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Slack cofounder: 'We didn't have a sense of the scale it could grow to'

Katherine Noyes | Aug. 17, 2015
In the two years since its beta launch, Slack has juggled explosive growth, formidable competition and the need to cater to CIOs.

The company opted not to advertise in its first year so that it could focus on serving the users it gained organically and refine the experience. "We were struggling to keep up with the growth," Henderson said.

The cloud, however, has made things easier than they would have been otherwise, he noted. Running a large infrastructure with on-premises equipment means large upfront costs and overhead, Henderson said: "You have to have a good sense of what you'll need for the future."

Slack, on the other hand, chose Amazon Web Services. "It allowed us to experiment," he said. "It reduces the ramp-up time and has definitely saved us money and time to manage the thousands of servers that Slack uses. You don't have as much control over the hardware, but at our scale it's been hugely beneficial for agility."

Slack has also made a deliberate decision to use "slightly boring" technologies to power its product, he added, such as the open source LAMP stack including Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/Python/Perl.

"When you're building a large infrastructure, you only have so many points to spend on interesting technology before you get overwhelmed," Henderson said. "We're trying to make a product that just does its job, and that's orthogonal to trying out the latest shiny new toys."

There have been some bumps along the way, including some memorable outages and a hack attack earlier this year.

Nevertheless, rather than technological, Slack's biggest challenges as it has grown have been organizational ones, primarily as a result of the focus it's had to have on hiring, Henderson said.

"You work in a very different way when it's just five developers," he explained. "It's a constant evolution -- as soon as we figure out the best method, we've grown again and it no longer applies."

Then, too, there's the fact that enterprise software is not typically considered as "sexy" as consumer software is, making it more difficult to attract developers.

"While we are not competing with Facebook, Google or Microsoft as a product, we are at a hiring level," Henderson pointed out.

Among the best decisions the company has made on that front, he said, is emphasizing the company's values in its hiring efforts, including empathy and courtesy.

"When people use Slack, it's eight hours a day," he said. "Slack's goal is to make people's working lives more simple and more productive. We focus on whether potential employees are interested in making it a really good experience."

Careful hiring, in fact, is where Henderson would encourage other rapidly growing startups to focus as well.

"Whatever your product is at launch, you'll hopefully be making it better over time," he said. "You could double your staff overnight, but the team you build now is the one that will be making those changes in the future."

 

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