Slack’s Success and Silos vs Teams

Giff Constable design

(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.