Small business owners will understand the sensation of drowning in emails, the time wasted searching for important documents or spreadsheets and the frustration of inconsistent communication.
U.S. tech company Slack has landed in Australia to help. Its system -- used by several major companies globally including The Huffington Post -- is an online platform for desktop and mobile that connects users who can communicate in various channels of their own creation, allows file sharing of all types and integrates with services such as Twitter, Dropbox, Trello, Asana, Google Docs, MailChimp, Strip and Zendesk, alongside Aussie company Atlassian's JIRA.
Chat channels can be created to suit every business’s needs -- you could have a main channel for day-to-day activities, one for your sales or marketing team, another for IT, another for social media and yet another for particular projects your company is working on.
But they don’t have to be serious -- channels for French jazz, cat videos and even burger reviews have popped up across the firms that use them.
Established two years ago, Slack is touted as the fastest growing business application in history and has grown to 2.3 million daily active users, 1.5 billion messages sent per month, and $64 million in annual recurring revenue.
The Silicon Valley darling tech company with offices in San Francisco, Vancouver and Dublin has just opened an office in Melbourne in a beautifully renovated heritage Carlton Brewery site in Swanston St (no spare cartons of beer were found under the floorboards though).
In a quirky nod to their Aussie home, the Slack team has named each of its meeting rooms after an Australian animal that can kill you, hence the Great White, the Saltwater and the Dandarabilla (aka the inland taipan snake).
Director of Customer Experience, Ali Rayl says the office will be home to 70 staff whose jobs will be to offer support to customers in the Asia-Pacific region.
“It’s kind of inhuman to ask people to work graveyard shifts so it’s just like, let’s just open an office in various locations around the world,” she told The Huffington Post Australia.
“That way people can work normal work hours and sleep in the middle of the night.
“This will mostly be customer experience so the primary purpose of this office will be to support our APAC customers in the local time zone and do follow-the-sun support. This is a great city -- we love it.”
Slack was developed almost by accident. Company founder Stewart Butterfield was working on a video game called Glitch which turned out to not be as financially viable as hoped, but the team created an internal communication system to help them work better across several states in the U.S.
Rayl says after three years they realised Glitch wasn’t a viable business, so they decided to pivot and turn their original Slack into its own entity.
“We were fortunate enough to have some money in the bank and a fantastic tool that we had developed internally to communicate while we built the video game, so we had those two pieces,” she said. “So we said let’s take the money we have left and a few people who can make it happen, this idea and let’s build it for real.”
Remarkably, this is the second time this has happened to Butterfield. He created photo sharing site Flickr (which he later sold to Yahoo) from components of another game called Game Neverending.
Meet the Aussie Slackers
Slack is already used by several firms in Australia -- both large and small -- and Rayl says it has advantages for all sized businesses, and can be customised as startups grow.
“We started out with a very small business ourselves -- we were eight people,” she said. “By default everything was public -- we didn’t even have private conversations for a very long time.
“And it enabled us, so three people in Vancouver, four people in San Francisco and one person in New York to build this thing with very few meetings, very little in-person overlap. It gave us a lot of visibility into what was going on and when you don’t have to spend time finding out ‘what are you doing’ or ‘how’s it going’ because you can just see. Everybody has a lot more time to just get their own work done.”
Rayl says the open nature of communication delivered by Slack is just as valuable to small business as is the high-powered search function which means any document uploaded to the platform can be easily retrieved at any time.
“One thing we hear from other small businesses it that it always revolved around the transparency and the fact that it’s wherever you happen to be so people aren’t chained to your desks -- we have it on their phone,” she said.
“When you look at small businesses people do tend to work a lot of hours, it’s just part of the game. People have a lot of flexibility to work as it works best for them. We wanted to develop a synchronous platform so people can spend two hours at night putting their kids to bed but they don’t miss anything -- it’s all there.
“We also wanted to blunt that ‘always-on’ effect and make people feel like I can do my life and come back and we can communicate in ways that are most convenient and conducive to us living our lives both inside and outside of our work.”
Damian Fasciani, Head of Technology, Enterprise of real estate advertising firm REA Group told attendees at the Slack Melbourne launch that Slack had had a huge impact on the amount of emails sent within the company.
“Even though we are a digital company we are still heavily reliant on email like most organisations out there,” he said. “And I think Slack has changed how we look at communication both domestically and within our cross-regional teams in other parts of the world.
“We have reduced emails by over a million over the past 18 months. It’s changed the way we get information and it has made daily operations a lot more efficient.”
Slack’s own stats report that teams which use it report a 32 percent increase in productivity, a 48.6 percent reduction in emails, a 25.1 percent reduction in meetings.
But Slack is just about getting more work done -- although that’s a super-attractive benefit for small business owners.
It’s also about creating a culture, and having a little fun. Customised emojis are a hit with the system and some teams use Slack channels to bond more.
Dave Budge, Executive Creative Director of digital marketing agency Isobar, said at the launch that the program had allowed his company to maintain a culture of openness and also let in a little fun.
“The simplicity of Slack and the organic growth that came from our technology team originally -- they found it very useful and you can mould it in your own way,” he said.
“It’s been a very cultural thing. We try to maintain a very open culture and it’s wonderful to have anyone in the team feel like they could email the whole team, and that happened regularly.
“We have a thing called burger club where everyone just reviews burgers around Melbourne. So you come in on a Monday morning and there are 50 reviews of burgers to the whole team -- that’s not necessarily the most productive but we don’t want to get rid of that ability for anyone at any level to talk to the entire company. So Slack has enabled that culture of having completely open communication without distracting everyone.”
From teenagers to Donald Trump
Rayl says many people use Slack outside of the work environment too. Because of its mobile interface, users are organising their family life by creating channels for their teenage kids to communicate freely with all members of the family.
They’re also using it to rally the troops for the 2016 US presidential elections.
“We hear a lot of that,” she said. “People have a lot of uses for Slack outside the core business use case -- families, couples, gaming communities and non-profits organise.
“We have our presidential elections coming up so we have small communities of people supporting various presidential candidates scheduling their own local stuff on Slack. So to the extent that Slack can be used to coordinate that other stuff, that’s fantastic.
“There are people who will have several Slack teams and if it works for them that’s awesome. We did try to make a very flexible tool that was workflow agnostic and it’s not something we foresaw but it’s definitely something very gratifying to see.”
Create your own Slack bot
Rayl says each company which uses Slack has the option to create their own Slack bot -- an electronic user that can be a virtual assistant. HuffPost has a bot called Donny, who’s very handy when we need help with IT or website stats.
Small business can easily use this function too -- and Rayl says the expense would be cost-effective in the long run.
“We have a whole bot ecosystem so we exposed basically the whole internal plumbing of Slack and anybody can come in and write what they need on top of what we have already provided,” she said.
“You can have a computer do any of those mundane automated tasks that makes you more efficient as a small business, so perhaps it would take an engineer three days to write a Donny, but if for those three days all of your staff can come in and ask Donny about something rather than going in and doing it yourself, eventually it pays itself in dividends”