One of the early highlights of DLDBerlin's premiere was Stewart Butterfield's talk on the future of work. The serial entrepreneur co-founded Flickr in 2004 and is now back with his business communication app Slack. Since its launch in 2013, Slack has become one of the fastest growing enterprise apps of all time. Today, it counts over 9 million weekly active users and is valued at $5.1 billion dollars. We spoke with Stewart about the secret of his success, his visions for the future of work and the rise of automation in communication.
At DLD Berlin, you talked about the future of work. So far, the digitization hasn't stopped to disrupt the way we work. What are your predictions for the future workplace?
I think we will see more categories of software. It will work like an iron man suit for knowledge workers: It gives them special capabilities they didn't have before. If you look over the last 150 years in manufacturing, huge investments have gone into increasing productivity. As a result, one person can achieve a lot more output today. We will see more software that will add to this empowerment. I think many things will remain constant though. People will still overwork the same number of hours and will have many of the same frustrations.
Slack combines messages from co-workers but also notifications and reports by external services and software. Today, we also see a lot of uptake of chatbots and usage of AI systems. Do you think this automation and botification of office communication will increase?
Definitely, there are already a lot of use cases. And not only boring ones that replace something that already exists but tools that come up with new forms of communication. Today, we see a lot of exciting tools in performance feedback and HR getting realtime information from employees. Or simple ideas such as a bot that will pair up two random people from your office to have lunch together. That's not something we would necessarily have invested a huge amount of resources in developing ourselves but it's very easy to set up and a lot of people in fact use it to meet coworkers and form new connections in their company.
But do you also consider it as a field that's particularly interesting for Slack?
Yeah, absolutely. We have a whole team working on applied AI, search and machine learning. I just think that humans have a habit of overestimating the short term effects of technological change and then underestimating the long term. So I don't think anything really that exciting is going to happen in the next three years, but in the next ten years, it will probably exceed expectations.
Coming back to the present: You have just launched a German version of Slack. Are there any cultural differences and local specifics to consider for the German market?
There are definitely cultural differences, but also a different regulatory environment and blend of industry. We have a localized product now, but another big step will be German customer support, success and sales team as well as documentation in German. There is probably more that's common between American and German knowledge workers than there are differences, but we are definitely interested in going beyond the language availability.
Slack has been tremendously successful in terms of growth. What do you think is the secret behind its success?
Well, we try to make people's work and life simpler, more pleasant and more productive. I think in ten years we will have the perfect explanation why exactly people are liking it that much, but ultimately, it helps with communication and that's usually the most challenging aspect for companies and a field where a huge amount of effort goes into.
Slack also seems to profit from people feeling overwhelmed by the amount of email they are getting, but: how is a realtime chat any better?
First of all: People will always complain, and rightly so. But the difference is: Email is like a to-do list that anyone in the world can write to, and it can happen a hundred times a day. In Slack, the conversations are organized in channels from the bottom up. You can read them asynchronously and you don't need to be cc'd on every email with increasingly convoluted, indented layers in which you have to decipher who's talking to who. You can just check the channel for the current status and so can a manager starting a year from now. People who are new at the company will have the whole history available to them. So eventually people will probably feel as overwhelmed with Slack as they do with email but they will be getting 10 times more done for each moment they will spend on communication.
As you have a lot of experience building two very successful companies, but also going through rough times on the market: Any advice for young entrepreneurs that are starting out?
Yeah, I have a piece of advice. It's to always focus on customers, not on competitors or yourself or making money because ultimately the success of your business is going to be dependent on what it delivers.
You've been to DLD several times. How do you like our Berlin premiere so far?
I love it. I have been to the very first DLD in Munich and again in 2015. It's a great community, very different from anything else. It's great to be part of it.