How Did Slack Grow So Fast?

Slack has managed to become the fastest growing B2B startup. Ever. It’s a pretty amazing story and it almost feels like it found success by accident. However, success was anything but an accident and Slack grew by obsessively listening to customers, quickly testing, constantly iterating, and always putting their learning to use.

Slack and Success – The Story

If you’re somewhat aware of Slack’s story, you probably know that it started out as an attempt to build a multiplayer game. We don’t think this part of the Slack story is all that relevant, so we are going to skip ahead to when they began working on the app we know today, towards the end of 2012.

At the end of 2012, one of the founders of Flickr, Stewart Butterfield, began building Slack. It took him and his team until the Summer of 2013 to have a product ready to be tested, with the preview releasing becoming available in August 2013 (seven months after the company started).

Butterfield explained to First Round Review: “That was essentially our beta release, but we didn’t want to call it a beta because then people would think that the service would be flaky or unreliable. Instead, with help from an impressive press blitz (based largely on the team’s prior experience — i.e. use whatever you’ve got going for you), they welcomed people to request an invitation to try Slack. On the first day, 8,000 people did just that; and two weeks later, that number had grown to 15,000.

The big lesson here: Don’t underestimate the power of traditional media when you launch. It must be your primary concern, starting months beforehand and continuing for weeks afterward. Pull the strings you have. Work closely with your PR firm to find your hook. It can be personalities on your team, impressive customers you already have in the bag, prestigious investors, etc. But don’t leave it to two weeks beforehand and throw something together.

Most importantly, getting the story out doesn’t end when an article is published. In fact, by Butterfield’s estimation, that’s only about 20% of the recipe for media success. “The other 80% is people posting about that article. I almost never go to news sites — it’s overwhelming how much content is out there. But I will pay attention to what my friends are picking up and sharing.”

For Slack, social media is one key factor that helped propel them towards success. The company embraced all of the positive press mentions they were receiving and ran with them. They never let a press mention that they earned die, and they were constantly coming up with ways to give each mention new life and spread across as many networks as possible. Most importantly, the company wasn’t worried about repetition in their sharing. They viewed repetition as a positive thing that kept their company on the top of their target audiences’ minds.

Explaining to Users Why They Absolutely Need the Product

Slack did something that a lot of startups fail to do, meticulously analyzing every piece of feedback possible. By embracing all feedback, it becomes a lot easier to shape an early experience around what users want, so that explaining why they absolutely need the product feels relatable. Considering every piece of feedback possible is a critical component of laying the foundation for success.

Slack spent a lot of time working on their preview release and quickly adding or removing product features based on what early users were telling them. After around six months, they decided that they had learned enough to start inviting more users to their product.

When Slack began inviting more people to use their product, they discovered the adoption hurdle of convincing entire teams to use their product. Butterfield explained, “Take Dropbox, for example, A person tries it on a couple of devices, likes it, and commits to spending a few bucks a month for it. We have to convince a team, and no two teams are alike.”

To convince teams that there was value in Slack, they decided to explain how Slack worked and what it was for, to individuals. The idea behind this is that if they created content focused on getting individuals to love their product, they both educated people on their product and had created ammunition to get individuals to convince teams to try it.

Convincing people to switch to Slack was also difficult because Butterfield explained: “somewhere between 20 to 30% of our users — and this is just an estimate — come from some other centralized group-messaging system like HipChat, Campfire, or IRC. He continued, “When we asked the other 70 to 80% what they were using for internal communication, they said, ‘Nothing.’ But obviously they were using something. They just weren’t thinking of this as a category of software.”

Butterfield saw this “nothing” as an opportunity. The opportunity in front of them was to create a new product category. They made this idea a priority and then positioning Slack as a better solution than what was being used before.

To really drive home the notion that had created a better team communication solution, they made it very simple to adopt Slack. They made it so that teams were targeted to try the product, not entire companies. By getting teams to opt-in to Slack, they were able to bypass having top management approve a software buy-in. Early on, teams at companies like Adobe were creating multiple paid accounts, with the decision to use Slack being made by team managers (not top executives).

Listen, Like Crazy

Butterfield and his co-founders are all obsessed with reading user feedback. They attribute this obsession with helping them become successful so fast. They made sure that they were responding to every email or support ticket rapidly and viewed these interactions as quick and powerful ways to create long-lasting customer relationships.

Listening became a core internal value at Slack, which meant that when important users told them that something wasn’t working or useful, they fixed the feature immediately.

Embracing feedback is now deeply embedded in the company’s DNA. Butterfield explained: ”We will take user feedback any way we can get it. In the app, we include a command that people can use to send us feedback. We have a help button that people can use to submit support tickets.” He added, “we probably get 8,000 Zendesk help tickets and 10,000 tweets per month, and we respond to all of them.”

What Butterfield said is contrary to how most companies treat customer service. Most companies view customer service as a burden, but Slack views it as an opportunity. This is a mentality that more companies should be embracing because customer interaction is a chance to have a marketing win. If you do an amazing job at customer service and exceed expectations, people are likely going to talk about and recommend your product.

With Slack being so passionate about listening to and talking with customers, they naturally hear tons of feature ideas. These ideas are often passed around and get posted into an internal Slack channel where new features are discussed and considered.

Know What Your Metrics Mean

While feedback is important, so are metrics. This is because you could be getting phenomenal engagement on social media, but see a different reality with actual product usage.

With this in mind, Slack found their “magic number.” This “magic number” was the number of messages it took for a team to have really tried (and likely begin to enjoy) using Slack. The number was 2,000 messages. If a team sent 2,000, they were likely going to become a long-term Slack user. In fact, 93% of customers who hit that 2,000 message threshold is still using Slack.

Because Slack knows that 2,000 messages are an important moment for their product, they can work on ways to get customers to achieve that threshold. Everything they do can be focused on getting new customers to cross that milestone. And this is another reason why your sales team should be using Slack.

Don’t Hide Your Greatness

When you get feedback, you’ll hear both good and bad things. When you hear great feedback, you should focus on amplifying what people love about you. This means using feedback to explain why your product or service is different and better than competitors.

Beyond explaining your greatness to customers, you can use feedback to focus on the features that people are enjoying most. Butterfield explained something he learned from Paul Buchheit, one of Gmail’s creators: “If you do a few things incredibly well, the rest doesn’t really matter.”

Butterfield elaborated on this notion with Gmail, sharing: “if you look at the first generations of Gmail, it was in fact missing a lot of features. Still, users were so impressed by the searchable interface, threaded conversations, and the then-unimaginable one gig of storage, that they weren’t fazed by what the product didn’t have.”

Thinking about this idea, you can quickly see the importance of not cutting corners on the most important features of your product.

The moral of the Slack story is that you need to listen to users, embraced feedback, and get really good at what you’re great at. With these simple ideas in mind, you’ll be able to lay the foundation for a great B2B product.