In this series, we do a deep dive into the success stories of companies that managed the leap from wide-eyed foal to splendid unicorn, and return with 3 core ideas. The goal is to distill the basic principles that propelled these mavericks to great heights and use these actionable insights in our own lives and businesses.

Today we look at Slack. A company that seemed set to be just another messaging app, but somehow became the fastest growing B2B SaaS product in the world (ever).

Here are the 3 ideas that made Slack.

 

Idea #1

 

Not new, not better, but something unlike anything else

 

 

 

When Slack arrived on the scene, there already were a myriad of services that companies used for internal communications. There was HipChat, Hangouts, Whatsapp and Messenger, there were also IRC services, email chains, Facebook Groups, and even ole’ crusty legacy SMS. Slack was entering a hyper-crowded marketplace – except that it wasn’t.

Slack saw an opportunity in the cacophony of formal and informal services that companies were using to communicate. It was normal to have centralised and integrated services in other areas of a businesses’ ecosystem, like cloud storage (Google Drive), git version control management (GitHub), project management (BaseCamp), etc. But there was no similar system for arguably the most important function and asset in a business: communication.

What Slack came up with wasn’t another group chat system, it was a one-stop shop for infinitely customisable, frictionless team communication. Slack was selling organizational transformation, a new way of working. Less stress, fewer emails, skyrocketing productivity – the dream.

Slack’s strategy was answering the call for “there has to be a better way” in a market where most people weren’t even asking for one.

 

 

“Despite the fact that there are a handful of direct competitors and a muddled history of superficially similar tools, we are setting out to define a new market. And that means we can’t limit ourselves to tweaking the product; we need to tweak the market too.”

Stewart Butterfield

 

 

Slack decided to attack “marketing from both ends”. This meant a relentless focus on change in the direction of customer needs AND effectively communicating the novelty and utility of the product. Slack not only built something people wanted – they let them know they wanted it. The education effort the company took on was monumental, but it paid off, a paradigm had been shifted.

 

Idea #2

 

Creating a market requires nothing less than perfection

 

Slack’s approach to finding product-market fit by building a completely new market was daring. It was also incredibly hard to replicate, mostly because it was the functional equivalent of scaling Everest armed with a dessert fork, flip-flops, and a windbreaker.

While antibiotics or the telegraph were products fulfilling a screaming public need, nobody actually knew they needed a centralised communication hub. Slack could easily charm users into a test drive, but any snag or friction they encountered with the software could make them slip back into their motley bag of legacy chat systems. The team was walking a tightrope with no safety net in sight. Nothing less than excellence would suffice in the effort of building and convincing customers that this is “the future of work”.

 

“The reason for saying we need to do ‘an exceptional, near-perfect job of execution’ is this: When you want something really bad, you will put up with a lot of flaws. But if you do not yet know you want something, your tolerance will be much lower. That’s why it is especially important for us to build a beautiful, elegant and considerate piece of software. Every bit of grace, refinement, and thoughtfulness on our part will pull people along. Every petty irritation will stop them and give the impression that it is not worth it.”

Stewart Butterfield

 

Slack focused on the future, on who they wanted their customers to become: calm, productive, masters of their own purposeful communication. This guiding light fuelled the attention to detail that allowed them to gain users’ trust and scale the company to more than 10 million daily active users as of January 2019.

 

Idea #3

 

Less but better

 

To be able to keep up with the exacting standards that conquering untested waters required, Slack needed to focus. They bet on nailing a few core functions rather than trying to do it all. The idea was that if users were extremely happy with the essentials, a slip or two on the nice-to-haves would go under the radar.

The essentials for Slack were agreed to be: search, file sharing, and synchronization.

 

“We had a lot of conversations about choosing the three things we’d try to be extremely, surprisingly good at. And ultimately we developed Slack around really valuing those three things. It can sound simple, but narrowing the field can make big challenges and big gains for your company feel manageable. Suddenly you’re ahead of the game because you’re the best at the things that really impact your users.”

Stewart Butterfield

 

The search function was modeled on the universality and robustness of GMail. Any and everything had to be searchable because it fulfilled the promise of the system: to be more than a garden variety chat, to be a knowledge repository. This function was the lynchpin, the gaping mouth A-Ha that the company built its marketing on.

Sharing files also became an opportunity to surprise and delight, because it gave users frictionlessly integrated rich information, peppered with snippets of text and vivid images and videos straight in the chat window. Countless integrations and supported formats allowed any type of file to be shared and referenced directly, from the moment it was posted until the end of time.

On the synchronisation end, Slack has focused on what they call “leave-state synchronization,” which means users can seamlessly pick up where they left off while switching between devices.

Nailing these core functions perfectly gave Slack enough buy-in with users to be able to expand virally and the low cost made it easy for new users to make the switch. At only 22 cents a day and boasting instantly impressive functions, Slack snuck into companies through the back door and established itself through word-of-mouth and die-hard fans.

The saga of Slack is infused with the principles of its founders, one of which is CEO, Stewart Butterfield. One story he recounts on his Medium blog frames the entire future ethos of the company and is a great example of at least one of the things that makes this titan of industry tick:

 

“Every job you do has your signature on it.

When I was around 10 or 11 years old, my father offered me $10 to move a cord of recently-delivered firewood from the driveway into the garage and stack it up inside (I am old; $10 was a great deal of money back then). I managed to get all the firewood inside but rather than it being stacked against the wall, it was more or less evenly distributed across the floor of the garage. I expected my payment, but instead got some advice: “Every job you do has your signature on it — do you really want to sign that?” I always remembered that and if I am going to do something, I make every effort to do it right. (I also properly stacked the wood afterward, even though it took forever, and I got paid in the end.)”

Stewart Butterfield

 

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