Wednesday, March 16, 2016

So, you want to build a better Slack?

We were lucky to launch Bitrix24 before Slack. Actually, the self hosted version was released WAAAY back in 2008, and was called Bitrix Intranet CMS. Since we are more popular than Slack in some geographic locations, like Eastern Europe or India, and with some demographics (non-tech businesses, solo entrepreneurs), I’d like to share ideas about what we see as Slack’s shortcomings that we and other software vendors can capitalize on. And yes, since we knew most of that that before Slack even existed, this is pure link baiting and traffic whoring.
1. Solo use
We do a lot of work with others, that’s why we need collaboration tools. But we do even more work on our own. Think about that for a moment. The reason why Slack or Yammer grew so quickly is because one person who learned about those would instantly involve 5–10–50 other people. Which is good for viral growth, but leaves out people who work alone or have only 2–3 people working with them. If you look at tools that are useful both for collaboration and as solo tools, say Trello, they’ve already exceeded 10 million users. At Bitrix24, 12% of active accounts are used by solo users (most popular tools are free CRMfree taskstelephony and shared calendars for appointment scheduling). Slack is useless for a single user. Your solution shouldn’t be.
2. Size matters.
If you don’t know who Stowe Boyd is, you should read everything the man has ever written on the subject of collaboration. It’s pure brilliance. Nobody else comes even close. He even invented the term hash tag, for Christ’s sake. And his Twitter pic looks like he’s Robert Anton Wilson. Stowe ‘predicted’ the fall of Yammer and the rise of Slack. Well, sort of. His observation was simple. Most collaborative work happens in the groups that are small. Up to 10 or 12 people. Remember Jive? Or Yammer just four years ago when it got bought out for $1.2 Billion? Stowe saw that social network format is inconvenient for 10 people working together, but chat is perfect. Think about that. Slack channel with 10 users is awesome. But a forum with 10 people in it is dead. Same a for social network, even though those two media can perfectly be used for exchanging ideas, just like chat. Now picture Slack channel with 1000 users. Utter chaos. But a forum with 1000 users is a vibrant community now.
This means that Slack comes in with a built-in handicap. Yes, you can buy Slack for a company with 5000 employees. But it won’t help it one bit. It’s important to understand that collaboration tools come with very real limitations that dictate its usefulness range. Fewer users than needed, more users than intended and you are dead in the water. I have no idea how Slack is going to solve this dilemma since it’s clear that they are gunning for the enterprise market, just as it is that it’s useless for large companies that it vies for. Maybe that’s why that ‘Enterprise’ plan on Slack’s pricing page is ‘coming soon’ for over a year now. For the record, we killed our Enterprise plan in 2013. Been there, done that. Finally, we sold Bitrix24 to a bank with 320,000 employees and a holding company with 600 subsidiaries/500,000 employees after realizing that large enterprises don’t want enterprise plan, they want enterprise value.
3. Many sizes fit many
This is a continuation of the previous point, but in a way it’s a different one as well. Different companies collaborate in a different way. Or, to be more precise, using different tools. Most web studios use project management solutions. That’s how they think about creating new websites — as projects. A web studio may use Slack as well, but they aren’t giving up their Basecamps and Asanas. Developers may very well use Slack, but they are also very fond of their Githubs and Jiras. Universities use neither, usually, but they love social intranets, wikis and knowledge bases. You can even build collaboration around CRM or Dropbox. You may look at Slack and think for it that proves the mantra ‘do one thing, but do it best’. I beg to differ. If Slack adds decent task management, it’s death to Asana and Basecamp. Well, maybe not death, but it’s gonna hurt. But a far likely scenario that in a year, all task managers will come with IM that are almost as good as Slack for all practical purposes. And people who pay for Slack and Asana or Slack and Trello will drop Slack. They simply won’t need it any longer. Slack in three years may end up in the same place Yammer is now.
I have written about this subject extensively before. I am going to steal from Stowe again and invent a new term ‘Saasicide’ (just Googled it, I’m the fist) to describe the massive die off of countless task managers, CRM systems and Slack copycats, who did not yet realize that for any service to be useful it has to come with a MINIMUM of client management, task management, document management and instant messenger in a single package. It won’t take long — two years max.
4. Price matters
I am going to refer you to How Bitrix24 Thinks About Freemium on order to avoid repeating myself. Slack’s innovating freemium plan has helped the growth tremendously. Find a way to beat it, and this probably means giving away the ‘Slack’ part of your product absolutely free without any limits because you are making money elsewhere, and you have a fighting chance. Remember, collaboration wants to be free.
5. Assisted collaboration
Everybody talks about driverless cars, but think how far we’ve already come. Hydraulic power steering, cruise control, auto-parking, folding mirrors, tire pressure monitoring, traffic sign recognition, rear reversing cameras, sensors of all kinds — when you buy a car in 2016, it’ll probably come with all of these. Our new Nissan did. And you probably know how helpful all of these are.
Today’s collaboration platforms remind me driving without power steering. Slack is far, far ahead of competition here, but again, it’s all limited to chat bots which only work with IM. Far more opportunities for assisted intelligence exist when you break out from the IM ghetto.
I could add a couple more points, like ability to have self hosted version that you can install on your server, which HipChat has recently done, and we’ve had for ages, but I think these five are the most important ones. Did I miss anything big?
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