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Many of us know that familiar chime you hear when someone messages you inside a channel on Slack, the business world’s leading communications platform. It’s a sound that has become synonymous with the company, which, as a matter of fact, was never supposed to be the platform it has become. 

 Cal Henderson, the co-founder and CTO of Slack, will tell you that the platform that has helped transform the way distributed workforces operate, was actually originally designed as a simple tool his team used to work on a game they hoped to launch. And when that video game failed to take-off and the team was looking for a way to salvage all of the work they did, they saw a light at the end of the tunnel.

“We knew we wanted to keep working together and we realized that the way we had been collaborating and working together while working on this game, the set of tools that we’d built, we realized we always wanted to keep working together in that way. We wanted to use a set of tools like that. And if we did, maybe other small development companies like us would. So we turned that into the product and that became Slack.”

On this episode of IT Visionaries, Cal discusses Slack’s journey. He dives into the company’s initial struggle as a video game developer, and details the pivot the team made to turn it into one of the premiere platforms for distributed workforces used around the world. 

Main Takeaways

  • Pivot! Pivot!: During its infancy, the Slack team was focused on developing a video game. But once they realized the product-market fit wasn’t there, they quickly realized that the tools they were using to communicate were great for collaborating, which led to a complete pivot in the business model. 
  • Tweet Tweet: When you’re developing a platform that is built around the user experience, one of the easiest and fastest ways to build a feedback loop is through social media. When Slack wants to get an idea of what issues customers are having in real-time, they look at what users are saying to them on social media. Then, once they have an idea of those pain points, they work with them to rectify those issues.
  • The Office: While more and more employees begin working from home, distributed workforces are only growing. However, that doesn’t mean the physical office is going away. Teams will still use office spaces for collaborating and ideating. The use of platforms such as Slack serve as tools to amplify those creative sessions.

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For a more in-depth look at this episode, check out the article below.


Many of us know that familiar chime you hear when someone messages you inside a channel on Slack, the business world’s leading communications platform. It’s a sound that has become synonymous with the company, which, as a matter of fact, was never supposed to be the platform it has become. 

 Cal Henderson, the co-founder and CTO of Slack, will tell you that the platform that has helped transform the way distributed workforces operate, was actually originally designed as a simple tool his team used to work on a game they hoped to launch. And when that video game failed to take-off and the team was looking for a way to salvage all of the work they did, they saw a light at the end of the tunnel.

“We knew we wanted to keep working together and we realized that the way we had been collaborating and working together while working on this game, the set of tools that we’d built, we realized we always wanted to keep working together in that way. We wanted to use a set of tools like that. And if we did, maybe other small development companies like us would. So we turned that into the product and that became Slack.”

On this episode of IT Visionaries, Cal discusses Slack’s journey. He dives into its initial struggle as a video game developer, and details the pivot they made to turn it into one of the premiere platforms for distributed workforces used around the world.

What was initially a platform built by developers and for developers has fundamentally altered the way distributed workforces operate. By empowering teams and developers with the ability to collaborate across channels, time zones, cities, and types of teams even if they did start small. 

“We really just were targeting companies and organizations like us that are small teams,” Henderson said. “We were about 50 people. So it was small teams working on technical projects… And we wanted to make it more accessible than using IRC on the command line. But we were still thinking about technical development teams and that was our kind of initial vision.”

When Slack was first founded, its employees were already distributed across multiple cities. From San Francisco to New York to Vancouver, Canada, from day one the team at Slack operated together from afar. So when Henderson and his team went to develop the platform, the goal was to make communication as seamless and familiar as possible.

“Part of the design of Slack, and the original intention, was that we wanted to make it feel the same working with somebody who is hundreds of miles away as it is with somebody sitting next to you,” Henderson said. 

One of the ways Slack has enabled that familiar feeling is through the integration of user tools, today Slack integrates with more than 2,300 tools out of the box, which Henderson said is one of two core functions that make the program so popular. The first of those pillars is the use of channels, which was a very simple concept that allowed users the ability to operate in teams. The second piece was the integration of tools.

“Our approach with what we call the Slack platform, integrating with these other tools has changed over time,” he said. “To begin with anything that we want to integrate with Slack, we’re going to have to go build that. And over time it became, as Slack got more popular, if you’re a smaller company, then you’ll build that integration with Slack because it’s valuable for you to go do that. So it was really important for us to be able to build the platform in such a way that if you’re a third party, you’re building a piece of SaaS, it’s easy for you to go integrate that with Slack.” 

When Slack initially launched, it put an emphasis on talking to current and potential users about ways the platform could improve. Some of the initial users were friends and companies that were operated by friends. But one to reach more of the general public of users, Henderson said he relied on social media platforms such as Twitter, which allows users the opportunity to tell you their problems in real-time. 

“I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that the most important resource for product development in the last decade has been Twitter,” Henderson said. “The reason for that is because in the pre-Twitter era, if you used some product and you were annoyed about something, you might tell your friends and that’s as far as it would go…In the era of Twitter, if you’re slightly annoyed about something, you get on Twitter and you tweet about it. So there’s this huge river of free customer feedback.”

While it might be hard to aggregate all the information that Slack receives from its social media channels, it’s still a practice the company utilizes today. And Henderson said that it’s important to keep that line of communication open and to have a clear picture of the issues that Slack’s customers are experiencing.

So with more users shifting towards remote work, how has the usage of the platform changed over the course of the second half of 2020? Henderson said that more users are utilizing their messaging platform, and the use of video calls has seen an increase in usage as well. But perhaps one of the more interesting trends is the decline in email use.

“Customers say they’ve cut email usage by about 45%,” Henderson said. “I think it’s that organizations have switched from a combination of in-person conversations, in-person meetings, video, email, and Slack messaging to more concentration on Slack messaging and video meetings….The core of the product hasn’t really changed because while we didn’t design it for distributed teams, I think it just maps really well to distributed work.”

Henderson admitted that when the company first launched, he was a skeptic of fully-remote work. While his team had already been distributed across multiple cities for a while, they still had offices in those three cities. So as more and more companies shift toward a more remote workforce how does he see the future of the office changing?

“The role of the office is going to change really significantly,” Henderson said. “Lots of other people have been saying this, but I think [the office will be] less of a place where people come and have a desk and do their individual work and more of a place where people come and do collaborative work and have in-person meetings and white-boarding sessions and collaborative work and relationship building. That’s great in-person.”

To hear more about how Slack and Cal Henderson are working to change the future of work, check out the full episode of IT Visionaries.

To hear the entire discussion, tune into IT Visionaries here

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