Pondering Slack’s future, via Slack
Excerpts from an interview in Slack with SLACK CEO STEWART BUTTERFIELD After he sold the photo-sharing website Flickr to Yahoo! in 2005 and gave up on Glitch, a computer game, in 2012, Stewart Butterfield and his company launched the collaborative messaging tool Slack. Today, 2.7 million people use Slack daily; 800,000 of them pay for it. The company has raised $540 million, most recently at a valuation of $3.8 billion. We joined Butterfield for an in-Slack interview. He’d just been in Melbourne, where Slack opened its first office Down Under.
Toph Tucker 4:29 PM Hi, Stewart!
It’s a pleasure
Stewart Butterfield 4:31 PM
TT 4:31 PM Congrats on Australia and funding and generally being a very successful person!
SB 4:31 PM Well, that is very kind.
TT 4:49 PM Are there particularly exciting uses you see people finding for Slack?
4:49 And: Do you care about having a legacy through that?
SB 4:50 PM I think the examples I like best are the ways in which people have altered the ways in which they work, even slightly. For example, eliminating the daily “stand-up” meeting in favor of a round of messages in Slack.
4:50 And the vain part of me would like to have a legacy of some kind. … I think most people want to make some kind of dent in the universe.
TT 4:50 PM
4:53 Do you think group chat as a mode of working can ever go too far? Like, I bet you saw that Jason Fried post: Group chat is like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.
SB 4:53 PM Oh, yeah—that was preposterous. 4:53 It’s content marketing! 4:54 He is a very smart guy, but either he’s missing something there or he’s
just talking up his book [ Remote: Office
4:54 E-mail is also an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.
4:55 Except you happen to open them all individually, and there’s a lot more overhead.
4:55 Most physical workspaces are all-day meetings with random participants and no agenda.
TT 4:55 PM E-mail is batched at least, offices … maybe offices just have norms people are more accustomed to?
SB 4:56 PM But his ideal world there is some platonic ideal—Nietzschean übermenschen who just sit around thinking genius thoughts all day and don’t have any business talking to other people. Designers? I don’t know.
4:56 In the real world, people have to talk to each other to get work done.
TT 5:00 PM What might Slack be or mean to people in 5 or 10 years? Is it group chat or something more?
SB 5:01 PM Well, we have never said “chat,” and we never would.
5:02 That trivializes what people actually do. Workplace communication is important to its participants. But it already isn’t just people talking to one another. It’s also giant flows of data and information and a window into the workflows and business processes around the company.
5:02 In our Slack instance (430 employees and a couple hundred active guest accounts) we do about 35k messages a day from humans.
5:03 But there are another 150k-200k messages each day from machines.
TT 5:03 PM Wow.
SB 5:04 PM So in 5 to 10 years, we’ll see more and more of that. It becomes “an operating system for your team” … except now it’s much more literal.
TT 4:37 PM There’s this eerie recurrence in your career of building a microcosm, building a tool within that game world, and then spinning the tool out.
4:37 Is that, like, how you think?
SB 4:38 PM Well, neither of them were actually parts of the game.
4:38 In the case of Flickr, that’s a story that was published at the time and which we tried to get corrected, but … ¯\_( )_/¯
TT 4:38 PM I stand corrected!!
SB 4:39 PM Flickr was in fact something we came up with that we could build taking advantage of technical infrastructure we’d already created, but which we could finish (and bring to market) sooner.
4:39 And Slack was just a built-from-scratch version of the jury-rigged and hacked-together system for internal communication we built while working on Glitch.
4:40 So the common thing in both cases was a desperate attempt to find something to salvage from a bunch of wasted work.
4:42 Reminds me of a point that Dan Savage is fond of making, with respect to romantic relationships:
4:43 “We think that the only ‘successful’ relationship is one that ends in the death of one of the partners. Anything that ends before one party dies is a failure.”
TT 4:43 PM Right, but there can never be a true game never ending.
SB 4:44 PM But there can be successful relationships that conclude before either party dies. And it is much more healthy to think that.
TT 4:51 PM One of my questions is, “Are you happy?”
SB 4:52 PM I asked around in the room here, and the consensus is, “I guess you’re happy … fundamentally.”
4:52 But they see me being angry sometimes.
4:52 I do think I am happier than most people.
4:52 Or, more contented? More at peace?