Jul
10
2018
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Slack wants to make search a little easier with search filters

Slack’s search functions are getting another little quality-of-life update today with the introduction of filters, which aims to make search a little more granular to find the right answers.

The company also says searches are going to be more personalized. All of this is an attempt to get to the right files or conversations quickly as Slack — a simple collection of group chats and channels that can get out of hand very fast — something a little more palatable. As companies get bigger and bigger, the sheer amount of information that ends up in it will grow faster and faster. That means that the right information will generally be more difficult to access, and if Slack is going to stick to its roots as a simple internal communications product, it’s going to have to lean on improvements under the hood and small changes in front of users. The company says search is now 70 percent faster on the back end.

Users in Slack will now be able to filter search results by channels and also the kinds of results they are looking for, like files. You can go a little more granular than that, but that’s the general gist of it, as Slack tries to limit the changes to what’s happening in front of users. Slack threads, for example, were in development for more than a year before the company finally rolled out the long-awaited feature. (Whether that feature successfully changed things for the better is still not known.)

Slack now has around 8 million daily active users, with 3 million paid users, and is still clearly pretty popular with smaller companies that are looking for something simpler than the more robust — and complex — communications tools on the market. But there are startups trying to pick away at other parts of the employee communications channels, like Slite, which aims to be a simpler notes tool in the same vein as Slack but for different parts of the employee experience. And there are other larger companies looking to tap the demand for these kinds of simpler tools, like Atlassian’s Stride and Microsoft’s Teams.

May
22
2018
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Slack introduces Actions to make it easier to create and finish tasks without leaving

As Slack tries to graduate beyond a Silicon Valley darling to the go-to communications platform within a company, it’s had to find ways to increasingly pitch itself as an intelligent Swiss Army knife for companies — and not just a simple chat app — and it is trying to continue that today once again with a new feature called Actions.

Companies can now bake in a user experience of their own directly into the Slack application that isn’t yet another chatbot that’s tied into their services. Developers can essentially create a customized prompt for any kind of action, like submitting a support ticket, within the Slack core chat experience through a drop-down window called an Action. While Slackbots may have been an early incarnation of this, Slack’s platform has grown to include more than 200,000 developers, and there’s still constant need for robust tools internally. This offers partners and developers a little more flexibility when it comes to figuring out what experience makes the most sense for people that sit in Slack all day, but have to keep porting information to and from their own tools.

“There’s such a demand for specialized software, and for great tools that are easy to use and interoperable with all applications you use,” Slack chief product officer April Underwood said. “We think this is good, and we think more tools means customers have more choice. Ultimately there’s more competition in the marketplace, that means the best tools, the ones that truly help companies do their best work, rise to the top. But your work experience becomes increasingly siloed. Slack needs to be highly configurable, but in doing so we believe Slack is the collaboration hub that brings all this together.”

Each company that wants to build in an integration — like Asana for task management or Zendesk for ticket management — works to create a new flow within the core Slack experience, which includes a new dropdown inside a message and a prompt to bake something into the chat flow. Once that happens, all that information is then ported over to the integration and created in the same way an employee would create it within that environment. If someone creates a Zendesk ticket through an action in Slack, Zendesk automatically generates the ticket on their side.

Slack has sprawled out over time, and especially as companies using it get larger and larger, the company has to figure out a way to show that it can remain a dead-simple app without turning into a bloated window filled with thousands of instant messages. Actions is one potential approach to that, where users can know from the get-go where to coordinate certain activities like equipment procurement or managing some customer information — and not have to go anywhere else.

The other advantage here is that it makes the destination for completing a task not necessarily a “what,” but also a “who.” Slack is leaning on its machine learning tool to make it easier and easier to find the right people with the right answers, whether those questions are already answered somewhere or they know who can get you the information right away. Actions is another extension here, as well, as users can get accustomed to going to certain coworkers with the intent of completing tasks — such as their IT head in their office that they walk by every morning on the way to grabbing coffee.

The company says it’s also working on what it’s calling the Block Kit, which integrates those tasks and other elements directly into the Slack chat flow in a way that looks a little more user friendly from a kind of visual sense. The idea here is, again, to create an intuitive flow for people that goes beyond just a simple chat app, but also offers some additional way of interactivity that turns Slack into a more sensible feed rather than just a window with people talking to each other. Actions are available from Jira, Bitbucket, Asana, Zendesk, HubSpot, and several others.

Actions is a tool that Slack is unveiling at its own developer conference, Spec, this morning. That in of itself is yet another example of Slack looking to graduate beyond just a simpler information feed that works well with smaller companies. Developers are often the ones that figure out the best niche use cases for any platform, as it means Slack can focus on trying to figure out how all these integrations fit into its design ethos. The company has to figure out how to convince larger companies that they need a tool like this and it won’t get out of hand, and also ensure that smaller companies don’t graduate into something a little more flexible that can serve those niche cases as they get larger.

To be sure, Slack is growing. The company said it hit 8 million daily active users with 3 million paid users earlier this month. That’s helped it quickly jump to a $5.1 billion valuation (as of its most recent funding round), and the company has been carefully rolling out tools that might make communication within larger companies a little easier — including the long-awaited launch of threads a little more than a year ago.

But Slack also faces increasing competition as time goes on, not only from the traditional companies looking to build more robust but simpler tools, but also from companies that have spent a lot of time working on collaboration tools and are now exploring communication. Atlassian’s opened up its communications platform Stride to developers in February this year. Microsoft, too continues to update its Teams product. Slack was able to expose pent-up demand for this kind of an approach, but it also has to defend that approach — and making it a little more flexible without feature-creeping is going to be its biggest challenge going forward.

Apr
22
2018
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Slite raises $4.4M to create a smarter internal notes tool

Slack exposed the demand for a dead-simple internal communications tool, which has inspired a wave of startups trying to pick apart the rest of a company’s daily activities — including Slite, which hopes to take on internal notes with a fresh round of new capital.

Slite is more or less an attempt at a replacement for a Google Doc or something in Dropbox Paper that is sprawling and getting a little out of control. An employee might create a Slite note like an onboarding manual or an internal contact list, and the hope is to replace the outdated internal wiki and offer employees a hub where they can either go and start stringing together important information, or find it right away. The company today said it has raised $4.4 million in a new seed funding round led by Index Ventures after coming out of Y Combinator’s 2018 winter class. Ari Helgason is joining Slite’s board of directors as part of the deal.

“We now have to develop this product enough to show we can actually replace large amounts of things,” co-founder Christophe Pasquier said. “Today we have more than 300 active teams, and we have to show that we can make it scale. In the short term is just we’re replacing Google Docs because these tools ahven’t evolved and we’re bringing something super fresh. The longer-term vision of really bringing all the information that has value from a team and becoming this single source of truth for teams.”

Slite tracks permissions and changes to the notes in order to allow companies to do a better job of maintaining them, rather than sharing around links and having different people jump in and make changes. The part about sharing links is one in particular that stung for Pasquier, as even larger companies can have issues with employees asking in Slack what policies are — or even for links to parts of the internal wiki where that important information is buried.

Getting there certainly won’t be easy. Companies like Dropbox continuing to invest in these kinds of collaborative note-taking tools — that could easily evolve into internal hubs of information. And as Pasquier tries to liken the development arc to Slack, which showed employees wanted some more seamless tool for communication, that company is also working on making its search tools smarter, like helping employees find the right person to ask a question. It doesn’t look like an asynchronous notes tool just yet, but if all the information is somewhere in Slack already, a smart search tool may be the only thing necessary to find all that information.

Apr
08
2018
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In a Slack world, Microsoft bets on Teams and Yammer

The growth of Windows has slowed as Microsoft’s mobile platform goals have faded and the PC market matured. As a result, Microsoft has had to seek new revenue outside of its operating system.

In 2017, as part of that effort to grow, Microsoft announced a new subscription product called Microsoft 365, bringing together Windows, the company’s cloud-centered productivity suite Office 365 and enterprise tooling into a single package.

The introduction of Microsoft 365 presaged the company’s re-organization which, to quote CNBC, “rebuilt the company around the cloud instead of Windows.” This seems reasonable; if Windows isn’t going to return to growth, other services have to keep adding top line revenue. Microsoft’s evolution to a cloud-powered, services-focused company is therefore set to continue.

In the pursuit of new, non-Windows top line, Microsoft wagered that it could expand its “commercial cloud” revenue to a $20 billion run rate by the end of its fiscal 2018. It beat the goal, reaching the $20 billion mark far ahead of the calendar-equivalent date of mid-Summer of this year.

One of those products, Teams, is a component to Office 365 and part of what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called a “growth opportunity” that is “a lot bigger than anything [his company has] achieved.”

Today we’re going to explore Microsoft’s current actions in one part of the cloud productivity space through the lens of Teams.

Microsoft Teams

Microsoft’s Teams product is a communications tool often compared to Slack . TechCrunch, for example, recently called the software service “Microsoft’s Slack competitor.” ComputerWorld, in a news item earlier this year, wrote that “Microsoft turn[ed] up [the] heat on Slack” when it announced new Teams features.

It goes on and on, allowing us to comfortably hold up Microsoft Teams as Redmond’s answer to Slack, a company famous for its quick growth, impressive mind share and its independent status from any major tech company. That last fact remains true despite rumored acquisition interest from Microsoft itself, along with pretty much every big company in the sector you can name.

To see Microsoft invest in its own tool that competes with Slack isn’t surprising. There is a large market for the product, and Redmond is loath to let any rival service cut in on its productivity revenue.

Therefore, if there is a hot productivity tool in the market and Microsoft isn’t going to buy it, it might as well build one of its own. Unsurprisingly, the company has been hard at work doing just that.

Joining a big company when you are a comparatively small company can be arduous.

News that Teams could release a free version made headlines. Teams also picked up guest access in February, its introduction of Cortana integration made it into mainstream tech publications and this week Microsoft announced new “retention policies” for Teams.

All that and Microsoft bought Teams a friend this year in the form of Chalkup, a collaboration company focused on the education world.

In short, Teams is adding new features while building its org chart and expanding access. All good things, certainly. However, it was not too long ago Microsoft spent quite a lot of money to buy a different, distinct collaboration tool. What happened to it?

Yammer

Microsoft bought Yammer in 2012 for $1.2 billion, building out what TechCrunch called, at the time, its “Social Enterprise Strategy.” And while the Yammer-Microsoft deal was “great news” for the company and its investors, it also marked the beginning of the “tough part” for the newly acquired startup.

Joining a big company when you are a comparatively small company can be arduous. And if you do so when the larger company is undergoing a massive change in leadership (Microsoft hired a new CEO two years after the Yammer deal) and a business model change-up (Microsoft bought Nokia in 2014, also two years after the Yammer deal, before closing that strategic idea out years later), it’s probably even harder to integrate.

Externally, that difficulty showed. Following the Microsoft deal, Yammer search volume grew before stagnating and later slipping. The product was eventually switched on for free for Office 365 customers in early 2016, four years after it was purchased. Office 365 itself launched a half-decade before, making the moment a bit long in the works.

But all that is the past, and, notably, Microsoft is putting more emphasis on Yammer today than it has in recent years. That may feel odd, given what we just went over concerning Teams.

To dig into that, Crunchbase News got Microsoft’s Seth Patton on the phone, who explained the company’s thinking. According to the 15-year company veteran who now works on Office 365, Microsoft has two separate views for Teams and Yammer. Teams is built for what Patton calls inner-loop communication: stuff for teams, smaller companies and the like; Yammer, in contrast, is better for outer-loop communication: less tactical decisions and more company-wide communications.

The split between Slack and Teams products and the Yammers and Convos of the world isn’t hokum or mere corporate-speak. I’ve worked in newsrooms that used the mix of tools to allow for simple direct messaging between individuals (Slack) and team-wide threaded communications (Yammer). It takes a little getting used to, but it can flow well if you need that level of inter-party discussion.

Even more interesting than the fact that Yammer is not dead is that Microsoft is actively investing in it. According to Patton, Microsoft’s chiefs “doubled down” on Yammer while Teams was being brought into the market in late 2016. This gave Yammer about a year of redoubled investment and attention.

Taking all that together, Microsoft is investing in two communications products at the same time, both of which are baked into its productivity suite. So why the huge push now?

Slack: Software’s favorite rocket ship

You are no doubt familiar with Slack’s growth arc. It’s been a nearly chronic narrative in tech for the past few years. And I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. (I’m as guilty as anyone else.)

But, in case you have a life, here are some highlights: Slack reached ARR of $50 million in December of 2015. In October of 2016, Slack hit the $100 million ARR mark. Then the company bested $200 million last September. That’s darn quick, and investors took notice, showering the company with cash and ever-rising valuations.

One way to get acquired, after all, is to stick out by worrying the biggest companies in the market through growth.

Fueling Slack’s continued growth is a push into the realm of bigger companies. The firm launched Slack Enterprise Grid last January, bringing enterprise-grade management tools to Slack’s product. With Enterprise Grid, Slack can keep going after bigger accounts. (To that point, IBM has more than 200,000 active users on Slack that use Enterprise Grid.)

That quick growth has made Slack an acquisition target. One way to get acquired, after all, is to stick out by worrying the biggest companies in the market through growth. It’s just hard as heck to do, as incumbent revenue numbers are so large that, well, you have to grow fast to become interesting.

An even bigger scrap

As we know, Slack has rebuffed acquisition offers. As a result, we’re seeing Microsoft, the dominant player in the world of productivity, attempt to slow down Slack in an effort to not lose future users and future dollars. Hell, even Google is in on the race. Its Slack competitor launched for early users in February. Facebook is also tinkering around the edges. It’s fun to watch.

But productivity is Microsoft’s cash cow. For Google, it’s a big side project, but nothing compared to its advertising revenue. That puts Microsoft and Slack more up against one another in the enterprise chat fight.

(In mid-March, Microsoft announced that 200,000 organizations now use Teams, up from 125,000 in September of 2017. That’s 60 percent growth in a half-year or so — a quick growth pace, too.)

What we’ll learn over the next few years is if Microsoft’s enormous enterprise channel can be leveraged enough to slow Slack’s growth, or if Slack’s momentum can actually capture a piece of the productivity market and hold onto it.

It’s a startup against a platform company, a classic enough battle. But with big tech bigger, richer and more powerful than ever, it’s a more relevant business case than we might think at first blush. More when one draws blood or Slack goes public.

Apr
04
2018
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April Underwood is now Slack’s chief product officer

Former Twitter product lead April Underwood is getting another promotion this morning, now rising to the role of chief product officer of what aims to be the dead-simple employee communications platform Slack, according to Fortune.

Underwood previously served as director of product at Twitter, where she worked for five years before joining Slack as its head of platform. Shortly after that Underwood was promoted to the company’s VP of product, and will now serve as the company’s first chief product officer. These kinds of promotions imply some additional responsibility — especially as Slack looks to diversify and pitch itself as a more robust product than just a messenger — but also another point of maturation for Slack. The company hired its first chief financial officer, Allen Shim, in February this year.

Slack is one of those companies that faces a tense push-and-pull as it looks to get into larger and larger enterprises, which all have niche needs. The company is a darling in Silicon Valley thanks to its very simple interface, but with companies with thousands (or, eventually, tens of thousands of employees) just a tool with groups and direct messages could easily become unwieldy. That’s why Slack has invested in a variety of tools, including rolling out threaded messaging a little more than a year ago. Slack is likely one of those companies that gets hundreds of feature requests a year for larger businesses that have niche use cases, but it still has to demonstrate that it’s a simple product without hitting feature creep status.

Underwood getting more authority over that evolution (of which she was already a huge part, including the development of threaded messages) is another signal that the company is looking to tap her consumer background at Twitter to create some kind of middle ground between feeling like a satisfying consumer product while still operating as an enterprise tool. Slack is increasingly looking to apply machine learning to help employees get to answers right away, and it still has to take the same kind of care in rolling out new features that satisfy the needs of larger organizations without sacrificing that simplicity that made it a darling in the first place.

Slack most recently hit a $5.1 billion valuation in a recent investment round, and said it had around 6 million daily active users in September last year. That might be small-ish compared to the size and scale of Twitter, but as something geared toward internal communications at companies, that level of engagement in the workplace is going to increasingly be a selling point for the company as it looks to grow into that valuation.

Mar
27
2018
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Stride, Atlassian’s Slack competitor, hits general availability

Last September, Atlassian launched Stride, its take on a Slack-like real-time communications platform for text, audio and video chats, into beta. Six months later, Stride is now generally available to any and all teams that want to give it a try.

While Atlassian is a bit cagey about providing exact user numbers, so the numbers it actually shared aren’t all the useful to gauge the service’s success. What the company was willing to say is that its users have now spent a quarter of a million hours in Stride’s Focus Mode, which is meant to allow worked to reclaim a bit of sanity in today’s notification-driven world by allowing you to turn off all incoming messages and notifications. As Atlassian’s head of communications products Steve Goldsmith told me, the company is happy with the state of Stride and that it’s growing quickly.

Since the closed beta launch, Atlassian has added about 50 new features and improvements to the service that include better ways to organize chat lists, better search and a number of improvements to the service’s video meetings features. Indeed, it’s these video chat features that the team is maybe the most proud of. “Small impromptu meetings don’t just happen when you have to switch context,” Goldsmith told me but declined to give us any numbers for how much time users spend in these chats beyond that “it’s a lot.”

Goldsmith also stressed that this is far from the final version of Stride. The team still has quite a roadmap of features that it wants to implement. But taking away the beta label, though, the company is signalling that it has worked out most of the kinks and that Stride is now ready for full enterprise deployments.

About a month ago, the Stride team also opened up its API to outside developers. Goldsmith was pretty open about the fact that he’s very happy with the final result but that he would’ve liked to see that happen a bit earlier. Stride’s API is the first product that sites on top of Atlassian’s new API platform. That probably made building the API a bit harder, but Goldsmith noted that that now makes integrating with Stride easier for other Atlassian teams.

Mar
07
2018
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Begin, a new app from Ryan Block, uses natural language to generate tasks from your Slack

Over two years after leaving Aol (now known as Oath) back in September 2015 to build a new startup, serial entrepreneur Ryan Block, with co-founder Brian LeRoux, is finally taking the wraps off the new venture: Begin, an intelligent app designed to help you keep track of things that you have to do, and when you should do them, as they come up in the stream of a messaging app.

By extension, Begin is also solving one of the more persistent problems of messaging apps: losing track of things you need to remember in the wider thread of the conversation.

Begin is launching today as an integration on Slack — which also happens to be one of its backers, by way of the Slack Fund .

Taking tasking apps to task

As you might have already seen, there are a lot apps out there today to help you track tasks and larger work you have to do, from software based around project management and specific to-do lists like Asana, Todoist, Wrike and Microsoft’s Wunderlist/To-Do, through to those geared more to planning performance management, like BetterWorks.

The problem is that while some people have found these various dedicated apps useful, for a good proportion, task apps are where tasks go to die. Block — despite a pretty productive resume that includes editor of Engadget, co-founder of Gdgt, and VP of Product at Aol — was one of the latter group.

“Every time I’ve ever tried using a task management app I found it sad and discouraging to use,” he said. “You just end up getting a massive backlog of tasks and you lose sight of what’s really important.” (I’m guessing he is not the only one: the proliferation of these dozens of apps, without any single, clear market leader, you could argue is one indication of how none of them have achieved a critical enough mass of users.)

So Block and LeRoux started to think about how you could fix task apps and make them a more natural part of how work gets done.

They thought of messaging apps and their role in communications today. And more specifically, they turned to Slack. With its rapid-fire conversations and ability to draw in data from other apps, Slack has not only been one of the fastest-growing services in the enterprise world, but it has changed the conversation around business communications (literally and figuratively) .

“Slack to us is more than just enterprise productivity,” Block said. “We see Slack as a primary tentpole in the future of work.”

Synchronicity

But, if you are one of the tens of millions of people that uses a messaging app like Slack at work, you’ll know that it can be wonderful and frustrating in equal parts. Wonderful because messaging can spur conversations or get answers quickly from people who might not be directly next to you; but frustrating because messaging can be — especially in group chat rooms — noisy, distracting and hard to track if you’re not paying attention all the time.

Begin has honed in on the third of these challenges of messaging platforms, and specifically in how it pertains to being in the working world.

Sometimes in the course of a conversation an item might come up that you or a coworker needs to follow up. Sometimes you might not even be a part of the conversation when that item comes up. In the course of a chat, the conversation might abruptly turn to another subject before you’ve had a chance to address an item. Begin is for all those moments.

Or, as Block described it to me, “It’s the difference between synchronous versus asynchronous work. Slack is good for certain things but for tracking things, it can be very hard.”

With Begin, the idea is that, when something arises that you need to follow up, you set yourself — or someone else — a reminder by essentially calling Begin (@begin) into the conversation and making a note of that task using normal language. (Example: “@begin Check in with @katie and @lynley about the earnings schedule tomorrow”.)

The two people I’ve tagged in my example don’t have to be there when I’m mentioning this, and they won’t have to look through Slack mentions to find what I said, nor do I need to leave the conversation to write the reminder. For all of us, we can turn to Begin itself to check out the tasks when we have time, and on Begin those tasks get ordered by their timing.

It’s a simple solution that is surprisingly not a part of the Slack experience today.

Aside from Slack, other investors in Begin’s seed round (of an undisclosed amount) include SV Angel, 415, SV Angel and General Catalyst, which took a stake in Begin as its first “bot” investment nearly two years ago.

Fast forward to today, with bot hype subsiding, Block is happy to say that while Begin has a degree of intelligence, particularly around reading natural language and turning that into an action of sorts (an action for you to do), he plays down the bot aspect. “We think of this as a Slack app, not as a bot,” he said.

Begin is, in fact, beginning small when it comes to features.

It’s only on Slack, you can’t draw in other apps or data into your tasks, it doesn’t give you a lot of short gradation when it comes to timing (days are currently the shortest increment for setting a task), and it doesn’t synchronise with any calendars.

Those are all areas that Block says that the company is working on for future iterations, either by being baked directly into the app by Begin itself, or there for others to integrate by way of an API.

Does Begin have a way of setting a task to look at your tasks? It’s one question that underscores the fact that ultimately you will still have to, at some point, look at a list. That may be something that the Begin team might try to address over time, too, but for now, it’s the simple creation that is the focus.

Feb
20
2018
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Stride, Atlassian’s Slack competitor, opens its API to all developers

 The arrival of Stride, Atlassian’s Slack competitor, was probably the company’s biggest launch of 2017. While the company generally allows developers to easily integrate with its products, Stride’s API remained in closed beta for significantly longer than the product itself, which exited beta last September. Today, however, Atlassian is opening the Stride API to all developers. Read More

Feb
15
2018
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Slack adds Edith Cooper to board of directors

 Slack had added Edith Cooper, who most recently served as the global head of human capital management at Goldman Sachs, to its board of directors. As Slack prepares “for accelerated growth at scale,” Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield wrote in a blog post today, Cooper marks Slack’s second independent board member.
“She has an unrivaled depth of experience in the hardest… Read More

Feb
06
2018
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Slack names Allen Shim as company’s first CFO

 In a blog post this morning Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield announced the company is naming long-time employee Allen Shim as the company’s first CFO. “Today, I’m excited to announce another milestone: Allen Shim has been appointed Chief Financial Officer for Slack,” Butterfield wrote in the blog post. He went on to describe Shim as his right hand man, who has been with… Read More

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