Month: December 2014

This Guy’s No Slacker: In Conversation with Slack’s Stewart Butterfield

Stewart Butterfield

 

 

Having recently raised $42.5 million in new funding Vancouver’s Slack is proving to be anything but a bunch of coffee-sipping West Coast slackers.

Slack is a communication platform, delivering real-time messaging, archiving and search.

President and cofounder Stewart Butterfield said the team often think of Slack as a search app disguised as a message app. “People might think they want messaging but the real value is getting all of your communications in one place and having it easily searchable. Think about the waves of change in general, dealing with the soaring amount of information is the one we’re most closely riding.”

“We’re designing for teams not the company. Individuals are kind of an atom, but teams are the atomic unit of any organization because they’re expected to be functioning together,” he added. “But the reality is that at big companies like when I worked at Yahoo, you see how the matrix type organization makes it more complicated for people.”

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The increasing volume of messages we receive are not just from other people but other computers. The stream of social media notifications alone increases the daily noise. Butterfield sees that managing all of this messaging is something providing more value than people realize.

He estimates that his team of 20 each get about 100 messages a day from other people. The business has between 5,000 to 15,000 messages coming in from things like tweets, help tickets, bug reports, sign-ups for the service, when new teams are created, every crash report, and on and on. It’s not uncommon for teams these days to use 15-20 different services, so getting all of these messages in one place he said is a “huge win.”

The model is about encouraging people to have conversations in public, instead of one to one. Even if they’re not people on your team, at least engineers can see what the marketing department is talking about and customer support can see what engineering is talking about. Butterfield believes in “creating an ambient awareness of what other people in the organization are doing. It’s about coordinating without having stand up meetings, and getting status updates.”

Slack has grown out of a late 80’s tool pre-dating todays internet. Butterfield’s team found that using IRC chat met their internal communications needs. “It was missing a bunch of features that we thought were important, like being to log and archive messages. Once we had the archives, we wanted to search them. There was no good iPhone client so we built an HTML5 front end to browse the archives, and once we had that we wanted to be able to post from it. We wanted announcements when people uploaded files to the file server, database alerts and more. Basically hack, after hack after hack got all of the communication flowing into one place. A side effect of this was the fact the company didn’t use email at all. It wasn’t a policy decision, it just happened that no one would email each other because it was better to do it in IRC.

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They rolled out a preview versus the less trustworthy sounding beta release in August 2013, and spent six months trying to make it easy for teams to switch over. Feeling it was good enough, they officially launched Slack in February 2014 and hit 20,000 paying customers.

Butterfield called it startup anthropology. What’s working for the Slack are good startup lessons to remember.

  • Do a lot of research. They talked with people about how they used it, and what their reactions were. Get as much feedback as possible.
  • They made sure all of their emails could be replied to
  • They encouraged people to send them tweets

With the better of 20 years of business and startup experience to draw upon Butterfield shared that “people over-attribute a lot of success particularly in startups to the skill, ability and talent of the people doing it. Whereas, a lot of it is luck. Hard work counts, but there’s also the zeitgeist and little factors like the name, colors you choose, and your decision making process.”

With Slack’s early trajectory, Butterfield’s decision-making process is looking pretty spot on.

This story was first published in BetaKit.

NoteworthyOctober 31, 2015 Slack announces raising $120 million with post funding valuation equaling $1.2 billion

Taking Social Further: Exclusive Conversation With Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes

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June 2009 doesn’t seem that long ago. Still etched in memory is seeing that life size owl mascot for the first time working a room full of Vancouver startup folks. I thought 140  characters of micro-blogging was a bastardization of the English language, so why does the world need a dashboard for it.

In this case eating humble pie didn’t taste so bad. Turns out that early Summer night, the early stage startup Hootsuite walked away with the “Peoples Choice” award. My tune about Twitter also changed less than 6 months later as a co-founder of the visualization application Mentionmapp. Seemed like Twitter and Hootsuite might turn out to be something afterall.

Since closing a $165 million Series B financing the past 14 months has seen Hootsuite on a tear. With last weeks news of having raised $60 million in new private equity and debt funding their total outside financing is $250 million. Add in the most recent acquisitions of startups BrightKit and Zeetl, founder and CEO Ryan Holmes is guiding the company towards realizing his long time commitment to building a Vancouver company that’s making a big impact on the local ecosystem, and beyond. Plus he’s been unwavering in about creating a $1 billion (plus) Canadian tech company.

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With a rare stop over these days in Vancouver, and even rarer 20 minute window of time in his schedule, I was fortunate to share an exclusive conversation with Holmes.

“It’s been a great week, and great month and really good year. We’re excited to share that the company has doubled revenue, doubled valuation, over 10 million users, including 744 of the Fortune 1000 as clients,” he highlighted. With their existing investors joining this latest round, and a new Boston based investor (he didn’t comment on the Wall Street Journal reporting it being Fidelity Investments, nor the IPO rumours) Holmes thinks “it also validates their excitement for the business.”

The acquisitions are all about “building out the social suite.” Holmes sees the Hootsuite platform akin to what “Microsoft Office or Google Apps does for office productivity. We’re creating a suite of tools to help our clients manage social.”

Being on this aggressive fundraising journey, and experiencing the subsequent rocket like growth trajectory I asked him how tight he’s keeping the seat belt buckled.  “It’s been a real blessing to be able to participate in the huge evolution of the social business. It’s fantastic to be creating a great Canadian tech company and story.” He touched on his excitement for attracting some of this country’s best and brightest here working with the team and the product. Just as importantly according to Holmes is “seeing people have experiences that will last throughout their careers.”

As well, he talked about the notion of creating the ‘MapleSyrup Mafia’ saying “some of the folks from Hootsuite may go out and create their own product, or maybe even be acquired by us or others. Hopefully they’ll go on to create other Hootsuites throughout the country and really help build an even more vibrant tech community.”

Asked if he sees a societal relevance of social beyond being simply the marketers best friend, Holmes replied with an unequivocal “absolutely. It’s so relevant, I think that conversation thankfully for the most part has died. As we’ve seen Twitter and Facebook IPO for instance, I have little doubt that social media is here to stay.”

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Channeling my inner Marshall McLuhan, I pressed that beyond the medium being the message can social media be a medium of mobilization? “I think we’ve already seen this, with it being a spark of revolutions and contributing to the toppling of governments,” he said. “We’ve seen how much it can transform society. It’s not just a marketing tool, it’s a way we’re reorganizing and communicating societally. It’s a channel everybody’s paying attention to.”

Holmes added that “with both governments and protesters using our platform, we have an interesting and unique perspective to see how people communicate. get messages out, and bring dialogue to leadership and democracy around the world.”

Looking into the crystal ball, I asked him what he’s seeing in the future for social media. He mentioned how social commerce and social advertising two interesting trends. Furthermore he suggested, “just like search has become a blend of organic and paid, I think we’re going to see the same trend with social. There will be a blend of paid social, and organic social.” Holmes pointed out the Hootsuite is currently powering 5 million organic messages a day.

With offices open in London (UK), Singapore, and now looking at one in Latin America, and expanding Vancouver operations, Hootsuite continues to soar. On the strength of that overstuffed owl mascots tiny wings, Holmes and his team have carried themselves well beyond what many people probably imagined this past five plus years.

Charles Montgomery, Talks Technology and the Happy City: Part II

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It was thinking about the relationship between people (individually and collectively) our space, and built environments that motivated this conversation with Happy City author Charles Montgomery. It’s envisioning a post-combustion engine, congestion free, non- pollutant spewing transportation grid. It’s future where people not cars claim primacy to the urban experience. This is an idea worth turning into action.

Borrowing lessons from the ancient world, he writes about how Athens captures a human-centric approach to design. “The city was more than a machine for delivering everyday needs; it was a concept that bound together Athenian culture, politics, mores, and history… Anyone who did not concern himself with public life was himself less than whole” (p.19).

Looking at our 20th century car-centric design thinking and urban planning, the detrimental societal and environmental effects are on full display. There’s nothing social about meltdowns in gridlock. There’s also nothing sustainable about a melting planet.

Asked about a future for the self-driving car, and the potential that a vehicle will simply become a node on a distributed transportation grid, Montgomery thought “it’s an exciting possibility.” He added, “because of the errors, the catastrophe of modernist city planning throughout the 20th century that many existing neighborhoods, particularly on the fringes of cities simply can not support public transit.” Something that simply looks like a human driving an expensive automated bus isn’t going to improve a system of infrastructure built for yesterday.

“At the same time I think that the tech fetishes out there fail to see that traffic and congestion are a natural occurrence in vibrant thriving cities,” he pointed out. In other words, having driverless cars is not going to solve the problem of congestion. Montgomery said “as along as individuals insist on traveling alone in their vehicles whether they are driving or a computer is driving, they’re going to get stuck in traffic.”

He thinks, “driverless cars will be useful, even as part of the public transit system in helping people in dispersed areas access say transit nodes or suburban villages so they can reach high quality, high status shared transportation. Ultimately, it still doesn’t solve the problem of squeezing all of these separate vehicles into the limited space in your thriving central city.”

He reported being impressed with Arlington Virginia as a city that’s creating happier experiences. Saying “they are converting boring, blank, horrid, what some people call car sewers into livable neighborhoods. The subway nodes are surrounded by low and mid-rise with building of shops and services and bars and fun with great sidewalk.”

More impressively, Arlington’s transit authority has dozens of people working on transportation demand management. Montgomery said, “what this means is engaging in the good work of changing hearts and minds.  When we think of cities, movement and technology we keep looking for some holy grail that’s going the fix the problems, when really the biggest issue around transportation is in the firing of our own neurons.”

He doesn’t hesitate saying “we habitually and predictably get it wrong when making decisions about our own happiness about maximizing utility. We all do this everyday in making decision about how to move.”

Public health experts and psychologists are doing robust studies on how moving affects life happiness. According to him, what they’ve found out is “that when people switch from driving their cars to active transportation like walking, biking and even taking transit they get happier. This was a shocker, because most people report in surveys that they don’t like taking transit, and that they feel more fear, rage and sadness than in any other mode.”

We need to envision a system of movement. “It’s a system of life choices that occurs whenever individuals decide to move in a different way, so a transit journey or transit lifestyle isn’t just about getting on a bus. It’s about walking through your neighborhood, and the getting on a bus, and then walking through another neighborhood,” he pointed out.

Coming back to Arlington, “what their commuter services is doing is hacking the minds of commuters in their town. Simply by not showing them data but showing them new stories about how peoples lives are changing when they decide to move differently, that’s all.”

Montgomery said they’re succeeding. “More and more people are choosing to move differently, what that means in Arlington is even though they have tens of thousands of people moving to these new transit neighborhoods there are no more cars on the road. Life gets easier and cheaper for everyone, and the municipality ends up paying less for road improvements.”

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As we both call Vancouver home, I had to ask his thoughts about it’s place on the Happy City continuum. “You can see we’re doing many things right,” he offered. “Those of us who are lucky enough to own here get to drink from that sweet fountain. But, it’s false to rate a cities happiness simply on questions of livability. You also have to ask yourself the question of equity, of fairness and the question is really very simple; is your city really happy if most people can’t afford to live there?”

According to Montgomery this is where the city has failed. “We’ve failed to anticipate and deal with the effects that the global economy would have our city and on our lives. I’m talking about affordable housing. The big question for Vancouver is not how we can be greener, but how can we extend the riches of city life to more people who want to live here and to the people who already live here and are being pushed out.”

I’m grateful for the opportunity to write about technology and to share stories about the dynamic people making Vancouver a thriving community. But I also 100% agree with Montgomery when he says “guess what, technology is not going to solve that problem. It means finding new forms of tenure. New ways of owning property that makes it less attractive to speculative buyers, and it means finding new ways of adding supply in our neighborhoods. The kinds of housing supply that again aren’t attractive to speculative buyers. The solution to that problem is policy.”

Technology can be enabling, engaging, and empowering, but will accomplish none of this if it’s not designed for people first. The machine, it’s bits and bites are soulless. More than ever we need to keep humanity front and center in our conversations about technology.

“Whatever creates or increases happiness or some part of happiness, we ought to do; whatever destroys or hampers happiness, or gives rise to its opposite, we ought not to do.” Aristotle, Rhetoric

This story was originally published in BetaKit