Interview with James Sherrett of Slack

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  • The past four years have been a whirlwind of success for the team behind Slack, the latest Tech unicorn app which enables teams to message, search and archive information in real time.

    What originally began as an internalised communication tool used by their company, Tiny Speck, in the development of the now defunct online game Glitch, the app has skyrocketed to success, earning itself a $540 million investment from heavyweight venture capital firms such as Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins.

    Whilst Slack may have its roots in online gaming, industry experts value the company at $3.8 billion which demonstrates that the company isn’t playing around. Not surprisingly, Slack now assists a diverse range of organisations, from IBM and Electronic Arts, to Ireland’s own Father Ted creator, Graham Linehan.

    “I love Ireland; we’ve lived here for over two years now. The job that I had with Slack was to set up the office, hire people and hire a successor for the head of sales role” says James Sherrett, lead technologist behind Slack.

    Sherrett speaks to us a few months after the launch of the company’s Enterprise Grid, which saw Slack embark on a recruitment drive and ramp up its European client base from January 2017. Interestingly,  the majority of Slack’s non-American markets are European. The firm’s international ambitions have been consolidated by the opening of a new European HQ in Dublin at the start of this year. It has also recently opened premises in London.

    Sherrett speaks fondly of his time working on behalf of Slack in Dublin: “My son has developed an Irish accent… although we do move back to Canada in a few weeks. We had a wonderful experience here”.

    Industry outsiders could be forgiven for drawing certain assumptions about a business model such as Slack . The communication method, does, of course, follow in a long line of examples of applications which offer more efficient modes of communication. Examples such as Kik Messenger, Whatsapp and Hangouts are testament to the intrinsic need for a business to communicate quickly and effectively.

    The app’s capabilities are testament to the fact that Slack is far from another piece of run of the mill communication software. Rather than focusing on singular conversations, Slack instead presents itself as a messaging platform for teams, that brings all modes of communication together.

    This amalgamation has in effect created a single, unified archive, accessible through an advanced search engine. With a stroke of genius, Slack is capable of efficiently integrating with hundreds of iconic services such as Twitter, Dropbox, Google Docs, MailChimp and Zendesk. For the team at Slack, the clue is in the name: standing as an acronym for “Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge”, and the app is just that - a platform in which modern day teams of staff can make sense of the ever-growing flows of data that are becoming increasingly problematic as technology advances.

    “One of the things Slack users consistently tell us is that having Slack for all their team communication is like having a searchable, external super brain,” says Sherrett. “They can trust that anything they need to know is in Slack – it's all pulled together into one place and searchable”. Indeed, Slack’s trustworthy position within the industry is supported by its numbers: 6.8 million weekly active users, 5 million daily active users and 1.5 million+ paid users have effectively granted the app the title of “the fastest growing business app of all time”.

    According to a report in The Times, the effect of Slack has resulted in numbers of meetings reduced by up to 50 percent, with a notable increase in transparency. Statements from Slack itself claim that app users have experienced 25 percent fewer meetings, a 48 percent reduction in internal emails and a 32 percent increase in productivity. There is a high level of engagement with active users, with the average customer spending nearly 10 hours per day logged into the app. With active user numbers expected to double by the year’s end, Slack has boasted a user base which has grown at a steady rate of 5 percent each week for 70 weeks running.

    “We’re deeply committed to supporting a diverse and valuable ecosystem of third-party apps and now we’ve got 600+ in the Slack App Directory”, says a proud Sherrett. “With the launch of the Slack Fund and App Directory, we’ve been able to both support developers, and help our customers get more value from Slack and all the Apps they use”. Indeed, with such ground gained in what is still a business in its youth, Slack have secured a remarkable achievement in being rewarded as INC’s 2015 Company of the Year.

    Such has been the success of Slack, the business has, until recently, avoided standard advertising - it simply hasn’t had to. Slack doesn't have any salespeople in its organisation, and only recently has it begun to advertise, with an impressive 97 percent of its new customers being referrals. “We haven’t really had time to focus on those specific verticals yet,” says Sherrett. “Also, they’re the kinds of industries that tend to adopt technology more slowly. It’s just a matter of prioritisation. And that probably has [been for] two reasons”.

    For Sherrett, these reasons narrow down to “technological readiness”, and a stronger focus upon product requirements as opposed to marketing. As Slack has grown, however, so has its marketing tactics: “anything from buying advertisements on podcasts, and different performance based advert singing, to working with existing customers and doing customer focused events in specific markets”.

    The best proof point for marketing, according to Sherrett, is to try the product. “If you use the product and it’s easy to see the value from it, then you keep using the product, and then you become an advocate for it. So that was always what we were focused on, delivering the best value”.

    With any great idea or business comes an equally great practice of recruitment and training. The team behind Slack, of course, are no stranger to this idea. “Our recruitment process is different for different roles across the company,” says Sherrett. “We’re always looking to find the best match of [achieving] business results and adopting our values of empathy, craftsmanship and solitude.

    We emphasise both [a] track record of success [in achieving] business results, but also examples of living the values and having those personality traits”. According the brains behind Slack, technical knowledge can be taught; but personality is paramount. In an industry sometimes clouded by tech jargon and corporate language, Sherrett insists on the need for emotionally intelligent staff and skilled writers to form an effective team.

    Grandiose claims are a common feature in industries which sees corporations perpetually in competition with one another. Of the biggest claims Sync NI has heard about Slack, is that the app is presenting itself as the gravedigger of email. However, Sherrett dismisses this claim: “I don’t think our goal is to kill email, and I don’t think it’s an achievable goal anyway. Email will not go away. And there’s a very good reason for that. It crosses organisational boundaries really well [and] it’s easy to devolve to it as the lowest common denominator”.

    However, the technologist refuses to rule out the prevalence of Slack to future business communication - “if you’re using email for internal communication ,there’s a lot of opportunity to boost the productivity, morale and culture, as well as just the output of the team by moving to a system like Slack, or Slack itself”.

    For the team behind Slack, the company’s success has been a realisation of a decades long shift from traditional distributed systems to a much-needed, cohesive organisational platform. Slack boasts that they have engineered the capability to effectively fold these methods of communications into one place. “So if you want to use One Drive, or Dropbox, or Google Drive you can use whatever one you want and Slack,”, says Sherrett. “So Slack is the fabric that knits together all of those different software systems, and there’s getting to be more of them all of the time that specialise fast”.

    No conversation about an app such as Slack could finish without a mention of its capabilities in regards to artificial intelligence. “There’s a lot of hype about AI and machine learning, but seeing some of the nice small things that are already a part of Slack,” says Sherrett. “So we introduced a feature recently that’s prioritized search, so it actually surfaces not just the search results of the conversations, but also the people who talked about those topics as well. So you start to see those small, incremental benefits to the product”.

    According to Sherrett, when you’re communicating in one place it’s easy to draw the value from it. “So the more that you can streamline those, the more valuable that you make the tool, but also the more valuable that you make the experience for people, and that’s what we aim to do”.

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