No CMO + listen better = $1 billion company in 2 years. Believe in this.

Lessons of Slack as a company

I wrote about Slack maybe a year ago; at the time, it was essentially a total throw-away post. I had seen something on a business website and decided, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” Broadly, these work applications really interest me — Yammer, Slack, HipChat, even Google/Dropbox — because if you really think about it, we’ve been working for years, and in teams for years, and yet no one really has any idea how to effectively work in teams in terms of sharing information and making things available to all members. It’s interesting, and there’s definitely an argument to be made that “Software can’t solve the problems of people!,” but that’s for an entirely different post.

Now here’s the amazing thing about Slack: they’re two years old and worth a billion dollars. (“Know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”) They did that without a CMO (Chief Marketing Officer). You stop and think about how unreal that is? The model for almost every company that makes money is “product, product, product, push, push, push, sales, sales, sales.” Those tend to be the focal points. Slack was definitely all-in on the product front, but their “push” and “sales” front were more about actually listening to their customers. That’s insanely rare. Everyone talks about that — “The customer is always right” has been a trope for decades — but very few actually live it. (I’d argue it’s probably as rare in business as someone actually living the gospel in their day-to-day life personally.)

So how did Slack do this? And what can you learn? Let’s dive in. 

Here’s the full profile that started me down this path.

Before we begin, a quick story that I think is relevant here.

There’s almost always a difference between “what companies focus on internally” and “what the customers of that company care about.” There shouldn’t be, and oftentimes the companies that make the most money actually reduce this gap to a smaller margin (think about Apple as a trite example).

A couple of years ago, when I worked for ESPN, one of the things we did early in the second or third job I had there was take articles from ESPN The Magazine and input them onto ESPN.com (now that’s a fancy job called “web producer” that focuses on “print-to-digital strategy.” It’s literally 92 reams of bullshit, stacked like a layer cake. But I digress). We had limited templates and typically we’d build these articles, send them to the main editors at ESPN.com, and they’d get ignored. Every four-six months, some bigwig at The Magazine would raise hell with some bigwig at ESPN.com (different worlds, although since then Chad Millman has helped integrate them), and the next time we sent an article, it would go on the front page of ESPN.com. That’s how the world works.

Point was, though, we were inputting articles that sometimes got seen by 30 people max. There was no strategy or anything. It was a fucking purpose vacuum over there. And yet, I can’t tell you how many times a bigwig approached me and said, “Hey, so-and-so writer wants his first lines in drop cap. Can we get that done ASAP?” 15 minutes later, they’d come back to my desk. “Hey, I don’t see that drop cap yet…”

Here’s the thing: the drop cap doesn’t matter. It’s a political, internal thing that someone wants. Some guy in Toronto reading that article doesn’t care. He wants a better experience, a better integration of the different storytelling methods that ESPN has. That’s what the fans want, and for the most part, ESPN is very good at delivering that for them. But in pockets of every company, there’s “the internal bullshit people over-focus on” and “the external stuff that might make a real difference to customer loyalty.” You know?

Now stop and think about that idea — the internal vs. external yin and yang — and then consider this quote from the co-founder of Slack:

As much information as Slack put out to customers, they learned even more themselves. Butterfield and his cofounders are voracious readers of user feedback, and they attribute much of the company’s rapid traction to this skill. From the get-go, Slack made sure that users could respond to every email they received, and approached every help ticket as an opportunity to solidify loyalty and improve the service. As they listened to their ever-growing flock of users, the Slack team iterated accordingly.

“Sometimes you will get feedback that is contrary to your vision,” Butterfield says. “You may be trying to drive in a particular direction that people don’t necessarily understand at first. In our case, we knew the users we had in mind for this product. So in the early days, we looked at our customers, really just testers at that point, and we paid extra attention to the teams we knew should be using Slack successfully.”

The broader idea here is pretty basic: your customers and clients have things they care about. Listen to them, respond to those things, and you build your company that way. When you respond to teams and people, those people feel invested. When they feel invested, they become loyal. When they become loyal, they spend money on you. Everyone’s happy, right? It works the same way for leadership.

Now consider this aspect:

Now, a year after Slack’s public launch, that reverence for user feedback is part of the company’s DNA. “We will take user feedback any way we can get it. In the app, we include a command that people can use to send us feedback. We have a help button that people can use to submit support tickets,” says Butterfield. They’ve got eyes all over Twitter for comments good and bad. “If you put that all together, we probably get 8,000 Zendesk help tickets and 10,000 tweets per month, and we respond to all of them.”

Where some people might see a huge customer-service burden, Butterfield sees one of Slack’s greatest assets—so much so that he fielded half of these messages himself for a long time. “Especially in the beginning, I handled the lion’s share of Twitter, and Ali Rayl, our director of quality and support, handled the Zendesk tickets. Pretty early on, we combined quality assurance and customer support into one group that we called customer experience. They do everything from parsing customer feedback and routing it to the right people to fixing bugs themselves.”

So think about this: we live in a business environment where people think that they “don’t have enough time” to respect their employees, but yet, a co-founder is answering Twitter messages directly and, years later, his company is worth a billion dollars.

Do you see a lesson there?

Some cynic could come across this and say, “Well, Slack is successful because it created a new product category!” That might be true, yes. Some other cynic could come along and say, “Well, Slack is successful because it had the right tech people behind it from the start!” Again, sure. No one is successful in a bubble. There are always multiple factors.

But the real lesson here is simple — put aside your internal bullshit and focus on what actually matters, which is the needs and wants of the people you’ll eventually be selling to. Prioritize your time there, not on drop-cap pages on your website. And eventually, even without the internal logic of a strong marketing/sales push, success will arrive.

Ted Bauer


  1. It seems this is a case study in anti-bureaucracy. What you basically described is an organization that lived up to all the “corporatese” talk about being lean, listening to the customer, “360 degree views”, performance, “business unit alignment,” yada yada yada…

    Congrats, they didn’t create another bloated, ineffective layer that impedes raw business. It’s sad that this is the exception and not the rule.

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