Slack CEO details challenges in managing in-demand app during pandemic

MANILA, Philippines – For the most part, apps like Slack, Zoom, and Skype have been operating mostly in the background, while the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram bathe in the daily attention. 

But that’s all changing right now as the said apps are now front and center with global lockdowns forcing billions to stay home. These apps have become the go-to for those who are able to work from home, and also for friends and families looking to stay-in-touch. 

What was it like to suddenly be in the spotlight? Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield looks back on the past few weeks on a Twitter thread that looks at the pandemic from both the business side and a more human side. 

LIke many of us, the lockdowns appeared to have caught him by surprise. At first there was a trickle, of new teams signing up, mostly from Japan, South Korea, and Italy, and then a surge. From 10 million, they hit 10.5 million in a span of 6 days – and then 12.5 million another week after. 

Tuesday: More signs of demand surge. 1,597 days after hitting 1M *simultaneously connected* users in Oct ‘15 (see https://t.co/G6DeO1W08a) we pass ten million. 6 days later: 10.5M, then 11.0M. Next day, 11.5M. This Monday, 12M. Today 12.5M. pic.twitter.com/GPaKF3VgOr — Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) March 26, 2020

Before the lockdown, a few warning signs: US cases rise to the hundreds, leading the CEO to order an optional work-from-home arrangement to a stricter enforcement later on. The CDC contacts one of their employees, telling them that they may have been exposed, triggering the CEO to shut down their San Francisco office, and order a “deep” clean of the premises. 

Externally, the company sets up consultations with new teams signing up, likely new to remote working plans. A board meeting here, and an almost mad rush to decide to “strongly encourage” everyone to work from home, just as the US case toll reaches 400. 

Friday: Made the call. “Strongly encouraged” all employees to work from home. Planning intensified. There was a LOT of work to do. By the time we communicated to employees on Sat afternoon, there were 400 cases in the US. (I wrote about this time here: https://t.co/qsrol2xsB4) — Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) March 26, 2020

Markets are on a roller-coaster ride – mostly, and for most companies, actually just the freefall part. 

The world is introduced to phrase “circuit breaker” for stocks – a sudden stoppage of trading to let traders regroup during a wild market swing. In the aftermath of one of these, Butterfield did business things (“We regroup, revise the script and adjust guidance as the CEO/CFO/IR/Comms crew heads to NYC”) but beyond trade tickers and red bloody markers, the CEO encounters a more human story, that’s as scary as the big economy narrative (“Driver from the airport tells me business is down by half, he’s behind on rent and his brother just got laid off from his hotel job, along with 50% of the staff. Darkening clouds.”)

In his own company, a mixture of adrenaline and anxiety: 

The whole company was energized and moving fast. All hands on deck as existing customers accelerated rollout plans and new team creation continued to increase. But we could tell anxieties were also increasing. Leaders across the company stepped up internal communication. I wrote: pic.twitter.com/RBhv1eklnJ — Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) March 26, 2020

And there is, because the lockdowns happened just as fiscal quarters are coming to a close, an impending earnings report. But the CEO puts it into perspective, pointing out, essentially, that it feels a little bit silly to be reporting on “a normal CEO thing” in the face of the possibility of millions dying. 

When the possibility of millions of deaths is slowly starting to sink in, it’s hard to say an otherwise normal CEO thing like “the macro environment is creating significant tailwinds for the business” and it felt completely impossible to extrapolate out from this present moment. — Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) March 26, 2020

Here are some interesting insights, amid news of positive growth for the company:

It felt like the shift from inboxes to channels which we believed to be inevitable over 5-7 years just got fast-forwarded by 18 months. Good for our business. But what about everyone else? Many sectors were already hit hard and the fallout for small business could be devastating. — Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) March 26, 2020

So, on one hand: Large enterprises were sure to clamp down on spending, our EBCs were closed, salespeople couldn’t travel, no in-person meetings for training programs, and more we couldn’t yet imagine. And on the other: Those same customers needed Slack more than ever. — Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) March 26, 2020

At the other end of the spectrum it was: Early signs of a surge in teams created and new paid customers unlike anything we had ever seen. Weighed against: We had 110,000 customers. In the worst case scenarios many thousands of those would go out of business. — Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) March 26, 2020

To end the thread, the CEO had parting messages for the employees, Slack users, and the frontliners:

If you’re an employee reading this, I want you to know that what we got done in the last few weeks is incredible, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m so, so proud of all of you. And, please, for real: take time out/off. Take care of your family and your health. — Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) March 26, 2020

If you’re just getting started on Slack, I’m sorry: there are still some rough spots. It’s not as easy to get used to as we’d like. But we’re working hard to simplify and guide people towards effective usage. It’s worth the effort. When it works, you’ll never go back to email. — Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) March 26, 2020

If you’re just getting started on Slack, I’m sorry: there are still some rough spots. It’s not as easy to get used to as we’d like. But we’re working hard to simplify and guide people towards effective usage. It’s worth the effort. When it works, you’ll never go back to email. — Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) March 26, 2020

The CEO’s forthcoming tweets have netted positive replies, with many praising his leadership during these times. – Rappler.com 

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.

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