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Slack and Email and the Lowest Common Denominator

a16z is a well-known venture capital firm in the valley. I recently discovered that they produce a weekly podcast, and after a few episodes, have been impressed with the range of topics they’re covering. While they have some obvious bias and promotion towards their own portfolio companies, they make an honest effort to talk with subject matter experts, and their expertise has made for enlightening and highly educational listening.

They recently figured Slack; specifically, how its founders think about the nature of enterprise software and how they’ve been able to spur adoption in a crowded environment. While the press about Slack have focused on its high user figures and rocketship valuation, trying to nail down exactly why they’re so successful in such a short period of time has turned up little insight beyond impossibly good timing and luck.

Most workplace tools are focused on optimizing subsets of activity; they don’t properly model how work is actually accomplished: tasks, communications, project planning and execution and results are all jumbled together, resisting “clean” organization and separation. For pretty much every modern company, large parts of this work is done via email. Admittedly, email is and has been suboptimal in managing all these disparate activities, but it is also the only tool which can and often captures the work.

Every year there are yet another dozen attempts to replace email. While I’m not buying that Slack will succeed, it sounds like that they at least understand some of the reasons why email has persisted so long as a dominant medium of communication. Email is completely indispensable because of its accessibility and flexibility.

It turns out there’s real value in being an accessible lowest common denominator. Stewart Butterfield – Slack’s CEO – makes a pertinent point on the convenience of simple integration with bug trackers and CRMs and product management tools. Even as he readily accepts that surface-level integrations do not enable the best experiences, Slack tries to make up for its deficiencies by enabling both speed (e.g., make it easy to file a new bug) and permeance (e.g., provide service-wide search and archives).

In an increasingly “app constellation” world of products built around singular activities, this is a refreshingly contrarian value proposition. On some level, Slack’s model of one-service-for-all-services is a rebuttal against the current trend in the hyper-optimization of workflows, singular apps and products that are focused on their one simple task. Slack is effective because it tries to break down the data silos[1] that other apps generate, and presents a unified interface for retrieving that information.

Kinda like email. I like their chances.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)

  1. Most good services have APIs available to import and export their data sets. That said though, there is a cost to build and maintain custom app-to-app integrations if the service providers aren’t taking on the work themselves.
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