How Slack can become much more than an Enterprise tool


The team chat service Slack is one of the rising technology startups that we for sure will hear a lot about in 2015. The San Francisco-based company has simply everything going for it right now: Hockey stick growth, exceptional user loyalty and a pretty solid business model (bigger teams need to opt for the paid plans).

When considering the potential of Slack, one certainly has to keep in mind that we are talking about an enterprise product. For the moment, average end users would only become acquainted with Slack if they are members of a project group at their company or organization that uses the service. This certainly is not a small market. Social enterprise software is expected to be $4.5 billion market by 2016. However, Slack includes one feature that might bring it to a much bigger number of users much faster; even to people who are not involved in any official project work that utilizes Slack for internal communication.

The feature I am talking about is the single-channel guest mode. It allows admins of paid Slack plans to invite “outsiders” by email to a specified, closed channel. In its FAQ, Slack mentions “clients, friends, family members or industry colleagues” as examples of people who might be suited for this option.

Right now, the guest mode has a restriction which prevents it from being used for chat-based mass communication: There can only be 5 guest accounts for each member that is paid-for within a Slack plan. This ensures for Slack that companies don’t start to invite hundreds or even thousands of customers into semi-private chat rooms. Or, more specifically, if they do, they have to have many paying Slack members, which guarantees the startup company to be able to cover its infrastructure costs.

But the better Slack scales, the more the company will be able to afford giving admins freedom about how many outsiders they want to invite to restricted guest channels.

Talk Shopify
Yesterday on the user-contributed tech news portal Hacker News, an entry for a site called Talk Shopify appeared. Turns out, Talk Shopify is nothing but a Slack Community for enthusiasts of the e-commerce tool Shopify that makes use of Slack’s single channel guest feature. Interested people can sign up using the form on the website. If they are deemed acceptable by the admins, they’ll receive a Slack invite by mail. Since the site lacks information about the initiators it is hard to judge its respectability. But the idea to gather like-minded people who are not part of a formal project group with the help of Slack is something we might see much more often in the future. Slack as the successor of the IRC.

By encouraging this kind of use case, e.g. through removed limitations for the number of guests, Slack could increase the number of registered users even faster than until now. And even though the conversion rate (paid-for members to non-paid-for members) would drop, it is in the company’s interest to introduce its service to as many people as possible. That in turn will convince more system admins, managers and project leaders in all kinds of organizations to establish Slack for internal communication, signing up for one of the paid plans.

Slack will come to a point where it has to make a decision about if it wants to stick to the enterprise market or if it wants to leverage its network and enthusiastic community to reach out to new groups of users. With the addition of VoIP and video integration, Slack could eventually become a better Skype. The guest mode can act as a kind of trojan horse. It gets Slack in the hands of everyday users, who are being invited to guest channels by companies, interest groups or friends. Eventually, these people themselves find use cases to integrate Slack into their work and personal day.

I have contacted Slack about its intentions to push the guest mode for non-team channels but haven’t heard back. It is completely possible that the concept of Slack as a vehicle for closed chat-groups around areas of interests, hobbies, ideas, companies, products or services, is nothing that Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield has on its roadmap. But there is little doubt about one thing: As long as the guest mode exists – even if restricted based on the number of paid members – it will be a tool for various types of creative experimentation.

Update: #nomads is another community using Slack. It apparently has more than 1000 members. Back in December its creator blogged about “hacking” Slack into a community platform. Quite interesting. It seems though as if Slack is not completely happy about the automated invitation process described in the post.

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