I am sure that you have heard that Salesforce is buying Slack for a whopping $28 billion by now. And if you saw Marc Benioff in conversation with Bloomberg’s Emily Chang this morning, you could tell that Christmas came early for him and his company. With (Quip CEO) Bret Taylor and (Slack CEO) Stewart Butterfield in the ranks, it is not surprising — he has a company that can go toe-to-toe with Microsoft.
That will be the subject of a different blog post, but for now, let me talk about Slack and Stewart. I had originally crafted this piece on the day of Slack’s public offering. As an angel investor in the company, I felt compelled to write about why Slack mattered? Well, I never really published the piece. Thinking about it — it doesn’t matter: it is still relevant today, as it was then, for it is about why Slack mattered enough for Benioff to pony up more dollars than what Microsoft paid for LinkedIn.
In a galaxy far, far away, long before someone coined the phrase “Web 2.0,” pivoting wasn’t a thing. But that’s exactly what the co-founders of a little gaming company from Vancouver were doing when I first met them. Things weren’t going too well, so they were evolving the initial idea of a game into a new product — a cleverly and cheekily named photo sharing service. They called it Flickr.
The Internet was like a nuclear wasteland at the time. Flickr was like the first bloom, a flicker of hope. And all of us early bloggers became active participants in the community. I didn’t really take photos then, but the rise of camera phones helped me post slices of my life to the platform. Flickr changed the course of the web in more ways than many realize. It felt like the first real social community online, from tags to followers to embeds to likes to sharing to the very idea of online community. Its influence is seen even today in many modern products, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram.
One of its co-founders was Stewart Butterfield. The other one was Caterina Fake. And the third key person was Cal Henderson. First, I wrote about the product on my blog. Next, I wrote about their progress. And then, I wrote about their pending acquisition by Yahoo. A relationship had started to form. We stayed in touch. Nurtured by time, our professional relationship evolved into a friendship, enabled and maintained through the Internet.
Like a serpent, life carved its path. Stewart moved back to Canada and, along with Cal, started working on a company called Tiny Speck. It was good to see Stewart and Cal back in the startup trenches. We stayed in touch, and I learned that they were pivoting yet again. They were going to focus on bringing a tool developed for internal communications to the market. Tiny Speck became Slack Technologies.
Meanwhile, I was also pivoting, as my role evolved from that of a writer and founder to my new position as an investor at True Ventures. Throughout, I held onto my core belief that, much like food, shelter, and clothing, we humans can’t live without communicating. It is what makes us a society. The connection between new modes of communication and major societal shifts is why I marveled at the first cell phone I ever saw. It is why I was so energized by the Internet and its seemingly endless possibilities. That is what led to my instant love affair with Skype.
Many winters ago, in a column for my old magazine, Business 2.0, I wrote:
For the longest time, the concept of work had been confined and defined by two parameters: space and time. We all used to go to a central location to work. We would work at our nine-to-five jobs, then come home, watch television, read a little, go to sleep, and start all over again.
Just as time would define our work and our life, space or location would define industries. Automobiles blossomed in Detroit. Filmmaking and television flourished in California. Fashion thrived in Paris. Publishing and advertising found a home in New York City and in these locations, business giants of the 20th century attracted hundreds of thousands of workers.
With the rise of broadband, a new factor has come into play: connectedness. Connectedness allows companies big and small to exist as a stateless entity. Today, a startup can offer a new device dreamed up and designed in California, manufactured in China and sold in Europe with support services being in India or the Philippines.
It is not just startups; companies as large as Cisco Systems and Nokia are working across different time zones, accomplishing different tasks and functioning like a beast that never sleeps. Thanks to connectedness, the old-fashioned notions of space and time are soon going to be rendered moot. How can a day end at 5:00 p.m. when half your team is spread across multiple time zones?
That thinking led to my first investment in a social collaboration software startup, Socialcast, which was eventually acquired by VMWare. The lessons we learned from Socialcast helped refine my thinking about work and the workplace. From the telegraph to the telephone to email and social software, the world of work has always evolved toward faster communication tools. I have no doubt that the next evolution of how we communicate and work together will heavily involve video conferencing and, eventually, VR conferencing. Zoom-boom is just a leading indicator of that behavior shift. (Related: Why we are underestimating Zoom and its impact.)
So, when I saw the early version of Slack, I was intrigued by its possibilities as a messaging platform that wasn’t really an email, but an API to carry notifications for different kinds of corporate applications. When Stewart was raising his next round of financing, he ended up working with my friend, Mamoon Hamid, then of Social Capital (now at KPCB). With the permission of our partnership, I ended up making a small personal angel investment in the company.
The company went public — at $26 a share. The stock popped, and the company is now worth $28 billion. It is amazing to see what Cal, Stewart, and everyone on the Slack team has achieved with what was initially an internal tool. Thanks for taking me along on the ride, and making me even more of a believer. There are Slack doubters. There are Slack haters. And there are Slack imitators.
What is undeniable is that Slack has the tailwind of change behind it. The workplace of today is evolving and will keep evolving. The pandemic has only accelerated that change. The workday of today is changing and will keep changing. The tools that make sense of this change will keep evolving. I was long and will always be “long” human need to communicate.
So is Benioff.
PS: In case you were wondering, I don’t hold any shares in Slack.
December 2, 2020, San Francisco