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The Problem With Slack
In deciding what startup to start, I’ve been thinking about what problem space I want to tackle. An area that’s drawing my attention is team communication and collaboration, especially for knowledge workers. This is for several reasons:
With the trend towards distributed/hybrid teams, effective communication is becoming increasingly important.
Large opportunity size. Slack was acquired for $27.7 billion in 2021 and Deel recently reached $100M ARR (showing that the market is growing).
I spent nearly 4 years working on Workplace from Meta, so I’m familiar with building in this space.
Perhaps most importantly, I enjoy building in this space.
Looking at the current industry-leading solution for tech companies, Slack, I see a large opportunity for improvement in how teams and companies communicate and collaborate.
Below is my thinking around the problem space after conducting many research sessions. I’d love your thoughts and feedback on it.
The Current Problem
Slack doesn’t scale. The more people in a Slack workspace, the noisier it becomes.
Slack is based on IRC and is a messaging client. It was built for synchronous communication and not for collaboration. As a result, the way to scale Slack for a large company is to create more and more channels. This increases the amount of information generated in a company. Whilst this can be a good thing, Slack users don’t have the ability to filter high-quality information from low-quality.
This causes a number of issues:
Employees feel overwhelmed. There are too many channels and too many messages.
They miss important discussions happening in channels and especially in threads.
They can’t find or refer back to earlier discussions.
Slack becomes difficult to navigate and easy to lose your place in. This causes people to forget to respond to messages or even where to respond to a message.
These pains are particularly felt by companies that rely on written communication for collaboration since they produce a lot of information that is consumed inside Slack. These tend to be companies that have one or more of the following characteristics:
are remote-first or hybrid.
have employees that are distributed across timezones.
have more than 50 employees.
consist primarily of knowledge workers.
Exploring Existing Solutions
Already mentioned above are the problems with Slack. However, to its credit, what Slack does well is:
Performance. It’s fast and reliable.
Design. Its interface is intuitive and simple.
Adoption. Within companies that use Slack, the majority of employees are using it.
The last 2 points are particularly important since they are two separate and strong network effects that make it difficult to replace Slack within a company.
Slack alternatives tend to fall into two categories:
Slack clone but with Feature X. Feature X is usually something like task management, project management, notes etc. Examples of these apps are Chanty, Rock.so, Flock, Ryver, Twist (there are many more).
The problem with the apps in the second category is that they end up competing with two existing tools. For example, not only do they need to ensure their chat functionality is better than Slack’s but they also need to ensure their task/project management features are better than Asana / Monday / Jira / Notion / G-suite etc. They then need to break the network efforts of all these products within a company to see strong adoption.
To their credit, they reduce the number of apps you use or need to search for information, which was a minor pain point that came up in a few research sessions.
With 270 million monthly active users, Teams is the biggest competitor in the space. It’s adopted by companies that primarily use the Microsoft suite of products. Teams is extremely well integrated with the rest of the Microsoft suite. These tend to be older, larger organisations e.g. Accenture, Pfizer.
Teams doesn’t have much adoption from tech-first companies or startups. It’s not clear to me why this is. Anecdotally I’ve heard:
Performance is not so good.
Microsoft reputation (e.g. not perceived as industry-leading software to use).
Slack is the established default.
If you have more insights into this, please let me know.
Principles for Coming Up With a Better Solution to Slack
A replacement solution for Slack needs to do what Slack does well. Namely:
Intuitive and simple UI
You can then improve on the things that Slack does poorly (namely information overload) by adhering to the following principles:
Don’t overwhelm your users i.e. as a user I should be able to know quickly what’s important to me and requires my attention (as opposed to Slack where it’s never immediately clear what’s high signal information versus what’s noise).
Simple navigation. I should be able to know where I want to navigate in the app and be able to do so quickly.
Lastly, the app should feel familiar and require almost no onboarding, especially if you’re a Slack user. This will help with adoption within a company.
Breaking the Network Effect
As mentioned, one of the reasons Slack works so well is that it has large adoption within a company. There are two ways to replace this network effect: Top-down and bottom-up.
Top-down: Convince the C-suite executives to replace Slack with an alternative tool. This is difficult to accomplish as changing the primary communication tool of any company will meet a lot of resistance internally. This is especially true the more employees a company has. The other problem with this approach is that it requires a large upfront investment in building a product with many features before it’s viable for the entire company to switch.
Bottom-up: Drive adoption within a company by getting independent teams of 2 or more people to use your product. This is actually the approach that Slack used to gain adoption. Eventually, enough teams inside a company were using Slack that it made sense for the entire company to adopt it.
I think there is an opportunity here to take this a step further: Drive adoption within a company by getting independent individuals to use your product. It’s much easier for an individual to adopt a product on their own than for them to need to convince a coworker to use a product with them.
I feel I now have a good foundation of the problem space and its constraints. The next step for me is to use this to brainstorm potential solutions.
Thanks for reading and please do share your thoughts with me.