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When Flickr (s yhoo) 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.”
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.”
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