I’m about two months late on posting this (and about two years late on posting anything to this blog ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). However, I felt like this update in my professional life involved a lot of contemplation and generated some insight worth sharing. This is in no way intended as a sales pitch, but more of a hypothesis of the future for enterprise technology and, by extension, the nature of work.
I spent just over three years at Salesforce- and the amount that I learned during my tenure there was remarkable. Salesforce continues a frenetic pace of innovation (cloud, mobile, IoT, and AI come to mind as areas Salesforce focused on before everybody was talking about them), and stays ahead of the most significant trends in enterprise software, which is hard to fathom given just how BIG it is. It has a very bright future ahead- visionary leadership, phenomenal employees, and an unparalleled ability to execute will ensure this.
Despite my positive outlook for Salesforce’s trajectory and my career there, Slack really intrigued me. It was the fastest-growing enterprise software company in history, adored by users, and constantly covered by the press. I had to find out- what was going on there?
Upon further investigation, I found that Slack is creating something entirely new- though not easily defined. Components of the service have certainly existed for a long time and have been commoditized (chat most notably, but also many other features like screen sharing and file sharing). Competition in these subcategories is rife, which would seem a counterfactual to hypergrowth. Somehow, though, Slack has developed an intuitive medium that effectively addresses the majority of the communication modalities and use cases of modern life, and done so in a way that is just different.
There is something deeper at play. A professor in a class (Digital Investing) that I took at Columbia in 2015, shared a key insight as to the true value of tech darlings like Uber, Airbnb, and Facebook. They are not providers of a service in a traditional sense, but rather de facto marketplaces (for transportation, lodging, and content respectively). Marketplaces are powerful because of the scale of their reach (with self-reinforcing network effects), the mindshare they own with end users as the point of entry to consuming services/products, and the sheer amount of end user data that they can collect. Side note- marketplaces can also benefit from fabulous margins at scale- by focusing on creating a great user interface and experience, enjoying a generous “take rate” for facilitating transactions, and avoiding the cost of physically delivering a service or product.
Slack started as a simple communication platform, but as it scales out further and continues to take more and more mindshare (current user metrics indicate something like an average of 10+ hours on the application on weekdays, with 2+ of those hours being “actively engaged”), I believe that it can become the “marketplace” of enterprise productivity. Meaning, because it is the preferred interface for communicating and working for so many users, it will be the gateway through which they access all other enterprise applications. I haven’t seen a TAM associated with that theory…but safe to say it is pretty damn big!
Profit motive aside, I was also attracted to Slack, because in a sense I view them as the “good guys” in this market. I’m not saying that Microsoft, or Google, or any of the big existing corporations are evil, but their policies tend to favor “employer” over “employee”. Where enterprise software tends to go wrong is a sole focus on function and value (and I’m not in any way discounting the importance of an ROI- delivering on this is top of mind for me every time I am selling to a company). The problem with solely focusing on increasing revenues/decreasing costs is that it usually only benefits a small number of executives at the top (along with the shareholders), while often encumbering the employees, which creates resentment- and matching adoption problems.
One (of many) things that Slack does right in this area is respecting that a private DM or communication shared on a channel designated as “Private” is exactly that- available only to those who should be privy to the information. Of course, enterprises (particularly in regulated industries) can’t always allow under-the-radar communication to occur, so there are ways to enable reporting to admins and managers. If this type of visibility is enabled, as a courtesy all users are notified (and nothing prior to compliance notification is discoverable). It is this kind of thoughtfulness and empathy for end users that builds trust, and answers the question of why Slack has experienced such viral growth.
Finally, part of Slack’s mission is to make work “more pleasant”- an admirable goal that seems very unique to the enterprise. If an application can actually make work more fun (with emojis, GIFs, and so forth), is there a dollar value or ROI that can be associated with this? I’m not sure. But we (on average) work 90,000 hours in our lifetime (40 hours a week x 50 weeks/year x 45 years). Anything that can make all of those hours a better, more enjoyable (even fun?) experience for millions of people is doing the world a great service.