I was introduced to Slack when I first joined a startup in San Francisco. Coming from the corporate world where Skype and other Microsoft products were the de-facto choices for corporate communication, Slack was a breath of fresh air that I adopted with gusto. The first two days had a bit of a learning curve, but after that, I was converted into a super Slack fan.
Even though I’ve used Slack at my last two companies, I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly it was about it that set it apart from other enterprise communication applications until I arrived at Columbia Business School and discovered, much to my delight, that the school was introducing Slack as the official communication platform. Honestly, I hadn’t actually thought that educational institutions were a potential customer for Slack until seeing it being introduced at CBS. The school had previously been on Groupme. It was interesting to see the adoption curve from Groupme to Slack as there were pockets of people that “resisted” the change, but now that it’s been more than a month, full adoption is nearly complete.
If you had asked me four years ago if Slack had a chance of succeeding, I would have said absolutely not. Chat applications at enterprises were tough to break into as most companies were deeply tied down to either Microsoft or Google suites of products. What could an upstart bring to the table that these titans of technology with their gargantuan war chests of cash and talented engineers couldn’t think of and execute already?
I’ve now seen Slack used at startups, small businesses, large businesses, and schools. It’s no longer just a “Startup” thing, but an everybody thing that has exceeded critical mass. The last 3rd party logistics company I worked with used Slack internally and they were a family business. My dad used Slack for his teams when he worked at IBM of all places. Slack’s homepage counts the likes of Target and Capital One as its customers. I asked CBS students (via Slack of course) if anyone had used Slack at large non-tech companies and the response was tremendous. Companies mentioned included industries as diverse as retail, financial services, media, government, and hospitality at companies that everyone has heard of. Slack is ubiquitous.
Slack is brilliant because the model of their communications more closely resembles how humans actually interact with each other and behave. Prior products (and email) were based on the assumption that humans interacted primarily with each other as atomized individuals, not as groups. Here is a diagram of how I would describe how gChat or Skype typically works in an organization. Interactions between individuals are prioritized.
But despite what libertarian philosophers may wish upon us,this isn’t actually how human beings operate in a society. We’re tribal creatures in nature and organize and define ourselves through groups/teams which is where Slack excels. The primary form of interaction between humans is through groups and the secondary form of interaction is as individuals. Here is a diagram of how Slack conceptually works.
We have multiple group identities that emerge depending on contexts. In business school, these identities include clusters, learning teams, clubs, and shared interests (among many others). In companies, these identities include teams, cross-functional teams, and shared interests (among many others).
In Slack, there are “channels”, in which teams can collaborate or larger groups of people can discuss topics, these correspond well to the previously discussed identities.
Groupme is also designed around groups and has been popular for social use to organize events, but the collaboration and productivity features are weaker so that it’s limited to being more of a social tool. Given that it evolved from being a replacement for group texts, the lack of focus on productivity isn’t that unsurprising. It was also another acquisition/casualty in the chat space (following Skype and Yammer) for Microsoft. Slightly off-topic, but it seems like everytime Microsoft has acquired a chat app it seems to lose momentum.
While the group-centric focus is what I think really sets Slack apart, it also has a host of incredible productivity features that I’ve found very useful. Here are a few examples:
- Ability to share code snippets formatted in a specific programming language. I primarily used this to share SQL queries with people, but I imagine it’s also 10x more useful for developers working with multiple languages.
- Pinning documents to channels. No more looking for important documents among emails and chat attachments!
- Open Ecosystem. Slack encourages developers to integrate its applications with Slack allowing other tools to be seamlessly integrated into the workflows. Polls, business intelligence software, CRMs, can all be incorporated with Slack.
- Superb emojis allowing me to express my feelings in every which way possible.
One of the biggest questions that still stands for me is the one of how much room is there left for Slack to grow? They’re capturing startups and SMBs with relative ease and likely with very minimal actual customer acquisition costs at this point (mostly viral, someone used it at their previous company, etc). I actually heard a story last night working with an SMB where one of their employees pushed hard for Slack at their company and the company eventually adopted it.
Slack’s Achilles heel a few years back was that its inherent structure didn’t scale well for larger organizations, but the introduction of Grid seems to have solved this problem. I think there is still a lot of room to grow with larger organizations, notably absent from my informal poll were professional service firms and large financial institutions.
Another paradox I see for Slack in the future is that the openness of its environment is a double-edged sword. Google apps play well with each other, Microsoft products play well with each other, and they can all play (to a certain extent, and not as well) with Slack, and both are going aggressively after the enterprise chat market, but what is the point at which the synergies generated by using the same suite of products for chat, email, and productivity outweigh the benefits of using Slack in conjunction with Google or Microsoft tools? Will Slack try to do a role reversal and make its own suite of productivity tools (Slackmail? Slackdocs?). Dropbox has done this with Dropbox paper, but I’m not sure to what extent that has been a successful extension for them (I think it probably is a technically superior product to Docs, but hard to build momentum as increased adoption requires network effects). I’m a strong believer that the open environment will win and Slack can effectively hold its ground against tech giants encroaching on their territory by focusing on their core product and I’m excited to see what the future holds for Slack!