Pivot Point

The jour­ney to a suc­cess­ful com­pany is rarely a lin­ear one. Cal Hen­der­son, the co-founder of soft­ware gi­ant Slack Tech­nol­ogy, ex­plains how fail­ure can lead to suc­cess in sur­pris­ing ways.

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With eight mil­lion daily users and 500,000 or­gan­i­sa­tions on its books, Slack, which launched in 2014, calls it­self “the fastest-grow­ing busi­ness ap­pli­ca­tion in his­tory”. But like many tools that rev­o­lu­tionised busi­ness com­mu­ni­ca­tion, its cre­ators didn’t set out to change the tech­no­log­i­cal land­scape.

Be­fore Slack there was Flickr, the photo-shar­ing plat­form. How did that start out?

It was 2003. The video game com­pany that I was work­ing for was ex­ist­ing on a grant from the Cana­dian Gov­ern­ment, but that had run out, so they were try­ing to fig­ure out how they could make a bit of money on the side to be able to make pay­roll, start some kind of se­condary busi­ness. The com­pany wanted to re­pur­pose some of the tech­nol­ogy they’d been build­ing for the game, so we came up with the idea of build­ing what then be­came Flickr. I joined the com­pany — which was four peo­ple at the time — to build Flickr as a quick, one-month side project, so that we could then get back to work­ing on this game. Then [Flickr] re­ally just took off and be­came the fo­cus of the com­pany in a short pe­riod of time.

Then, when Flickr was ac­quired by Yahoo! in 2005, you got back into work­ing on the orig­i­nal game. And that’s how Slack was born?

Yeah, for the four years we’d been work­ing on the game, we’d been us­ing In­ter­net Re­lay Chat (IRC) to com­mu­ni­cate be­tween of­fices. But it was re­ally hard to use. We started mak­ing lit­tle changes here and there, tweak­ing it. We re­alised if we re­ally liked work­ing that way, and found it ben­e­fi­cial, other teams like us would too, so that’s where the idea for Slack came from.

What were some hur­dles you had to over­come in those ini­tial days?

We quickly re­alised we’d built a prod­uct that worked re­ally well for teams of eight peo­ple but worked ter­ri­bly for teams of 20. There were bits of UI (user in­ter­face) that wouldn’t work if you had two peo­ple with the same name and is­sues like that, so we spent a lot of that first six months spend­ing time in the of­fices of peo­ple giv­ing it a try; un­der­stand­ing how they were us­ing it, the chal­lenges they had in col­lab­o­ra­tion and, es­pe­cially, the other tools they were us­ing. We wanted to kind of look at all of the other soft­ware and see if we could sim­plify the process by us­ing it with Slack.

What does the fu­ture look like for Slack?

As an end goal we’d like all or­gan­i­sa­tions to use a tool like Slack, or ideally Slack it­self. I think there’s go­ing be this shift to­wards us­ing chan­nel­based com­mu­ni­ca­tion, away from one-to-one email and into chan­nels as the pri­mary form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion for busi­ness. Com­mu­ni­cat­ing in that way is much bet­ter for col­lab­o­ra­tion, and pro­motes trans­parency and agility within teams. I think that’s a tool that peo­ple and busi­nesses are go­ing to con­tinue to de­mand, to be able to work bet­ter and col­lab­o­rate bet­ter. That tran­si­tion is in­evitable and hope­fully it’s with Slack.

“I think there’s go­ing to be this shift to­wards us­ing chan­nel-based com­mu­ni­ca­tion, away from one-to-one email and into chan­nels as the pri­mary form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion for busi­ness.”

When you changed from one busi­ness idea to an­other, were you afraid of fail­ing?

You need to have fail­ures, and build on those and take risks, to have any kind of large suc­cess. There’s this kind of re­lent­less op­ti­mism in the Bay Area [Slack has its head­quar­ters in San Fran­cisco] that makes star­tups re­ally work. If I had started a com­pany in Lon­don and it failed, as nearly ev­ery startup does, the mes­sage would have been like, well, good job, now quit mess­ing around and get a real job. When your com­pany fails in the Bay Area, the at­ti­tude is more, ‘What have you learnt and what are you gonna do next?’ In the face of all kinds of ev­i­dence to the con­trary, ev­ery­one al­ways be­lieves what­ever they’re work­ing on is gonna be suc­cess­ful. That’s in­fec­tious.

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