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Summary:

Many companies have tried to come up with a single service that allows teams to work effectively without email, but former Flickr founder Stewart Butterfield believes he has done it with Slack, which integrates with dozens of different data sources including Twitter

When Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield was building an online game several years ago, he and his team of designers and developers built their own hacked-together IRC-based replacement for instant messaging and email as a way of getting things done. After he shut the game down last year and was looking for something else to do, Butterfield decided his workflow software was worth refining, and the result is Slack, which launched to the public today.

If there’s one market that is filled to the brim with competitors — even more so than consumer photo-sharing apps — it has to be workflow or collaboration services. There are large, project-management style suites like Basecamp (which 37signals announced it is now focusing on full time), as well as HipChat, Microsoft-owned Yammer and Salesforce’s Chatter, along with half a dozen others like Asana.

On top of that, many companies and teams use a variety of other services to accomplish the same thing, whether it’s Skype or Google Hangouts. So what makes Butterfield think that he can beat all of these competing solutions? He says no one is approaching the problem in the same way that Slack is — namely, by integrating as many different information providers and pipelines as possible.

“There are three basic types of message: One is a person writing to another person, another is someone trying to send a file, and the third is computers sending you a message — like you have a new follower on Twitter or someone commented on your post. We figured if we could get all three of those kinds of message in one place, there was a chance to build something that would be the one app you have open all the time.”

One ring to rule them all

Butterfield says the need for something like Slack is shown by how quickly adoption has grown: the service launched as a beta “preview” last August, and did no marketing or media relations of any kind, but has continued to grow at double-digit rates week after week for six months. One of the company’s venture backers, Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz, said: “Growth like this is not something we have seen before. Enterprise software growing 50-80% per month based entirely on word of mouth is unprecedented.”

Slack growth

Butterfield says he didn’t want to build a project-management tool like Basecamp because that inevitably involves philosophical issues about how projects should be managed — instead, he just wanted to put together a single communications tool that would pull in as many different sources of potentially useful information as possible for teams, whether it was chat or automated crash reports.

Slack, which has both an iOS app and an Android app as well as a Mac app, allows team members to easily track messages from co-workers but also to see status reports from across the company, by connecting to tools like SVN, Github, MailChimp, Crashlytics, Heroku and JIRA — things that would otherwise have likely remained in a separate silo or service. An API allows for almost any other service or tool to be integrated into the system as well, Butterfield said.

“We see a lot of people switching from Hipchat or Campfire, but we see an even larger number — an order of magnitude more — coming from nothing. Either it’s a jumble of different services or just email or just Skype, or maybe this group has IRC, this other one uses Hangouts — it’s like a hodgepodge. There is no one service where all the communication goes.”

Ambient awareness of your colleagues

The problem that arises when teams within a company don’t use the same tool, Butterfield says, is that information becomes hard to find, since there is no single repository of all the important data. Teams using Slack “get this kind of ambient awareness of what people are doing. So, for example, the engineers can see what people are tweeting about us, so when we say they’re complaining about this or that they actually take you seriously.”

slack-desktop-integrations

Butterfield says Slack’s adoption curve is growing faster than Flickr did at any time during its history pre-Yahoo, and is also growing faster than many other workflow-related startups such as Github. The Slack founder said he doesn’t track things like installs or signups because those metrics are “bogus,” but the app is now being used by a wide range of companies from startups like BuzzFeed and Square to large companies like Citrix and Expedia.

True real-time workplace collaboration is something of a holy grail, Butterfield says, in the sense that companies keep promising it will arrive but it never really does — and so teams continue to use email even though it is broken, or mash together various pieces of software to try and make something that works. “There’s a 30-year legacy of broken promises around collaboration, from Lotus Notes on,” he says. “But I feel like now the world is ready for it.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Creatas

  1. I might be missing something, but what differentiates this from HipChat? I see it mentioned in the article above, but looking at the slack site, I see many of the same features as HipChat.

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    1. Good question — Butterfield said that Slack integrates with more and different kinds of services than HipChat or anyone else, although I haven’t confirmed that is true.

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  2. So 3 minutes into it, I have no idea what to do, nor why this is “Better” than email or anything else I currently use. I’m sure there’s some potential here, but new user onboarding experience is utterly lacking.

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    1. Well, what do you want to do? Try that.

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    2. I can see a big difference in something like this an email. Email is a fantastic communication tool, but it is highly personalized. If working on a project or even just working with the same people every day on multiple tasks, it can become an unruly mess. Some communications are private between group members. Some documents exist on only one computer in the group. Some documents may be on the server. Everyone can agree on one or another aspect of the project but one or two people miss out on the agreement. With just email, relevant information does not coalesce into a knowledge base. This can lead to wasted time, duplicated efforts, lost opportunities, etc. With email alone people wind up playing high tech post office. With a tool like this, a kind of knowledge aggregator if you will, people will more effectively benefit from shared knowledge. No one owns an island of knowledge, and when someone loses his notebook in a cab, all of the information is still in the knowledge base.

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    3. It would beat the crap out of email for new user onboarding. Everything is in one place for the user to read over in chronological order. Email is on everyone’s personal devices and not easily shared with the new person.

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  3. I’ve been using Slack as part of a startup team I’m mentoring, and we like it actually. “Ambient awareness” is a good way to describe it.

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  4. This looks very interesting.

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  5. kill email forever? Title is misleading.

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  6. A large portion of the company I am at has been using slack for a couple months now. There has been a lot of positive feedback, but no one has considered it something we should spend $8 a user a month on (lowest priced tier after the free “lite” offering). We haven’t found it to be an email replacement, but it has helped reduce long running email threads.

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  7. This article is off. This is an amazing tool. But this is advanced IRC with tons of integrations, not an improvement on email. Collaboration isn’t project management, but it’s not an email replacement. Right now, slack is great, but it also lacks the interface to handle the depth of connections required for a loose system like email, which is definitely built for more casual relationships…

    Maybe I’m missing something. But I don’t understand how this is a replacement for email in the least. This is definitely a replacement for hipchat, and hopefully Skype (though it really needs WebRTC and the ability to run video conferences — then this thing is a killer app), but not gmail.

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  8. Pretty much everyone’s email looks like an episode of Hoarders. What’s worse is that most of it is a duplicate of one or more people’s email but not an exact duplicate.

    Email, at least in the corporate world, can be whittled down to very little (at least needing to keep items) if the right tools are employed and the “rules” are enforced.

    While things like HipChat and Slack seem to be great (i have not used so I don’t know), they will have to have some sort of privately host-able product for the companies that cannot and or will not use public SaaS. Microsoft is in the same boat with the Social Enterprise product they bought.

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  9. Slack looks awesome. I’ve done a trial, which I originally looked at because we were looking at using Confluence. However because I was comparing both tools, we’re probably going to stick with Confluence. Not that its apples and apples, but Slack looks like a killer communication tool. Its just a shame I needed more out of our project software is all. Would love to play with this more.

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