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Why Slack may live to regret its smarmy letter to Microsoft

Why Slack may live to regret its smarmy letter to Microsoft


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Slack New York Times ad
Stewart Butterfield, Slack

Slack has always been easy to like. The fast-growing team communication startup had a classic underdog story, with its founders falling ass-backwards into enterprise software following a failed effort to build a video game. It’s led by Stewart Butterfield, one of the kindest and most self-aware founders in Silicon Valley, who had previously given the world Flickr and then gone through the wringer after its acquisition by Yahoo. And it makes a genuinely useful product — the company may not have killed email yet, but it does seem to be reducing the volume.

Today 4 million people use Slack every day, the company is on pace to generate $100 million in revenue this year, and investors have valued it at $3.8 billion. But as of this week, it also has a major competitor: Microsoft, which unveiled its Teams product Wednesday at an event in New York City. It’s like Slack, but with a few key twists: threaded conversations, deep integrations with Office, and (if you’re already an Office 365 subscriber) available at no extra charge.

Microsoft Teams photos

Slack could have done what most companies do when a competitor rips them off, and said nothing. (This was Snapchat’s approach recently when Facebook began looting it for parts.) Instead, in the dubious tradition of Apple and uh, Rdio, the company published a remarkably smarmy full-page ad in the New York Times. The ad was a mistake on Slack’s part — one that immediately put a yet-to-launch product on equal footing with its own, while still managing to cast a $461 billion company as the scrappy upstart. For a company that brags about how thoughtful it is about language, this week's letter is a regrettable unforced error. (The company declined to talk to me about the letter.)

Slack's letter adopts the tortured conceit that it will give Microsoft advice about how to build a team-communication app. This puts the company in the odd position of having to pretend it is not just rooting for a competitor but offering material support. "We’re genuinely excited to have some competition," it begins — "genuinely" not being a word we usually feel the need to add when we’re being genuine. But soon the letter's actual point, which is to anxiously brag about Slack, peeks through the clouds. "All this is harder than it looks," Slack warns. And then the company straps on its wax wings and flies into the sun.

Of course it's about the features

"First, and most importantly, it’s not the features that matter," the company says. This is transparently false. Before Slack added features, the underlying product was called internet relay chat, and it was about as mainstream as a Github repo. Slack’s original insight was that if you pulled enough external services into a chat window, you could turn it into a kind of command console for your organization, and it would suddenly feel accessible to the average person. And so it created that — by adding features. You might even say that it added those features first. And most importantly!

What follows is a series of observations so obvious that they can only read as condescending. It reads like a high school essay on teamwork: "Communication is hard, yet it is the most fundamental thing we do as human beings," Slack writes. (As I read this I imagined Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who has two master's degrees, furiously nodding and scribbling down notes. "Cortana, remind me to send Slack a thank-you note," I imagine him barking into his Surface Studio. "They have done us all a great service this day.")

Slack goes on to say that "an open platform is essential" — an intriguing point to make for a company that bans third-party clients and maintains total control over which apps are listed in its directory. In any case, the joke was on Slack, as Microsoft Teams allows integrations with approved third parties just like Slack does.



For its big conclusion, Slack declares that the secret ingredient in great enterprise software is — paging Professor Frinklove. "If you want customers to switch to your product, you’re going to have to match our commitment to their success and take the same amount of delight in their happiness," Slack writes. This is wishful thinking: I bet Netscape told itself the same thing about Navigator the day Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer with Windows. Microsoft can scoop up millions of users just by bundling Teams with Office 365, and that's exactly why the company did it.

A day later, the main thing people know about Microsoft Teams is that it fills Slack with existential dread — which is, of course, a compelling reason to go try it out. Any heightened market awareness Slack gained from advertising in the Times is overshadowed by the anxiety bubbling up from every word in its letter.

The truth is that at this point there's no particular reason to believe Teams will sway Slack’s fortunes one way or another. Maybe it will blunt the company’s already-slightly-slowing growth, particularly for the 85 million people who already have Office 365 subscriptions. Or maybe it will evaporate into the ether, like Yammer, which Microsoft spent $1.2 billion on to seemingly no effect whatsoever.

In any case, there’s nothing to be gained from posting disingenuous open letters to the competition. The last tech company we saw do it was the similarly beloved music streaming service Rdio, which "welcomed" the arrival of Apple Music with a note on Twitter.

Rdio put a lot of love into its product, too. It died last November.