Brett Hales


Glitch in the system. Why I’m buying Slack stock.

I’ve started a new chapter and I’d like to share my knowledge, experiences, thoughts and get to talk about things I find interesting. I wanted to test my writing capabilities featuring in-depth, ‘keeping it 100’ real-life content. I’m writing a new column every 2 days for 30 days. Topics will range from tech, health, travel, food, startups, innovation, popular culture, sports, bikes, cars and venture capital. Please feel free to chime in. Article #1. Hugs and Kisses.

I remember where I was for the 9/11 attack on the US. After all, who can forget a thing like that. I also remember where I was when Mr Trump became President Trump while watching the ballots come in from east coast to west coast and listening to experts assure the American people that their predictions were accurate. At work, little was accomplished during those ‘deer in headlights’ hours. Impacting events often stick in our memories and occasionally we are reminded of the event and our brains find it simple for us to relive that moment in time. I also remember where I was when someone at my company Tappr suggested we try this new messaging service called Slack.

Slack has a now fabled story of Stewart Butterfield’s failed attempt to start a game company called TinySpeck alongside some of the core team he worked with at Flickr. Their first product at TinySpeck was called Glitch, a whimsical online game that didn’t have enough players to keep running eventually shutdown. That didn’t mean they didn’t have any funding or know what they were doing. TinySpeck received Angel funding of USD$1.5m in 2009 and another USD$5m in Series A funding in 2010 from Accel and Andreessen Horowitz. Two of the biggest and most active investment firms around. Glitch was due to launch in March 2011, but like everything it takes twice as long and double the effort. Glitch launched briefly in September 2011, but was pulled quickly to improve general gameplay. While Glitch was again released in months to come, and the game had a small, but fanatical following, sometimes it’s better to cut your losses and move on.

While building Glitch at TinySpeck, the development team required an internal communication tool after being frustrated with Yammer and other communication tools available at the time. Due to sometimes working remotely, the development team built their own communication tool on top of the popular chat-system IRC to keep each other in the loop. The team spent almost as much time chatting to each other than they did on development. Seeing something worth exploring, Butterfield shutdown Glitch in November 2012 and transformed TinySpeck into Slack Technologies. 6 months later Slack launched a team-communication product with the elevator pitch of: “bringing all team communication into one place and make it searchable”.

This story is the stuff startup dreams are made from.

Since launching in 2013, Slack has re-built their tech-stack away from IRC and managed to become one of the biggest and brightest tech companies around.

Slack becomes official at Tappr

By the time we began using Slack officially at Tappr, it was February 2015 and almost 18 months after Slack was launched. Prior to this, we dabbled with several Atlassian products including Jira, HipChat and Confluence as well as Skype to track things and communicate. At the time, using Atlassian’s tools in unison felt like they were disconnected from each other. Later on I researched that in-deed HipChat and Confluence were products acquired by Atlassian, not built from the ground up so my intuition was correct. While Atlassian’s suite of products are great, are they great together? Certainly a topic for another day.

At Tappr, the decision was made in true startup fashion (in 12 seconds or less) to create a Slack account and move all our communication to Slack instead of emailing, Atlassian or Skype. You could consider our change to be late-stage or laggard state in comparison to other companies who embraced Slack earlier, but it does take some time to hear of grand things in Australia.

On a side note, I’m proud to say that on a summer vacation to the US in 2006, I was one of the first users away from college students to begin using Facebook, so that’s my early-adopter ‘claim to fame’.

By the time we had embraced Slack at Tappr as our primary communication tool in early 2015, Slack had raised USD$120m at a valuation of USD$1.1bn. The co-founders of Slack were the TechCrunch’s “Crunchie’s of the year” and had 70,000 paying customers with revenue growing to USD$1m a month! That’s more than impressive, that’s outrageous.

What happen for Slack to be successful?

The internet is a wonderful thing , especially when it comes to research.

Google had attempted a project called “Google Rider Finder” in May 2005 out of their Google Labs division. Based on the online documentation, the project details a “ride sharing service for when you need to find a taxi, limousine or shuttle service”. If you are thinking the same thing as I did, it does sound similar to the underpinnings of Uber. In 2009, the project fell of the grid and it never made it back. Here is it’s tiny wikipedia entry as part of the Google Maps page. A number of factors would have gone into the decision to abandon the Google Rider Finder service but most of all, the technology wasn’t at a point to feasibly launch the service successfully. Fast forward several months and Uber was founded in 2009, yet didn’t officially launch the technical aspects that users know today until 2011. The 2 years between 2009 and 2011, several events transformed the landscape:

  • Apple’s iPhone 4 launched in June 24 2010 and one of the biggest improvements besides fixing the abysmal battery life was the improvements made to the “A-GPS” or Assisted GPS that coordinates an iPhone’s location using not only GPS in rapid time, but triangulates a location using cell tower networks. Between 2009–2011, GPS accuracy on smartphones went from approximately 25+ meters to 8 meters. Since 2011, iPhones are down to a few feet in well covered areas.
  • In 2009, in availability of high-capacity networks, lower cost of computers and storage devices mixed together with widespread adoption of service-orientated architecture lead to mass adoption of cloud computing.

Besides having a company focus on one service like Uber, the technology was at a critical point to enable a supremely greater service compared to an incumbent taxi or limousine companies or other tech companies in by-gone era’s. A part of Uber’s success can come from the availability and affordability of the technology matched together and an evolving public perception in social behaviour.

At the time Slack transformed from TinySpeck in 2013, cloud and mobile computing shook up the older models of software security and storage. Mobile devices becoming faster with larger storage capacities, and the likes of Dropbox, Salesforce, Evernote and an army of other productivity and speciality applications and services available, Slack was positioned aptly to flourish. As well as the shift towards cloud-computing, the focus on network marketing, developing of an ecosystem paved a way for Slack to integrate other services into their offering. Comprehending this change in dynamic from the ‘build-it-all’ style thinking to ‘let’s integrate’ is where Slack has benefited most and paved a path that other companies are now replicating.

Now public API’s or SDK’s for services and platform partners to integrate into are standard. Why spend time, effort and millions of dollars trying to build everything, when you get integrate with companies focused on a specific niche and leverage their networks to create sales channels.

I met an Apple executive once and as we discussed Tappr’s vision for the future, I asked what is the next big trend Apple wants to explore further. He suggested ‘ecosystem’s and marketplace’s is where the market is trending to.

What does Slack do well

Slack wasn’t the first to build a messaging communication tool, Skype and others have had this for sometime as a major feature in their offering. However, the combination rapid speed, being able to search for previous messages, adding users easily and integrating not only other services into Slack, but also adding your own web hooks without a computer science degree was pivotal to the rapid adoption. An integrated world is a better one.

For a period of time, the freemium model got users in the door and that model shouldn’t be overlooked towards the success of Slack, but the fact that they recently turned on their subscriptions services and free users were willing to pay spoke of the stickiness of their users and the value of the service.

I’m not one for titles, but at some point in a company’s life I can see the value of having a dedicated CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) would be beneficial. Typically a CMO role would be something a VC would be pushing because without understanding the fundamentals on the front-end of the sales process, VC’s get nervous. At the time Slack was valued at a USD$1bn, they only just started looking for a CMO. They were creative and resourceful in their ‘request an invitation’ viral PR marketing strategy where 8,000 people signed up on day one and in two weeks, that number had grown to 15,000 people.

One aspects that’s often over-looked in a product is to teach your users why they need your product and this is something Slack focused on when receiving initial user feedback. Often designers will suggest that if you have to teach someone to use your product, then you’ve failed as a designer. I agree to a degree, however if your product fundamentally changes behaviour rather than improves an existing behaviour, then education of possibilities and behavioural changes may need to be addressed. During the ‘beta’ phase, Slack learnt many things, but teaching users, companies and third-party developers about the capabilities of the product was critical for early user adoption.

I didn’t know I had a problem with the taxi industry until Uber provided a frictionless and value-rich offering. I feel the same about Slack where I didn’t know I had a problem with in-depth communication with fellow team members until Slack showed me the way.

Slack was simply too good for us to resist and as a result we preferred using it over all the other tools at our disposal.

Channels: How many channels do we have?

When we started using Slack at Tappr, we had 5 or so channels on top of the standard channels like #general or #random. However it didn’t take long to realise we had everyone in the team was discussing everything in one channel. So we began creating new channels for development, operations, sales and marketing. We thought this was a good start and content with the outcomes.

In time, each of those channels needed to be split into multiple, more focused channels. Development became #dev_hardware, #dev_api, #dev_tech_leads and #delivery_manager. A similar expansion happened for operations, customer support, marketing and business development. We even tried having emails coming into our direct message channel to see if we could do without emails altogether.

For each channel, we added new integrations or web-hooks and that created a lot of noise for some of the team, while others found the newly available information insightful. As you can imagine, we again separated the channels, allowing staff to choose what’s best for them.

At the end of the process we had 65 channels, and this didn’t include private channels or archived ones. After 6 months of use, it was too much and we began culling channels that could be consolidated or archived. As of Easter 2017, we are down to 45 channels.

One aspect that is worth discussing is the content that is created through Slack. As part of Tappr’s annual research and development (R&D) grant for AusIndustry, we offered data from certain Slack channels as part of the lodgement. We found that when discussing how we overcame possible unknown’s in our R&D activities, we found that the overall process of why we made certain decisions was well documented in Slack, despite the fact that there were hundreds of emojis lodged as well. Dev’s will be dev’s and I’m sure the AusIndustry guys got a kick out of it.

Custom Emojis — Slackmojis

Slack’s Slackmoji

It took me sometime to get on the Emoji bandwagon, but now I’m firmly on top of Emoji Mountain and not coming down anytime soon. A little known feature of Slack is the ability to create or add custom emojis. Slack comes with a wide-range of default Emoticons which are many and plentiful. However, when only a spinning pizza emoji on pizza day will do, you wont be disappointed.

Bright Bot Future of integrations

Slack’s Integrations. Source:

You can build a case for Slack’s unbelievable rise to the engagement of the third-party developer community. Early on, Slack worked worked with Google Docs, Heroku, GitHub, ZenDesk and this early adoption to integrate paved the way for other third-party developers to integrate their services with Slack.

Beforehand, I checked my calendar using Google Cal, I checked customer service tickets via ZenDesk, I chatted to customers using Intercom, I reviewed work productivity using Git and emailed fellow staff using email. Not to mention, we added several web hooks into our API to view all sales and transactions.

I now only view Slack for internal information and check emails occasionally to manage my startup.

A noticeable difference between Slack and other tech firms is due to the fact that Slack is essentially a communication tool, you can use Slack to chat directly with other developers or more importantly, the Slack development team. You’re able to see and contribute to the Slack development teams Trello board, see what they are working on, view their roadmap, and contribute.

Now with over 750+ apps available in 2017, Slack’s development community is strong and still growing. A lot of these integrations, I would know I needed or could add value. I didn’t know we needed a ZenDesk integration into a chat tool until we started using it. Now days we test noteworthy integrations in Slack all the time and this is part of Slack’s charm; seeing how many services we use that can be integrated into Slack.

Some of my favourites include:

  • Tettra: like Wiki’s? this Wiki that helps your team organise and share important knowledge internally.
  • Zeplin: Collaboration app for designers and engineers. Essentially a fluid style guide with a focus on UI.
  • BirthdayBot: Not sure on someone’s birthday? Never miss a team-mate’s birthday. With private hints and birthday greetings, BirthdayBot brings the team together.

Next frontier: ChatBots

Slack chat bot from PHP Gang

There has been a lot of recent trending on what’s next up in tech and one of the topics consistently talked about is ChatBots. I’ve used a few ChatBots before, and I wasn’t skeptical for their usefulness, just whether they’d catch on.

I did some user experience analysis for a fellow co-worker Carlos de Carvalho who built the Go-Brisbane app. At it’s peak in 2009–10, Go-Brisbane had 400,000 downloads but there is only so much passion you can have for a transportation app, especially if it’s not yet paying the bills. Over time the app didn’t get a lot of attention and slowly the user numbers began to decrease. One of my recommendations (of many) was a conversational ChatBot upon first open after signup. Unlike other ChatBot’s that simply wait for you to do something, a conversational ChatBot implemented correctly could trigger the primary action of the app and save fast amounts of time and effort for users.

As I’m interested in new things, on the side I’m learning German since I’ll be travelling to Berlin in June. I downloaded DuoLingo and tried it out. DuoLingo is fairly straight forward and simple to use, however you do need to use it everyday to get maximum impact. I found myself using it maybe twice a week and remembering to use it as part of my day took sometime to get used to. Recently, DuoLingo added a german ChatBot as part of the learning exercises. Now DuoLingo (via a ChatBot) talks to me like Slack does.

Adding a familiar behaviour like chatting to me in the morning has transformed my use of the DuoLingo app and Slack has a number of similarly designed ChatBot’s currently active or in development. ChatBot’s can be used for almost anything and Slack is in a perfect position to capitalise on the ChatBot movement.

Facebook-like addiction — using Slack for everything

I’m old enough to remember MSN chat and I remember staying up well past my bedtime to chat to friends, family and the odd random. I remember having the same addiction to Facebook and I think I’ve got a similar addiction to Slack…. ask my girlfriend. Unlike Facebook or even Whatsapp, the difference I find is that Slack feels less guilty and more productive.

From Slack’s internal analytics, many Slack users stay connected to the service on average of 10 hours a day. I don’t sleep 10 hours a day! That is an amazing statistic.

When you have a question about how a new feature is going, you simply ask. You knew Michael or Alvin did some work relating to your question, so you would @ mention them and make sure they both saw it.

In the event we found a bug, you would simply mention it in one of the channels and expect that it would be taken care of. Then you can see a developer created the bug, begun working on it, and once resolved, Slack would tell me so. After all, there’s tones of people in the channel so surely someone would do something about it.

All these interactions would happen in Slack, where previously they would happen via email, in-person or via other software subscription. There are tools out like bug trackers or wiki’s but there weren’t as fun and I’d have to go somewhere to do it. With Slack, it’s all in one place.

Using Slack, especially in a tech company, you have soooo much activity, and it’s fun to use, which drives our attention to it.

Giving back to the community

Slack’s Investment Fund. Source: Medium.

In late 2015, Slack teamed up with several venture capital partners to start a US$80m Investment Fund focused on investing in software projects that complement Slack’s core technology.

It’s not the first time a tech company has it’s own venture fund to invest in their own network, but no doubt they are one of the most active. In an article from Tech Crunch, Slack claims to have made 25 total investments in a range of supplementary services including StatsBot, SwayFinance, Guru and DataFox to name a few.

Warning: Balance is required

While Slack has changed the way Tappr communicates internally, it can be noisy, distracting, and not to mention impersonal.

We’ve tried just about every bot or integration there is but there’s a limit to the amount of 1001 CatFacts you can take on a daily basis. We even tried the stand-up bot to see if we could Slack-ify our development sprints however that trying to discuss complex subjects can be difficult using Slack, and doesn’t promote team-building.

Adopting more traditional Agile aspects in development assisted with more face-to-face meetings and typically solved more complex subjects in a shorter amount of time. In our Slack-peak days, we were chatting via Slack sometimes for up to 20 mins with multiple people over complex problems, that could have been solved in 2 minutes with a face to face meeting.

In short, effective communication requires a lot more than amazing connectivity. Many of the Tappr team members complained they had no idea what was happening in the company or why certain decisions were made. The executive management team (EMT) made sure that a fortnightly meeting (with beers, wine and snacks) was available for all team members to ask questions together with team leads or other staff members present. The EMT detailed the progress of the company, milestones and current progress. Anyone could ask questions about anything and no topic was taboo.

I’ve heard of other companies who have embraced Slack as the sole tool of communication and found a similar story of love, yet praised moderation after heavy reliance. I’ve heard of some companies taking a hiatus from Slack because it can be noisy or impersonal, and I understand why, after all team spirit and sanity is important, however used properly by adults, Slack is unquestionably a must-have tool for startups.

I’m buying Slack Stock.

No doubt Slack is a sexy service for any company to use as a hub for communication. Sure there are some concerns about Slack taking over your entire life, but we aren’t talking about SkyNet here. At Tappr, we were addicted to using it for absolutely everything, however over time common sense prevailed and we use Slack in moderation.

Now entering it’s 4th year from release and as Slack’s rapid growth begins to slow, the company is now looking to become a wider-diversified platform. With unparalleled activity rates for users, growing list of integrations, new version of their Slack API about to be released and a VC fund on the side, I’m here to enjoy the Slack journey into the sunset and can’t wait for IPO.

I’ll be posting another article in 2 days.

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