silicon Valley. Small tech teams we could convince to use the product.

When we were first getting our first users to try the product, it was a real uphill battle.

Slack as a product is quite differerent from a lot of other consumer software because there is no benefit in just using it yourself. You can’t just try it. You have to convince a whole team to try it at the same time. So that was quite tough.

But quite quickly we saw it get adopted into other roles in verticals. A lot of media early on, but like sales, finance, operations and across all kinds of scales of companies. We have customers with tens or hundreds of thousands of users on their slack instances.

That’s not as visible because its the people at small companies who talk a lot about Slack.

In January this year we launched our enterprise grid product which is a version of our product that works with tens of thousands of employees.

There are the set of product changes that make sense in very large organisations. If there are 400 people names Mark Smith, you need a way to navigate who those people are and easily navigate what department they work in. Also, manage channels where there will be 50,000 people.

Those are the user-facing features, but then there is a lot more security, information and compliance features. How do you manage an organisation of 250,000 people on Slack? You have delegations, authority, but then how to you meet their compliance controls? Security procedures.

So our investment will be two-fold. Partly on the product front that making a product that works increasingly well for the world’s largest teams, and also making sure we are meeting those administrative requirements for very large companies.

Are you going to become more AI-heavy? And how might that look?

I think what we are starting to see is after the promise of AI had been oversold and underdelivered machine learning is starting to have some actual practical benefits. We are very excited the future of that for Slack. We’ve rolled out some small product features over the last year that we are starting to invest in.

What’s an example?

Message highlights is one of those. So we look at the behaviour of each user — messages they read and click-on, reply to, react to, topics they talk about. We can say, for you specifically, the way you use slack, here are the messages you will find important. So we will highlight those in a different colour. We do that by looking at the behaviour of everything around you.

What do you think when people say Slack contribute to my “always on” work culture?

I think that is definitely a danger, especially in the sense that Slack is a tool that amplifies the culture of how your team communicates. It can amplify both the negatives as well as the positives.

Because there is a shift in workplace communications towards channels, but it’s still very early, there is still a lot for people to understand about how to use a new tool. That is always a struggle when any new technology is adopted, how we use it sensiblly and for benefit as opposed to negatively.

There is a lot we can do on the product side to support that, like a do-not-disturb sign after-hours so you don’t get a push notification when someone messages you. I think a lot of this is learned cultural norm of how to use it within a specific organisation.

Is there really an expectation that someone should reply immediately or is it fine to leave things until later?

It’s interesting, we went through the same thing with e-mail. In a company, people would have read receipts with e-mail so people knew when someone had read the message. So then people would avoid reading the message so that people wouldn’t know they read the message and be like “why haven’t you responded?”

It takes time to figure out how any new technology, especially a mode of communication, works within a team.

Facebook made their Workplace play to compete fairly directly with you. What is your strategy to compete with them?

They are a fairly different product and we do have some customers that use both. It’s great for teams to socialise but we aren’t seeing people do their work on Facebook, which is the market we are aiming for.

What we are concentrating on as a company is can we deliver the best possible product? So the way we are trying to stay ahead is by delivering a really compelling product that people find useful and makes their working lives more productive.

At this point we have almost four years listening to customers. Tens of thousands of email exchanges, tens of thousands of tweets. Those are four years of talking to customers, doing research and seeing how a tool like Slack can be used to help companies work better.

Slack is becoming a bit more of a recreational messaging app in certain uses. Is there any energy put behind that in the company?

I have a Slack channel with my wife where we have the shopping list channel, a vacation planning channel, a stuff we need to do around the house channel. While that is a very common use case, we are definitely not concentrated on improving that aspect of the product.

It is definitely useful for our growth and adoption because if you use it with a group of friends and they take it to their company that is great for us. But in terms of specific features or marketing it’s just not something we are going after. We are trying to be very clearly focussed on improving it for the use of work teams.

What are some medium and long-term plans?

I think it’s a continuation of a lot of the things we’ve done this year. Working with larger and larger customers to understand the needs of a tool like Slack. Really listening to our customers and looking at our users and understanding what the pain points are.

Can we continue to integrate with all of the tools that a company uses? Especially if we look at a place like Japan, it’s an overlapping Venn diagram, but there are a lot of unique tools as with any unique region.

[For example] There is an integration to book a Lyft via Slack, but there is no version of that with Grab.

We want to make sure we are building the right kind of surface area to make sure those integrations, those apps, continue to grow that and make sure each of them is more valuable and more beneficial to our users.

I was avoiding the angle because it has been written about, but it’s the ‘twice-pivot’ angle. Do you have any advice for how to pivot?

I wouldn’t say what we’ve done is  a model that anybody should follow. It has happened twice, but a two-points trend line is a bad one to extrapolate from. I think they have both been very lucky timing and a lot of factors have come together.

But the actual useful takeaway is in everything we’ve done we’ve concentrated on listening to customers and honing the user experience. We’ve always been building something to satisfy a user need, but trying to go beyond that and make something that people love using.

If you can inspire love in your users, that’s a very difficult thing to achieve, but it can keep you focussed on creating the best possible product.

If you create a product that people love using and can’t stop using, you will find a way to turn that into a successful business.