"This is by far the nicest office we have, I think. Until we open the next one." Slack cofounder Cal Henderson is on his first visit to the company's new home in Dublin.
The messaging software company’s Irish team have only been in the office for a matter of days; the place still has a new office smell.
“The bar goes up every time,” says Henderson. “[This office] feels very Slack – the colours and materials they’ve chosen here are very on-brand, but it has a unique personality.”
Slack's offices in Dublin are at One Park Place, outside the usual Silicon Docks area in which many tech companies have based themselves over the past few years. Space in that area is at a premium, and when he visited the Web Summit in Dublin in 2015, Slack's co-founder Stewart Butterfield said the company was desperately seeking suitable office space in the city. Growing companies, sometimes complain about Dublin's commercial property market, which they say can be inflexible and unsuited to fast-growing companies such as tech start-ups. But Henderson says that's something Slack encounters in a lot of the cities in which it operates. "Companies are looking for spaces that didn't exist a couple of years ago," he says. "Dublin is no different to other cities."
In its current home, the Slack team is in good company. It is in the same building as Dropbox, which also recently moved in, although the bulk of the space is occupied by Aviva.
The office itself doesn’t have many of the hallmarks of a Silicon Valley company. There are no slides, football tables or chefs on tap.
That may be disappointing for some. The theme for the office is “natural”, explains Henderson. That means a lot of wood, some metal rebars shaped into office dividers, and a lot of plants. A lot.
Rooms are named after streets in Dublin, depending in their size (the Grafton space, for example, is significantly bigger than the Drury room ).
There are, however, plans to install a gym and yoga room for staff, and there’s a cafeteria where Slack is trialling catered lunches for employees. So some of the Silicon Valley trappings have made it; just not the most frivolous.
It’s still a world away from the traditional office – a difference that is emphasised by the view of the neighbouring office where people in suits and ties work at a bank of desks.
Slack currently has about 50 people in its Dublin office, but that is set to grow with the company. Plans aren’t set in stone yet, but Henderson thinks the office could grow significantly, expanding to fill the space available to them and tripling – “or more” – the current office.
“It crazy to think now, but a year from now we could be running out of space here,” he says.
About 30 per cent of Slack’s paying customers are in Europe; the Dublin office supports that base.
Dublin plays an important role and is set to be the biggest office outside the West Coast of the US, where Slack’s main headquarters is.
The principle functions of the Dublin office are customer care and sales, although there are some technical operations staff here too. The bulk of the engineering for Slack and its products is in North America, although the company is looking at locating another engineering team outside the West Coast.
Could that be a possibility for Dublin? Maybe, Henderson concedes. There has been no final decision yet. "If it's going to be Europe, it will be Dublin," he says. But the company is also considering Toronto.
In the grand scheme of things, Slack is a relatively new company. Founded in 2013 by Stewart Butterfield, Henderson, Eric Costello and Serguei Mourachov, it was the evolution of a failed video game – the second such failure, in fact.
Henderson is brutally honest about it. “The experience of the second [game] was so harrowing,” he said. “We had all the capital, we had all the connections – it’s just that we suck at making games. We had to lay off 40 people. That was really terrible – these were people we had convinced to move their families across the country to come and work on this vision of ours. It’s hard to imagine us doing the same thing.”
Part of that certainty is due to technological changes. Mobile gaming wasn’t a consideration back then; now it’s a growing business in a post-Zynga, post-Farmville world.
But that experience has taught Slack’s cofounders something – that the world of work has changed beyond all recognition.
The pace in general of evolution of tools is increasing. Part of the success of Slack is because of that evolution, although Henderson also says part of it was down to the luck of timing.
“A decade ago you probably would have just used Office and Outlook for email. Now there are all these different categories of software. Whatever kind of business you’re in, you probably use 10. 20 , 30, 40 different tools to get your job done throughout the day,” he says.
“The reason Slack has been successful is because we’ve had this explosion of different kinds of tools and they’re all much better than anything that came before, but there is no centre to that any more.”
Henderson says the gravitational centre of software used to to be the operating system, but the rise of mobile working has changed all that. “There’s nothing that ties everything you use together any more,” he says. Slack, as a communications tool, is becoming that centre of gravity for some companies.
Competing with Microsoft
Slack’s growth has been significant over the past few years. It recently passed the 4 million daily active user mark, with more than 5.8 million weekly active sers. It has signed up major companies, including Ticketmaster, Samsung, AirBnB and Electronic Arts (EA) .
“Growth continues to be like crazy,” Henderson says.
The company has big plans for the future.
But there may be headwinds ahead that slow its march. The company recently found itself in a well publicised competition with Microsoft. The tech giant announced its "Slack competitor", which will be called Teams, last month. Slack responded by taking out a full page ad in the New York Times as an open letter to Microsoft, complete with "friendly advice".
It may not have had the desired effect.Some speculated that the ad showed Slack was worried about the potential competition; others said it drew attention to what was now its biggest rival.
Henderson doesn’t seem too fazed by the whole thing. Microsoft’s product is still unreleased and unproven, for a start. And competing with Microsoft isn’t really anything new to Slack.
“A lot of it still remains to be seen. It’ll be interesting. Microsoft have a lot of competing products with Slack: they have Outlook and Exchange, Yammer, Sharepoint, Skype.
They have all these communications products already. Teams is just another one on top of that,” he says. “They offer them to all their customers already, so it’s hard to know if they really believe in Teams. It’s a bit of everything else tied together.”
Slack, on the other hand, is a single product that the entire company is focused on making the best it can be, he says.
“It’s hard to imagine that it will be a serious competitor. But it’s good for us to have competition. It validates that we have created a product category that people care about,” he says. “That Microsoft wants to make very Slack-like product is a good sign for us. We’ll see how it is as a product.”