Slack’s Rise Challenges Today’s Conventional Startup Wisdom

Outliers are valuable because they offer us 20/20 hindsight to reevaluate and challenge the assumptions we may have originally held to be true. Lyrically, it’s been a linguistic technique I’ve used in writing this one post about Snapchat and then another one about the Whatsapp acquisition — both posts went viral, in part because of the intense focus of global tech attention on the protagonist companies in question, but largely driven by, I believe, our subconscious, collective desire for and adherence to “convention.” The thought goes — if we do what are supposed to do, and what other elders say, that “convention” will ensure our success.

Yet, the reason these posts fly around the web is because, further down in our subconscious, we know conventions are challenged in deep ways, and especially by the companies listed in this post. It’s worth re-reading the posts above on Snapchat and Whatsapp, both for founders and investors alike. Subconsciously building up convention happens as a stealthy byproduct of being forced to recognize patterns in a fast-moving, dynamic environment. All of a sudden, there are things we are supposed to do, and the echo of social media hardens it into convention.

The latest company to break convention is Slack. You have may noticed me tweeting about it more. I’m trying to understand it. We all know it’s a great product, but I wanted to understand how big it can be, and what they did to make it happen. Below are some things I tweeted out, as well as a response from Anil Dash adding to the fire.

This is how Slack defied convention:

  1. Slack originally HQ’d in SF/Valley — so many blogs and pundits liked to pander that “the next big thing won’t be in the Valley.” But, Uber is. Slack is. Whatsapp is. Snapchat born here, built in LA. For Slack, there was a distributed team with HQ in SF. Those are the facts.
  2. Slack was funded with traditional VC — so many blogs and pundits like to talk about the end of traditional venture capital, even after firms like Greylock, Sequoia, and Benchmark, among others, are sitting on monster portfolios and exits. Maybe traditional VC isn’t all that bad.
  3. Slack was the byproduct of a pivot — in an era where there could be 5-10 startups in a category, there are likely too many teams playing for 2nd place or worst. Why not re-roll the dice and reinvent? That’s what Slack did. Nothing to lose but investor’s money.
  4. Slack was founded by an adult without a CS degreevia Anil. The success of Zuck and Spiegel and the fascination with youthful energy and creation has helped calcify a brand of ageism in the Valley. Add to this the “everyone must code” drumbeat and how could Butterfield have succeeded?
  5. Slack openly embraces diversity via Anil again. This is not to say other companies don’t, but it’s only recently been brought to light as a more systemic issue. Larger companies can be slower to respond. Startups are more nimble to create cultures in real time. This has been a touchy issue across the Bay Area startup ecosystem. Slack has shown leadership in its efforts to diversify and speak its mind beyond tech circles and topics.
  6. Slack respects work/life balanceagain, via Anil. The company sees most employees going home by 6pm. Sure, many work late into the night, but there is balance set into the culture from Day 1. I think that’s hard for very early-stage startups to have this luxury, but once a startup gets some serious funding, and with technology invading family life, companies can now help design structures to keep people out of the office (though still working, if they want) with a bit more ease.
  7. Slack had a revenue model from beginning via Anil. After the pivot, Slack went cross-platform with a paid product right away, possibly marking the end of the “build first, monetize later” mantra in the wake of Zuckerberg’s masterpiece. It reminds me of this great, prescient post by Mark Suster, “Why You Need To Ring The Freaking Cash Register.”

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus