At an event in San Francisco Monday evening, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield said that his company was going to stay focused on its namesake app, a tool for team collaboration, rather than spinning off a bunch of new apps.
Butterfield was at Galvanize, a coworking and events space in San Francisco’s SoMa district, to chat on stage—well, on stools—with John Battelle, the longtime journalist and entrepreneur whose latest venture, NewCo, was kicking off a multiday tour of tech companies in San Francisco and Oakland.
Do We Want A Slack Office?
During a brief question-and-answer session after their chat, I asked Butterfield if Slack—whose core app is now used by more than 1.25 million people per day—was going to remain a single-app company or turn into a suite of apps for team productivity.
Butterfield said a lot of people expected Slack to expand from messaging to group calendars and task management, “perhaps because they’ve been trained to expect that by Outlook,” Microsoft’s email software that combines those features.
Instead, Butterfield explained that Slack’s strategy would be to make other apps better. He gave the example of Dropbox: If you share a link to a Dropbox file in Google Hangouts, it appears as a string of characters. If you share it in Slack, Slack’s software displays the file name, a preview, and other useful data.
While Slack has won widespread renown for its emoji chat features and witty messages sprinkled throughout its interface, its real power lies within its platform—what Slack calls “integrations.” Slack has been built to adeptly absorb and display all kinds of messages and information updates from other services, ranging from Asana to Google Drive to GitHub to Zendesk.
If Slack does a good job of displaying those messages, “people will love us more” than if Slack built its own version of those services, Butterfield said.
In fact, he doesn’t think we’ll see the equivalent of more Microsoft Office products in this era of distributed services. Instead, we’ll have dozens of Web- and app-based services we use, all glued together through APIs.
Butterfield’s bet here is that his team, by focusing on Slack and its platform, will do a better job of stitching those services together than anyone else can.
We’ll see! (For the record, ReadWrite’s editorial team uses Slack to manage updates from Trello, Zendesk Inbox, Twitter, and a handful of other services. And while we think the system we’ve set up is far from perfect, it feels better than dousing our overwhelmed email inboxes with updates.)
Spinning Off, Or Spinning Out Of Control?
Slack’s strategy seems wise in another regard: Butterfield can keep the team focused on one product. Dropbox and Evernote—two of Slack’s rivals in the broadly conceived space of team collaboration—have stumbled lately with their spinoffs.
Critics have pointed to a similar strategic flaw at both companies. Dropbox and Evernote both branched out, namely with Dropbox’s Carousel photo app and Evernote’s now-shuttered Hello, Peek, and Food apps. What they got for their trouble: little-used apps, distracted engineering teams, and core products that could have used more attention and creativity.
The argument for spinoff apps usually comes down to two things: Companies should show that they can innovate as they grow, and it helps to keep employees engaged, instead of straying to earlier-stage startups to join smaller teams working on new products.
Or maybe it’s just the ego of founders who want to show that their original products weren’t one-hit wonders.
Having also cofounded the early photo-sharing pioneer Flickr, Butterfield may well have something to prove. But he also has the benefit of having had his ego thoroughly battered by the failure of two ventures: Game Neverending, an online game which morphed into Flickr, and Glitch, another game whose main legacy is the communication tool Butterfield’s team used while creating it—the tool that became Slack.
He doesn’t need an app factory to burnish his reputation. He’s got enough on his hands with Slack’s runaway growth.
Photo by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite