Slack, The Communication and Collaboration Service for Everyone

Suddenly, everyone is either using Slack's team collaboration software, or else they're talking about it.
Marcia Wendorf

While the current pandemic has had a disastrous impact on many businesses, some are thriving, and one of these is Slack. Slack is a set of cloud-based, team-collaboration software tools that enable quick and seamless communication between team members working anywhere in the world.

Prior to the development of Slack and similar platforms, organizations often communicated by email, text messages (SMS), phone calls, Facebook Messenger, and Skype.

What is Slack?

Slack began as an internal tool used by the game development company Tiny Speck, while it was developing its non-combat massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) "Glitch".

Tiny Speck was founded by Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder of Ludicorp, the company behind photo sharing site Flickr.

The company began with just four people, but they were spread out between New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver. To communicate across different time zones, the team used Internet Relay Chat (IRC). However, after a while, the team felt they needed something more, and built their own communications tool. As they worked on Glitch, the team added new functionality as and when they needed it. For example, when they realized the team needed to be able to find old messages, they built an archive search tool. 

In the end, the surrealist "Glitch" never took off, but Butterfield realized that he actually had something better in its unique messaging technology, and began developing Slack in earnest in early 2013 and the platform was released in May of that year. On the first day of Slack’s preview release, 8,000 people requested invitations to join. A week later, more than 15,000 people requested access. The name is an acronym for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge.


Slack logo
Slack logo, Source: Slack

Slack is currently being used by large enterprise companies such as Starbucks, Target, TDAmeritrade, Uber, Intuit, BBC, Oracle, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The New York Times, and ETrade.

Slack is also ideal for small businesses because it includes a freemium model where non-paying users can view and search their 10,000 most recent messages. A paid subscription allows users to search more than 10,000 messages, and it provides the ability to add unlimited apps and integrations within Slack.

How Slack works

The Slack app can be used on a desktop or smartphone. To use Slack on a desktop or laptop, your operating system must be Windows 7 or above for PCs, OS X 10.10 or above for Macs, and for Linux users, Slack requires Fedora 28 or above, Ubuntu LTS 16.04 or above, or Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.0 or above.

Slack also requires that you use the following browsers:

  • Chrome - Version 66 or above
  • Firefox - Version 60 or above
  • Safari - Version 10.1 or above
  • Edge - Version 41 or above

When first signing up with Slack, an administrator creates a "workspace", which is comprised of teams, groups, or communities. Members are then invited by the administrator or a fellow team member to join that workspace.

Within a workspace are "channels", which are designated with a hashtag (#), and which reflect a specific group such as, #marketing, #sales, #engineering. The channels are where team members communicate with one another and work together.

Slack main screen
Slack main screen, Source: Marcia Wendorf

By default, Slack creates two channels: #general and #random. The #random channel is a place for team members just to hang out and share non-work-related activities. Channels can either be public and open to everyone, or else private.

Within a channel, team members can send messages to everyone within that channel, or just to specific members. Paid plans also allow users to send messages to people outside of their workspace, such as contractors, vendors, or clients. Files can be shared with fellow team members, and important messages can be "pinned", making them easy to locate.

Slack pins
Slack pins, Source: Marcia Wendorf

Within channels are "threads", which are topics. Users typically start a thread to ask a question or to add a comment. Threads tie together specific messages or files.

Slack provides a powerful search capability, allowing you to search for topics, conversations, files, or people. It also includes a large number of emojis so you can add visual interest to your messages. For example, the checkmark emoji means "I've got it" or "Understood", the two eyes emoji means, "I'm looking for an answer to your question," and the spool emoji means "Please reply in a thread."

In fact, everything about Slack seemed to defy conventional wisdom about enterprise communications tools. Slack’s colorful interface and use of emoji were injected into a playful feel, and users weren’t restricted to text-based responses.

Other apps integrate with Slack

An enormous advantage of Slack is that there are more than 2,200 apps that can be integrated with Slack. These Slack-compatible apps include:

  • Google Drive - allows you to get notifications about Google Drive files from within Slack
  • GitHub - provides updates from this well-known development platform
  • Asana - integrates Slack with this project management tool
  • Giphy - provides access to an online library of animated GIFs
  • Google Calendar - allows you to see your schedule, respond to invites, and get event updates right from Slack
  • Zoom - allows you to create a Zoom video meeting from Slack
  • Twitter - you can bring tweets into Slack
  • Trello - integrates with this project organization software
  • Dropbox - allows you to access cloud storage from Slack.

The Slack API (application programming interface) allows Slack users to create their own applications and automate processes. These can include sending alerts or automatic notifications and creating support tickets. The Slack API is compatible with many frameworks, applications, and services.

You can place audio or video calls to other workspace members from within Slack, and you can even display your computer screen to your teammates during video calls.

Slack goes public

Slack grew rapidly and in June 2019, the company went public with a direct public offering, or DPO, rather than with an initial public offering, or IPO. A DPO, which is also known as a direct placement, eliminates the middlemen  — investment banks, broker-dealers, and underwriters —involved in stock offerings, which lowers the cost of acquiring investment capital. On its first day of trading, Slack's shares closed at 50% about the opening price,  and the company was valued at $24 billion.

And then came the Covid-19 pandemic. Suddenly, everyone was working from home. Slack reported a 28% rise in its paid customers during Q1 2020 and reported that its revenue was up 50% year-on-year to $201.7 million. Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield was quoted in an earnings release as saying, "We believe the long-term impact the three months and counting of working from home will have on the way we work is of generational magnitude. This will continue to catalyze adoption for the new category of channel-based messaging platforms we created."

In June 2020, Slack partnered with Amazon, and Slack will begin using Amazon Chime for its voice and video calls. Slack will also increase its usage of Amazon Web Services (AWS) for its storage, computing, database, security, machine learning, and analytics needs.

In turn, Amazon will allow its 840,000 employees to begin using Slack. Prior to the Amazon deal, Slack's biggest customer was IBM, whose 350,000 employees use the platform.

Slack stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) under the symbol "WORK".  As of July 2, 2020, Slack was trading at $30.31 a share, an increase of 38% during the first half of 2020.

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