Slack’s Success and Silos vs Teams

(Note: I’m going to leave the original post as-is, but I don’t think I wrote it very well, so see the addendums to prevent misunderstandings. Maybe. This is the Internet after all.)

I read a blog post today that shocked me. A design agency taking credit for their client’s success. Which was surprising unto itself but what was more surprising was the content.

The suppostition that design was the key to Slack’s success.

Electric colors. Sassy copy. Is this what made the difference between success or failure?

No, it did not. I say this as a CEO of a company on Hipchat that switched his entire company to Slack, even though many employees complained that the improvements were incremental.

The big differences were these:

  1. A significantly better mobile app. Let’s face it, Slack understood the importance of mobile and invested in it far more than Hipchat, Flockdock and all the others
  2. Some very nuanced structural differences which enabled better “rooms” within the company, and entirely separate and secure experiences with clients, without a big UX headache
  3. The sense that Slack had momentum, vision, and creativity, and if we as a company had to bet on the partner for the future (and I’m serious about the phrase partner because as a distributed company, chat is mission critical), Slack was the company to go with. Some of this was tied to the founder — let’s face it, there are a lot of us that will try anything that Stuart or Caterina create — but the buzz, funding, and execution all came together.

Did I appreciate the copy? yes. The branding? yes. Did it make the decision? No.

Further, Slack has always understood, the way 37 Signals understood, that marketing is essential to success. Far too many startup people underestimate this and think everything banks on the product. I wrote on this before. Marketing isn’t a bad word. It is just the task of building indirect demand for your product.

I am not writing this note to throw a talented design agency under the bus. They did really great work. I am writing this note to remind all of us that silos don’t matter.

Design doesn’t save us. Strategy doesn’t save us. Engineering doesn’t save us. Marketing doesn’t save us. Customer support doesn’t save us.

No one gets to go on a pedestal.

Either it all works, or it doesn’t work.

It ain’t the electric colors, I hate to break it to MetaLab. It’s the whole picture. It’s the company that Butterfield has built and the way they as a team are executing. Product vision. Product execution. Company execution. Everyone.

One of my pet peeves right now is how design, which is finally getting its well-deserved moment in the sun, is getting a little too full of itself. Design is important, but the sun does not rise and fall on design. It takes a team.

Addendum 1:
I want to be fair to Andrew, the author of the original post, and share his tweet:

Addendum 2
I wrote the orignal post quite quickly, and probably both I and the author of the original post feel like certain misunderstandings have unfolded. A few clarifications:

1. if it’s not clear, I think design is extremely important, and that design *was* important to Slack’s success. Just not everything. When I shifted our company of 100 people over to Slack from Hipchat (not a universally popular move), it wasn’t solely because of the three design elements mentioned in the original article (although I appreciated those elements), but rather because of some nuanced UX differences and the belief that Slack was the company to back — that they were going to invest more and execute better than the other players.

2. I think that MetaLab does great work. While I am not privvy to how Slack and Metalab interacted, the results of that collaboration were great. I also don’t think that Andrew really meant to take credit for Slack’s success. I think I misread that, the way some have misread this post.

3. I don’t view design as just the visual layer. My definition of design is extremely broad, and not merely the purview of people with “designer” in their title. I was reacting to the three points in the original post.

4. My ultimate point is that I want people thinking holistically about startup success. It’s easy to look for a silver bullet, but in my experience things are never that neat. And while “if we build it, they will come” might work for indie software projects, I rarely does for ambitious startups. You have to get the entire system working well.

13 Comments Slack’s Success and Silos vs Teams

  1. Daniel Lang May 3, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    I had pretty much the same thoughts when I read this article from that design agency. Like “WTF! Are these guys really taking credit for Slack’s success because they created some nice colors and logos!?!”.

    However, on a second thought, there might actually be some correlation with the design quality and the success of the product.

    I’m not saying that design is causal for a great product, more the other way around. Having a slick and polished design to me is an indicator of an equally slick and polished product experience. It tells me, the people behind it put a lot of thought and effort into the exterior and chances are high that the functionality and user experience is on a similarly high level.

    I would also argue that this contributes to marketing in a way that it tells people on the front door: “hey this is a great product you should totally checkout”. It’s kind of like a great restaurant that makes sure the outside of the building is clean and inviting.

    In that sense, I guess I have to give Slack’s team credit for hiring a great design agency and making design & branding a priority alongside product, marketing, etc.

    1. giffc May 3, 2015 at 7:55 pm

      I think it all goes hand in hand. For example, take the mobile app. I think MetaLab and whatever internal folks were doing UI and UX deserves credit for the great design, but the engineers deserve credit for their craftsmanship, and leadership deserves credit for investing aggressively in it, when other players in the space were not.

  2. Ryan Bishop May 3, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    Design matters. If you increase the font size of the body text, maybe you can attract people to read a wall of text.
    Pretentious nobodys.

  3. Ethan Bond May 3, 2015 at 9:01 pm

    I don’t get it. All three of your points are at least in part, if not entirely, attributed to design. The second point is just blatantly nonsensical. Design wasn’t the difference, the UX was, and the security was, and the vision…

    So product design and branding. The brief sidenote about security is just laughable in retrospect of the… you know… fairly terrible security failure that Slack recently publicized and then countered with a tangentially related “security enhancement.”

    1. giffc May 3, 2015 at 10:26 pm

      Actually I don’t get your comment. I’m not arguing that design isn’t important. I believe quite the opposite. But there is a lot more at play here than the points in the original piece, some f which tie to UX but not all. As for security, i didn’t stress that at all. The second point was about some fine grained ux choices slack made, but I assume that the company hadn’t abdicated their entire product vision to the design agency

  4. Justin Watt May 3, 2015 at 11:22 pm

    My first thought reading the article was this post from Slack in November:

    “Until now, we haven’t spent a cent on marketing and, until now, there wasn’t a single marketing person on staff at Slack HQ.”


    It’s not to say that Slack wasn’t marketing in various ways (positive PR, a great Twitter account, promoting great buzz around the product) before starting to spend money on marketing specifically, but it goes to show how much design had a part to play in growing the product.

    1. giffc May 4, 2015 at 7:19 am

      That’s actually why I brought up 37 Signals. I doubt they spent much if anything on marketing when they got going either, but Jason and DHH were their marketing. The talks, the blog, the books, the movement they tried to create. I think people have too narrow a view of what marketing means. It is just indirect demand creation (excluding distribution partners).

      My point was never to say that design wasn’t important. If the app sucked or even been adequate, no one would have considered it. But I believe that slack grew the overall market through more than design. I think when entrepreneurs are trying to evaluate its success, they need to think holistically. There is too much “if we build it well, they will come” thinking out there.

  5. mylesnyc May 4, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Design is not a result. It is not pretty colors and a logo. Design is a methodology for solving problems. What you are referring to is known as “style”. Slack’s success is most likely not based on style, but is most certainly attributable to design — ask smart questions, do your research, iterate, test, iterate, test and try and make it look nice.

    1. giffc May 4, 2015 at 9:47 am

      yes I totally agree. Frankly, the term design can apply to everything. How you structure your company, your product, your interactions with customers, everything. And it’s all important to be thoughtful and mix creativity and evidence.

  6. Philip L May 4, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Don’t think Metalab was trying to take all the credit for Slack’s success, but the app’s design and well thought out UX undoubtedly played a huge part.

    1. giffc May 4, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      no disagreement here. I took Andrew’s original post the wrong way the first time I read it.

  7. Tristan May 4, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    Slack’s success is attributable to its holistic product quality. The product is simply good—it has the correct functionality, pleasing style, and delightful design and total experience. It is successful because of all of those things simultaneously.

    To argue against any single facet of this success—even while acknowledging the others—is to miss the point.

    You got it in your addendum, point (4), but then, it obsoleted every word before it.

    1. giffc May 5, 2015 at 8:08 am

      valid point. I do think they should be proud of the work. I reacted to a perception of taking credit, but I think that was a misunderstanding.

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