Inside Slack: How A Billion-Dollar Email-Killer Gets Work Done

ReadWrite’s Inside Tech series takes a close look at the workspaces and office culture of companies creating new technologies.

Stewart Butterfield just moved his company, Slack Technologies, into a new office on Folsom Street in San Francisco this summer, and he’s already talking about moving out. Or up.

“We’re looking at subletting the fourth floor,” he mentions casually in an unadorned conference room. Slack’s office in Vancouver, Canada, is also undersized—and it’s still getting built out. 


Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield resigned from Yahoo, which bought his previous company, Flickr, with a memo about tin. Friends sent him lumps of the metal.

Even four months in, there’s not much to Slack’s headquarters besides rented desks, a surprisingly controversial coffee machine, and a big sign that says “Glitch.” (More on that later.)

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“We just need a place to sit together and work,” says Ali Rayl, one of Slack’s longest-tenured employees. “It is organically not moved into.”


A music room doubles as a meeting room.

Killing Email And Catching Fire

This is what happens when your product catches fire. Slack makes a tool that helps teams communicate. Originally intended for startups like Slack, it’s signing up all kinds of businesses, many of which pay for the full version of the service. It’s adding a million dollars of recurring revenue—what Slack would make if a customer sticks around for a year—every month.

All of this has happened in a matter of months, not years. Slack unveiled its product in August 2013, then released it to the public in February. By August of this year, it had 128,000 active users. Just last week, it raised $120 million from investors, valuing the company at $1.12 billion—among the fastest rise in a startup’s worth ever.

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That’s a sign of the staggeringly high expectations placed on Slack, which has about 60 employees, up from 8 less than a year ago. (The new San Francisco office has room for 75.)


Effie Barak, Slack’s first Windows Phone developer, is one of many recent hires. 

This rapid growth is a rebirth of sorts. Slack Technologies used to be a company called Tiny Speck, which was developing an interactive game called Glitch. That game failed to take off, and Tiny Speck laid off most of its employees in November 2012. It kept a handful to work on the internal chat systems Tiny Speck had developed for its own use—the product that eventually became Slack. 

Slack’s software, the big Glitch sign in the office, and the memories of employees like Rayl who joined in the Tiny Speck days are all that remains. 


The Silence Of The Engineers

What Slack does is deceptively simple. On its surface, it’s group chat for employees, a service you can deliver through any number of means, many of them free. But Slack improves on chat by porting in automated messages from other services, like bug reports, tweets from customers, and server status updates, making it easier to spawn conversations. Its mobile and desktop apps work seamlessly, with no missed updates or sync failures. 

And Slack makes all of those conversations searchable—which is an improvement that’s hard to explain until you start using it (as ReadWrite has for the past few months).

Which raises the question: With such a good tool for team communication, why does Slack need an office? Why not do all your work virtually?


Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield gives product manager Mat Mullen advice, and a ukulele serenade.

“There are some conversations that are much easier in person,” says Brady Archambo, Slack’s head of iOS engineering.

Rayl adds: “We hire good people who we want to hang out with.” 

Most employees prefer having an office to work out of. And—to the bemusement of Butterfield and Rayl—the company has had to start holding these things called “meetings” as it grapples with the problems of growth.

Coffee Talk

As Slack keeps expanding, even hanging out requires new rituals. In the months between Glitch’s closure and Slack’s opening, Rayl, Archambo, and Cal Henderson, Slack’s vice president of engineering and cofounder, were the primary inhabitants of the former Tiny Speck office in a much rougher patch of San Francisco’s SoMa district.

The three had a rotation of restaurants they went to for lunch—and because they were using a prototype of Slack, one merely had to type “Lunch?” in the chat, and the other two would silently rise and exit the office. At 3 o’clock, they’d do the same for coffee. Their wordless egress disturbed a visiting friend so much that he refused to return to the office for months. (Eventually, that friend, Paul Hammond, joined the company as Slack’s director of platform.)


Slack cofounder Cal Henderson leads a herd of employees to coffee.

Nowadays, coffeetime is a noisier affair at Slack. It’s announced by a bot that posts a coffee symbol—okay, an emoji, those tiny icon-pictures which infest messaging apps—into Slack’s Slack. To wake people up to the physical world around them, someone also bangs a gong.

The resulting herd of Slack employees now instantly creates lines at local coffee shops. The upside: That opens up time for new employees to chat up the veterans.

“It’s a chance for me to talk to Cal, which would be hard to do in the office,” says Mat Mullen, a recently hired product manager. 

Not that Henderson’s hard to approach. On Halloween, the entire company dressed up in his uniform of thick glasses, loud madras shirt, shorts, and sandals. it’s just that the quiet office, and the lure of Slack’s supremely efficient software, tend to discourage spoken chatter.


What is this infernal device? Engineering Manager Nolan Caudill checks it out. 

With the growing importance of this unspoken ritual, no one’s sure what to make of the automated espresso machine that mysteriously appeared in Slack’s new kitchen. The prospect of coffee that you don’t have to walk out the door for seems like a challenge to Slack’s culture.

“I have yet to try it,” says Rayl, who admits missing the old days when it was just her, Archambo, and Henderson. But, she adds, the new kaffeeklatsch is important for “forming social connections.”

Catching Up To Slack Speed

It’s hard to separate those connections formed in the real world from the deep, all-day simmer of connectivity that Slack instills.

“I was not prepared for the Slack onslaught,” says Anne Toth, Slack’s newly hired vice president of policy and compliance. “It was like being dropped in the middle of this entirely new world.”


Anne Toth (standing) heads policy and compliance for Slack.

Yet Slack’s features, like search, helped Toth navigate her new workplace in both big and small ways. 

On one day, when she arrived early to the office, Toth almost set off the alarm. She searched Slack for “alarm code”—and there it was. Minor crisis averted.

She’d barely been there a week when a more substantial alarm erupted over the way Slack exposed companies’ internal team names as a way of speeding signups. It was an optional setting, but it understandably upset people who didn’t understand its implications. Slack engineers raced to update the code as Toth and other colleagues drafted a response—using Slack, of course.

“We were in the room drafting the blog post when the fix happened,” Toth recalls. “It happened faster than we were able to draft the blog post.”

That’s not a bad metaphor for life at Slack: a series of things happening unexpectedly fast. For the next few years, those coffee lines may be the only time anyone cuts them any … well, you know.


No rest for the weary: Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield spends a lot of time commuting between his company’s San Francisco and Vancouver offices.

Photos by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite

 

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