Stewart Butterfield did well on his first major entrepreneurial venture. His company’s initial product, a multiplayer game, never shipped, but Ludicorp, which he helped found in 2002, sold its next project, the pioneering photo-sharing service Flickr, to Yahoo in 2005. Butterfield stuck around Yahoo until 2008 and then returned to entrepreneurship as a founder of Tiny Speck.
As with Ludicorp, Tiny Speck started as a game developer. And as with Ludicorp, Tiny Speck’s launch game, Glitch, never caught on. However, an internal communications tool Tiny Speck built and used while developing Glitch, called Slack, has become one of the most popular business tools of the moment, one of the few explicitly business tools that has also taken off among consumers. Capturing some of the most useful elements of both email and messaging, while eschewing the bloat and unfriendliness associated with each, Slack has enjoyed massive success.
With a mission to “make your working life simpler, more pleasant and more productive,” Slack launched in August 2013, signed up 8,000 customers within 24 hours of release, and less than two years later the renamed Slack Technologies became the fastest company ever to receive a billion-dollar valuation. Growth through 2014 peaked at 20 percent a week; as of November 2015 it has settled at a more manageable (but still astonishing at scale) 3–4 percent, with 1.25 million customers.
As you might expect from a company that’s purveying a successful communications product, one of the elements that make both company and product a hit is the voice that infects them both. The company’s in-house podcast is way more loose and open-hearted than you’d expect from what is essentially high-end marketing, and even the error messages in the product offer up both humor and empathy (as well as useful information). That voice has also enabled a frankly business product to prosper in a consumer context as well.
Another part of what makes Slackers so loyal is that the product seems focused on ease and productivity. And the company, so far, says it will keep it that way. In a recent interview with NewCo’s John Battelle, Butterfield said it’s unlikely that the company will develop more and more apps. More likely is that the company will focus on connecting Slack to more and more outside apps. “If we can do that across the many apps that you use,” he said, “then we’re in a great position to be part of your work experience forever.”
Competitors are starting to sense that the need for a Slack-like product might be with us for a good long time, if not quite forever. Last we checked, rivals are cooking up open source alternatives to the unicorn poster child.
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Originally published at stories.newco.co on December 9, 2015.