Workplace chat apps have existed for years, but few have “disrupted” office culture more than Slack. It’s converted back-and-forth threads into chirpy instant messages. It’s replaced water cooler conversation with silent DMs. It’s reorganized discussions around specific topics, added more transparency to those discussions, and made workplace communique a lot less formal (see: Slackmoji). In some cases, especially during the months-long work-from-home experiment of 2020, it’s even replaced the office itself.
But most workplaces don’t exist in a silo. In addition to their own employees, they have business partners, vendors, and collaborators. So today, Slack has announced a tool called Slack Connect, designed to make it possible for up to 20 organizations to share “channels” between them. A company might use these shared channels to talk to its supply chain operators; a venture capital firm might use it to bring all of its portfolio companies together.
“A measure of success for us is going to be what percentage of DocuSigns are signed inside of a shared channel, or how many purchase orders and invoices and service tickets are opened inside shared channels,” said Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s cofounder and CEO, at a virtual event announcing Slack Connect. “Slack, when it’s working for an individual organization, becomes this lightweight fabric for systems organization. That’s just as valuable across boundaries as inside.”
While a huge number of companies use Slack—including many startups—it needs all the help it can get to keep up with Microsoft Teams, especially when it comes to big enterprise clients. Microsoft has no Slack Connect equivalent yet, giving Slack a potential advantage among customers with more complex needs.
After Slack’s event, Butterfield joined WIRED for a one-on-one conversation about the future of workplace communications. He spoke about the potential to use Slack Connect for more than just business, and how Slack wants to play nice with your email inbox.
Arielle Pardes: You introduced Slack Connect today. What are the most interesting use cases you’re seeing?
Stewart Butterfield: Of all of the use cases, probably the biggest one is customer success and support. It’s organizations talking to their customers, especially where there’s a long relationship. Oracle’s been a customer for many years. A hundred thousand people at Oracle use Slack every day. We didn’t just sell it to them back in 2017 and then walk away—people [from Slack] literally talk to them every single day. There are people from Oracle in our customer advisory board, there’s a whole process for change management. The channel is the perfect way to do that. Rather than one-to-one communication over email or text between all of these different people, you create this environment where, even as the people on the Oracle side change or people on the Slack side change, there’s a continuity of conversation and there’s this historical artifact of the archive.
A slightly different example: In February, Jenn Tejada, who’s the CEO of PagerDuty, invited a bunch of other SaaS CEOs to her house for dinner. Because that email thread was there, as the pandemic stuff started unfolding in late February and early March, this email thread became like, “Are you really thinking about closing your offices?” That conversation migrated to a shared channel between all of the organizations. It’s me and 17 other public SaaS company CEOs. Then it bifurcated into a whole series of channels: one for CFOs, who are talking about how you plan and forecast in this environment with all this uncertainty. One for the CHROs and heads of people, to think about recruiting when you can’t meet people face-to-face, or onboarding for new employees when you can’t come to headquarters, or other benefits and policy changes when you're working from home. One for marketers, who can’t run events and do field marketing. So that’s been super valuable, and there’s no other way that could've happened.
Theoretically, from a functional requirements point of view, we could have that conversation over email. But that has many disadvantages. When we add people in over time, they wouldn’t have the history and all that. The real problem is that it’s just mixed up with a billion other things, like receipts for online purchases and wedding invitations and spam and unwanted solicitations from salespeople and important contracts. So having a channel is really valuable. It’s more like a private network that’s still accessible and has some visibility for administrators.
AP: One thing email is good at, though, is letting you talk to anyone. Does Slack have any ambition to one day let people communicate with each other in that way, like sending a DM to someone you don’t already know?
SB: Never say never, but probably not. We don’t need to kill email. We never set out to. Email serves so many purposes, and I think it has some real advantages, especially in being the lowest common denominator. That might sound like a negative, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s a universal standard. Anyone can run their own SMTP server or IMAP server. It’s a universal namespace, so anyone can message anyone else. But those advantages have a flip side. I still spend a lot of time on email, and I don’t expect everything to migrate, because there are new points of contact that arise over time. Introducing people is almost a canonical case of email usage for me these days.
When we imagine any two Slack users being able to DM each other, it’s only after some communication happened outside of Slack that can be a secure handshake. If you can message anyone, guess what will happen? The same thing that happens in email, which is that 99.9 percent of emails sent these days are spam. But for the incredible investment that Google and Microsoft and others have made over the last several decades in fighting spam, we wouldn’t be able to use email at all. We definitely don’t want to bring that into Slack. We’re carving out the pieces of email where we think we can make an improvement for a specific set of use cases. There’s no advantage to supplanting email completely from a business perspective. And also, there are a bunch of disadvantages, which is that we’d inherit all of this terrible crap that you have to deal with as an email provider.
AP: So the vision is not that, one day, all workplace communication will happen on Slack.
SB: No, only those parts which are best in Slack. The reality is that over time, organizations invest more in software. More software products are in use. Employees spend more time in software. The average number of cloud services in use for a large enterprise in the US is now over 1,000. We, as a 2,200-person company, buy software from over 450 different vendors—not different products, but different vendors. It’s kind of mind-blowing. So, the reality is, there are multiple modes of communication. Ideally, Slack can integrate with email, as it integrates with Salesforce, or Github, or AWS. If you have this lightweight fabric for systems integration, it makes all of the software more valuable. We used to say in our investor road show, leading up to listing day, that we want to be the 1 or 2 percent of your software budget that’s a multiplier on the value of the other 98 or 99 percent.
AP: Should we expect more Slack-and-email integrations then?
SB: There are some already. They’re still a little bit kludgy, but there are plug-ins for both Outlook and Gmail. Those are used in a bunch of different ways. At a small organization, maybe on their website they have public emails like email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Rather than have those emails go to a mail distribution list, they can go right into a Slack channel, and people can reply from there. That’s been around for a couple of years. We also had a really early version of what is now a plug-in on the Outlook and Gmail side where you get a secret forwarding address. Any email you see, you could forward to Slack, and it shows up as an object inside of Slack—like a file—that can then be shared and commented on and stuff like that. More recently, for larger organizations where it takes a longer time for Slack to be adopted across the organization, it’s become a bridge to email. I don’t need to know whether you, an employee I’ve never spoken to before but for whom I have a question, I don’t need to know whether you’re using Slack. I can send you a DM or mention you in a channel and it’ll show up for you as an email, and then you reply and it shows up for me as a Slack. But because the email address ties those people together, when you later join Slack, all those messages that you sent via email are actually Slack messages and are available in your history. The plug-ins are more like, select an email and send to Slack. Often, if I get an email from a customer, I would send that into Slack so that one of the sales leaders or customer success managers and account executives can all see it and have that discussion. It’s better to do it in Slack than to have that discussion over email.
AP: Slack has, so far, been really focused on enterprise communications. I’m curious how much you're focusing on applications beyond business. Zoom has quickly evolved from a workplace application to a tool for virtual game nights and birthday parties. And I’m sure you saw that, earlier this week, Microsoft introduced a new way to use Teams to talk to friends and family. How are you thinking about Slack’s future as a personal communication tool?
SB: This is a subtle distinction, but we think about Slack as for groups of people who are aligned around the accomplishment of some goal or set of goals. It could be, like, planning a wedding. Or even running a household. Managing a family involves stuff you have to do for kids, and shopping lists, and vacation planning, and when you’re getting together with other family members, and repair people coming to fix stuff at the house. It’s not for affinity groups, like every single thing that’s on Reddit. Survivors of breast cancer, or people doing IVF, or people who like Star Trek—Slack’s not a great tool for that, because it really is oriented around creating alignment and ongoing conversations with a specific purpose, as opposed to a social network.
If you look at cities where there’s a much higher proportion of Slack users than the general population, you’ll see Slack used for planning weddings. You’ll see Slack used for organizing kids’ soccer leagues. You’ll see Slack used for home renovation projects. That’s actually a source of new customer acquisition for us, because people use it in that context and they’re like, ‘This is cool.’ If you’re a wedding photographer or caterer or whatever, and you’ve now been asked five times by people to use Slack to participate in this planning, you’re like, ‘Well, I should start using it myself.’ Hopefully, a lot of those become shared channel usage. Wedding planning isn’t the most amazing use case, but it is an easy representative example. You have to pull together a bunch of different people—catering, food, music, venue, invitations—and make a bunch of decisions, and they have to be communicated as you complete this project. There are a million other things that are like that, but it becomes a continuum between what might be, for the bride and groom, something that’s personal, but for the wedding photographer, something that’s business. We expect to continue that.
AP: So you could use Slack Connect in that context, while planning a wedding.
SB: It’s perfect for that. If you were using it to plan your wedding, you’d have the wedding planner in all of the channels, but you wouldn’t want to give complete access to everyone else. You’d limit them to specific channels. The best way to do that is to channel share—especially if they’re also already using Slack.
The last thing I’d say is that, I don’t know what kind of market share we have, but most of the research labs in the United States—whether in climate science, biology, physics—they use Slack. Graduate seminars and research institutions and a huge number of nonprofits and people coordinating disaster response from the pandemic and people organizing protests for Black Lives Matter. So there are nonprofit, academic, government, corporate use cases. It’s a huge spectrum. But just personal, just fun, the kind of thing that might take time away from Instagram or Twitter or Netflix? That’s not something we think about a lot.