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Why Silicon Valley is suddenly in love with Slack

Matt Weinberger | Aug. 14, 2014
Slack is the new productivity.

office worker slacking

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a developer in want of quick-and-dirty instant communication with a team must be in need of an IRC client. IRC may be the rugged old war horse of online communication, dating back practically to the dawn of the Internet age, but it's simple, platform-agnostic, vendor-agnostic, and just works in a way that so many other chat platforms don't. It's not always pretty, but it's reliable.

Fast forward to 2014: A startup called Slack is raising huge rounds of venture funding ($43 million in April), building huge buzz, and turning its eccentric cofounders into Silicon Valley darlings — all by building an enterprise-friendly version of IRC meant for this social, mobile, share-and-share-alike era of instant collaboration.

Slack itself maintains a "Customer Wall of Love" on Twitter that just collates all the positive tweets that wave the flag for Slack. People love this thing, and our colleagues in the tech press love touting how it's killing e-mail and ushering in a new age of frictionless collaboration.

Slack's claim that its users spend ten hours(!) a day in the app is impressive. That comes alongside claims that Slack has 13,000 active teams and an impressive projected $3.5 million in annual recurring revenue and growing after only six months. 

But beyond the hype and the visionary rhetoric, what is  Slack? Why do people love it so much?

The mash-up culture meets digital collaboration
Essentially, Slack built a better mousetrap: Slack's IRC heritage is apparent, as chats are broken down into main channels that can be broken down by topic or department — the two by default are "General" and "Random" but you could just as easily make one specifically for sales, marketing, the company softball team, or anything else, at the whims of the user, IT, or both. 

There have been attempts to build enterprise-grade implementations of IRC that offer both a slicker veneer and tight IT controls — Atlassian's HipChat can be seen as a really, really locked-down version of IRC. While Slack's interface is incredibly polished and easy to use across the web, iOS, and browser platforms I tested it with, the basic experience is super similar to HipChat, albeit more customizable — customers can customize everything from the color scheme to the behavior of the built-in chat bot, which can be made to help with everything from onboarding to sharing company holiday calendars. 

No, the secret sauce to Slack is with its third-party integrations and API-centric extensibility.

By default, Slack lets you upload files directly to it, associating those files with a specific chatroom. So if you need to share a presentation with the marketing team, upload it within that channel and it becomes accessible and available for comment by any user in that room. If you want to share it with all hands, it's just a matter of changing a few permissions.


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