Virtual events are the new norm for product rollouts in 2020, with Slack taking to the internet earlier today to talk about a new part of its service called Slack Connect.
On the heels of Apple’s lengthy and pretty good virtual WWDC that took place earlier this week, Slack’s event, part experiment and part press conference, was called to detail the firm’s new Slack Connect capability, which will allow companies to better link together and communicate inside of their Slack instance than what was possible with its shared channels feature. The product was described inside of a business-to-business context, including examples about companies needing to chat with agencies and other external vendors.
In its most basic form, Slack is well-known for internal chat functionality, helping teams talk amongst themselves. Slack Connect appears to be a progression past that idea, pushing internal communications tooling to allow companies to plug their private comms into the private comms of other orgs, linking them for simple communication while keeping the entire affair secure.
Slack Connect, a evolution past what shared channels offered, includes better security tooling and the ability to share channels across 20 orgs. The enterprise SaaS company is also working to give Connect-using companies “the ability to form DM connections independent of channels,” the company told TechCrunch.
The product could slim down email usage; if Slack Connect can let many orgs chat amongst themselves, perhaps fewer emails will be needed to keep different companies in sync. That said, Slack is hardly a quiet product. During his part of the presentation, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield noted that the service sees up to 65 million messages sent each second at peak times.
According to the CEO, Slack Connect has been piloted for a few months, and is now available for paid plans.
Slack shares are off 3.8% today, before the news came out. Its broader company cohort (SaaS) are also down today, along with the market more broadly; investors don’t appear to have reacted to this piece of news, at least yet.
Slack and Amazon announced a big integration late yesterday afternoon. As part of the deal, Slack will use Amazon Chime for its call feature, while reiterating its commitment to use AWS as its preferred cloud provider to run its infrastructure. At the same time, AWS has agreed to use Slack for internal communications.
Make no mistake, this is a big deal as the SaaS communications tool increases its ties with AWS, but this agreement could also be about slighting Microsoft and its rival Teams product by making a deal with a cloud rival. In the past Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield has had choice words for Microsoft saying the Redmond technology giant sees his company as an “existential threat.”
Whether that’s true or not — Teams is but one piece of a huge technology company — it’s impossible not to look at the deal in this context. Aligning more deeply with AWS sends a message to Microsoft, whose Azure infrastructure services compete with AWS.
Butterfield didn’t say that of course. He talked about how synergistic the deal was. “Strategically partnering with AWS allows both companies to scale to meet demand and deliver enterprise-grade offerings to our customers. By integrating AWS services with Slack’s channel-based messaging platform, we’re helping teams easily and seamlessly manage their cloud infrastructure projects and launch cloud-based services without ever leaving Slack,” he said in a statement
The deal also includes several other elements including integrating AWS Key Management Service with Slack Enterprise Key Management (EKM) for encryption key management, deeper alignment with AWS’s chatbot service and direct integration with AWS AppFlow to enable secure transfer of data between Slack and Amazon S3 storage and the Amazon Redshift data warehouse.
AWS CEO Andy Jassy saw it as a pure integration play. “Together, AWS and Slack are giving developer teams the ability to collaborate and innovate faster on the front end with applications, while giving them the ability to efficiently manage their backend cloud infrastructure,” Jassy said in a statement.
Like any good deal, it’s good for both sides. Slack gets a big customer in AWS and AWS now has Slack directly integrating more of its services. One of the reasons enterprise users are so enamored with Slack is the ability to get work done in a single place without constantly have to change focus and move between interfaces.
This deal will provide more of that for common customers, while tweaking a common rival. That’s what you call win-win.
Atlassian announced today that it was acquiring Halp, an early stage startup that enables companies to build integrated help desk ticketing and automated answers inside Slack. The companies did not disclose the purchase price.
It was a big day for Halp, which also announced its second product today called Halp Answers. The new tool will work hand in glove with its previous entry Halp Tickets, which lets Slack users easily create a Help Desk ticket without leaving the tool.
“Halp Answers enables your teams to leverage the knowledge that already exists within your company to automatically answer tickets right in Slack . That knowledge can be pulled in from Slack messages, Confluence articles or any piece of knowledge in your organization,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the deal.
Note that integration with Confluence, which is an Atlassian tool. The company also sees it integrating with Jira support for other enterprise communications tools down the road. “Existing Halp users can look forward to deeper (and new) integrations with Jira and Confluence. We’re committed to supporting Microsoft Teams customers as well,” Atlassian wrote in a blog post.
Halp is selling early, having just launched last year. The company had raised a $2 million seed round in April 2019 on a 9.5 million post valuation, according to Pitchbook data. The startup sees an opportunity with Atlassian that it apparently didn’t think it could achieve alone.
“We’ll be able to harness the vast resources at Atlassian to continue with our mission to make Halp the best tool for any team collaborating on requests with other teams. Our team will grow and be able to focus on making the core experience of Halp even more powerful. We’ll also develop a deeper integration with the Atlassian suite — improving our existing Jira and Confluence integrations and discovering the possibilities of Halp generating alerts in Opsgenie, cards in Trello, and much more,” the company wrote.
Halp’s founders promise that it won’t be abandoning its existing customers as it joins the larger organization. As a matter of fact, Halp is bringing with them a slew of big-name customers including Adobe, VMware, Github and Slack.
Meet Leverice: A team messenger and collaboration platform that’s aiming to compete with b2b giants like Slack by tackling an issue that continues to plague real-time messaging — namely, ‘always-on’ information overload. This means these tools can feel like they’re eating into productivity as much as aiding it. Or else leave users stressed and overwhelmed about how to stay on top of the work comms firehose.
Leverice’s pitch is that it’s been built from the ground up to offer a better triage structure so vital bits of info aren’t lost in rushing rivers of chatter than flow across less structured chat platforms.
It does this by giving users the ability to organize chat content into nested subchannels. So its theory is that hyper structured topic channels will let users better direct and navigate info flow, freeing them from the need to check everything or perform lots of searches in order to find key intel. Instead they can just directly drill down to specific subchannels, tuning out the noise.
The overarching aim is to bring a little asynchronicity to the world of real-time collaboration platforms, per co-founder and COO Daniel Velton.
“Most messaging and collaboration tools are designed for and built around synchronous communications, instant back-and-forth. But most members of remote teams communicate at their own pace — and there was no go-to messaging tool built around asynchronous communications,” he tells TechCrunch.
“We set out to solve that problem, to build a messenger and collaboration platform that breaks rivers down into rivulets. To do that, we needed a tech stack and unique architecture that would allow teams to efficiently work with hundreds of channels and subchannels distributed between scores of channel branches of varying depths. Having that granularity ensures that each little shelf maintains topical integrity.
“We’re not discussing Feature 2.1.1 and 2.1.2 and 2.1.3 and 2.1.4 inside a single ‘Features’ channel, where the discussions would blend together. Each has its own little home.”
Of course Slack isn’t blind to the info-overload issues its platform can generate. Last month it announced “a simpler, more organized Slack”, which includes the ability for users to organize channels, messages and apps into “custom, collapsible sections”. Aka folders.
So how is Leverice’s subchannel architecture a great leap forward on the latest version of Slack — which does let users organize themselves (and is now in the process of being rolled out across its user-base)?
“All structuring (including folders) on other popular messengers is essentially an individual preference setting,” says Velton. “It does not reflect on a teamwide channel tree. It’s definitely a step in the right direction but it’s about each user adding a tiny bit of structure to their own private interface, not having a structure that affects and improves the way an entire team communicates.
“Leverice architecture is based on structuring of channels and subchannels into branches of unlimited depth. This kind of deep structuring is not something you can simply ‘overlay’ on top of an existing messenger that was designed around a single layer of channels. A tremendous number of issues arise when you work with a directory-like structure of infinite depth, and these aren’t easily solved or addressed unless the architecture is built around it.”
“Sure, in Leverice you can build the ‘6-lane autobahns’,” he adds, using an analogy of vehicle traffic on roads to illustrate the concept of a hierarchy of topic channels. “But we are the only messenger where you can also construct a structured network of ‘country roads’. It’s more ‘places’ but each ‘place’ is so narrow and topical that working through it all becomes more manageable, quick and pleasant, and it’s something you can do at your own pace without fear of missing important kernels of information as they fly by on the autobahn.”
To be clear, while Slack has now started letting users self-organize — by creating a visual channel hierarchy that suits them — Leverice’s structure means the same structured tree of channels/subchannels applies for the whole team.
“At the end of the day, for communications to work, somebody on a team needs to be organized,” argues Velton. “What we allow is structuring that affects the channel tree for an entire team, not just an individual preference that reflects only on a user’s local device.”
Leverice has other features in the pipeline which it reckons will further help users cut through the noise — with a plan to apply AI-powered prioritization to surface the most pressing inbound comms.
There will also be automated alerts for conversation forks when new subchannels are created. (Though generating lots of subchannel alerts doesn’t sound exactly noise-free…)
“We have features coming that alert users to forks in a conversation and nudge the user toward those new subchannels. At this stage those forks are created manually, although our upcoming AI module will have nudges based on those forks,” says Velton.
“The architecture (deep structuring) also opens the door to scripting of automated workflows and open source plug-ins,” he adds.
Leverice officially launched towards the end of February after a month-long beta which coincided with the coronavirus-induced spike in remote work.
At this stage they have “members of almost 400 teams” registered on the platform, per Velton, with initial traction coming from mid-size tech companies — who he says are either unhappy with the costs of their current messaging platform or with distraction/burnout caused by “channel fatigue”; or who are facing info fragmentation as internal teams are using different p2p/messaging tools and lack a universal choice.
“We have nothing but love and respect for our competitors,” he adds. “Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, Viber, etc.: each have their own benefits and many teams are perfectly content to use them. Our product is for teams looking for more focus and structure than existing solutions offer. Leverice’s architecture is unique on the market, and it opens the door to powerful features that are neither technically nor practically feasible in a messenger with a single layer containing a dozen or two dozen channels.”
Other differentiating features he highlights as bringing something fresh to the team messaging platform conversation are a whiteboard feature that lets users collaborate in the app for brainstorming or listing ideas, prorities; and a Jira integration for managing and discussing tasks in the project- and issue-tracking tool. The team is planning further integrations including with Zoom, Google Docs and “other services you use most”.
The startup — which was founded by CEO Rodion Zhitomirsky in Minsk but is now headquartered in San Jose, California, also with offices in Munich, Germany — has been bootstrapping development for around two years, taking in angel investment of around $600,000.
“We are three friends who managed complex project-based teams and personally felt the pains of all the popular messengers out there,” says Velton, discussing how they came to set up the business. “We used all the usual suspects, and even tried using p2p messengers as substitutes. They all led us and our teams to the same place: we couldn’t track large amounts of communications unless we were in “always-on” mode. We knew there had to be a better way, so we set out to build Leverice.”
The third co-founder is Dennis Dokutchitz.
Leverice’s business model is freemium, with a free tier, a premium tier, and a custom enterprise tier. As well as offering the platform as SaaS via the cloud, they do on-premise installations — for what Velton describes as “the highest level of security and privacy”.
On the security front the product is not end-to-end encrypted but he says the team is developing e2e encrypted channels to supplement the client-server encryption it applies as standard.
Velton notes these forthcoming channels would not support the usual search features, while AI analysis would be limited to “meta-information analysis”, i.e. excluding posts’ content.
With remote work the order of the day across most of the globe because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely there will be a new influx of collaboration tools being unboxed to help home workers navigate a new ‘professionally distant’ normal.
“We’ve only been on the market for 6 weeks and have no meaningful revenue to speak of as of yet,” adds Velton.
Could avatars that show what co-workers are up to save work-from-home teams from constant distraction and loneliness? That’s the idea behind Pragli, the Bitmoji for the enterprise. It’s a virtual office app that makes you actually feel like you’re in the same building.
Pragli uses avatars to signal whether co-workers are at their desk, away, in a meeting, in the zone while listening to Spotify, taking a break at a digital virtual watercoooler, or done for the day. From there, you’ll know whether to do a quick ad-hoc audio call, cooperate via screenshare, schedule a deeper video meeting, or a send a chat message they can respond to later. Essentially, it translates the real word presence cues we use to coordinate collaboration into an online workplace for distributed teams.
“What Slack did for email, we want to do for video conferencing” Pragli co-founder Doug Safreno tells me. “Traditional video conferencing is exclusive by design, whereas Pragli is inclusive. Just like in an office, you can see who is talking to who.” That means less time wasted planning meetings, interrupting colleagues who are in flow, or waiting for critical responses. Pragli offers the focus that makes remote work productive with the togetherness that keeps everyone sane and in sync.
The idea is to solve the top three problems that Pragli’s extensive interviews and a Buffer/AngelList study discovered workers hate:
Lack of boundaries boundaries
You never have to worry about whether you’re intruding on someone’s meeting, or if it’d be quicker to hash something out on a call instead of vague text. Avatars give remote workers a sense of identity, while the Pragli watercooler provides a temporary place to socialize rather than an endless Slack flood of GIFs. And since you clock in and out of the Pragli office just like a real one, co-workers understand when you’ll reply quickly versus when you’ll respond tomorrow unless there’s an emergency.
“In Pragli, you log into the office in the morning and there’s a clear sense of when I’m working and when I’m not working. Slack doesn’t give you astrong sense if they’re online or offline” Safreno explains. “Everyone stays online and feels pressured to respond at any time of day.”
Pragli co-founder Doug Safreno
Safreno and his co-founder Vivek Nair know the feeling first-hand. After both graduating in computer science from Stanford, they built StacksWare to help enterprise software customers avoid overpaying by accurately measuring their usage. But when they sold StacksWare to Avi Networks, they spent two years working remotely for the acquirer. The friction and loneliness quickly crept in.
They’d message someone, not hear back for a while, then go back and forth trying to discuss the problem before eventually scheduling a call. Jumping into synchronous communicating would have been much more efficient. “The loneliness was more subtle, but it built up after the first few weeks” Safreno recalls. “We simply didn’t socially bond while working remotely as well as in the office. Being lonely was de-motivating, and it negatively affected our productivity.”
The founders interviewed 100 remote engineers, and discovered that outside of scheduled meetings, they only had one audio or video call with co-workers per week. That convinced them to start Pragli a year ago to give work-from-home teams a visual, virtual facsimile of a real office. With no other full-time employees, the founders built and released a beta of Pragli last year. Usage grew 6X in March and is up 20X since January 1st.
Today Pragli officially launches, and it’s free until June 1st. Then it plans to become freemium with the full experience reserved for companies that pay per user per month. Pragli is also announcing a small pre-seed round today led by K9 Ventures, inspired by the firm’s delight using the product itself.
To get started with Pragi, teammates download the Pragli desktop app and sign in with Google, Microsoft, or Github. User then customize their avatar with a wide range of face, hair, skin, and clothing options. It can use your mouse and keyboard interaction to show if you’re at your desk or not, or use your webcam to translate occasional snapshots of your facial expressions to your avatar. You can also connect your Spotify and calendar to show you’re listening to music (and might be concentrating), reveal or hide details of your meeting, and decide whether people can ask to interrupt your or that you’re totally unavailable.
From there, you can communicate by audio, video, or text with any of your available co-workers. Guests can join conversations via the web and mobile too, though the team is working on a full-fledged app for phones and tablets. Tap on someone and you can instantly talk to them, though their mic stays muted until they respond. Alternatively, you can jump into Slack-esque channels for discussing specific topics or holding recurring meetings. And if you need some downtime, you can hang out in the watercooler or trivia game channel, or set a manual away message.
Pragli has put a remarkable amount of consideration into how the little office social cues about when to interrupt someone translate online, like if someone’s wearing headphones, in a deep convo already, or if they’re chilling in the microkitchen. It’s leagues better than having no idea what someone’s doing on the other side of Slack or what’s going on in a Zoom call. It’s a true virtual office without the clunky VR headset.
“Nothing we’ve tried has delivered the natural, water-cooler-style conversations that we get from Pragli” says Storj Labs VP of engineering JT Olio. “The ability to switch between ‘rooms’ with screen sharing, video, and voice in one app is great. It has really helped us improve transparency across teams. Plus, the avatars are quite charming as well.”
With Microsoft’s lack of social experience, Zoom consumed with its scaling challenges, and Slack doubling down on text as it prioritizes Zoom integration over its own visual communication features, there’s plenty of room for Pragli to flourish. Meanwhile, COVID-19 quarantines are turning the whole world towards remote work, and it’s likely to stick afterwards as companies deemphasize office space and hire more abroad.
The biggest challenge will be making such a broad product encompassing every communication medium and tons of new behaviors comprehensible enough to onboard whole teams. “How do you build a product that doesn’t feel distracting like Slack but where people can still have the spontaneous conversations that are so important to companies innovating?” Safreno asks. The Pragli founders are also debating how to encompass mobile without making people feel like the office stalks them after hours.
“Long-term, [Pragli] should be better than being in the office because you don’t actually have to walk around looking for [co-workers], and you get to decide how you’re presented” Safreno concludes. “We won’t quit because we want to work remotely for the rest of our lives.”
Okta, the popular identity and access management service, today used its annual (and now virtual) user conference to launch Lifecycle Management Workflows, a new tool that helps IT teams build and manage IFTTT-like automated processes with the help of an easy to use graphical interface.
The new service is an extension of Okta’s existing automation tools. But the key here is that IT teams and developers can now easily build complex identity-centric workflows across a wide range of applications. With this, these teams can easily automate an onboarding process where setting up a new Okta account also immediately kicks off processes on third-party services like Box, Salesforce, ServiceNow and Slack to set up accounts there. The same goes for offboarding workflows and username creation. A lot of companies still do this manually, which is not just a hassle but also error-prone.
“Adopting more technology is incredibly beneficial for enterprises today, but complexity is a significant side effect of a changing technology ecosystem and workforce. There is no better example of the potential challenges it can create than with lifecycle management,” said Diya Jolly, Chief Product Officer at Okta. “Okta’s vision of enabling any organization to use any technology goes deeper than just access; it’s about improving how organizations use technology. Okta Lifecycle Management Workflows improves the efficiency and security of enterprises through its simple user experience and broad applicability, keeping organizations secure, and efficient without requiring the complexity of writing code.”
Okta, of course, had lifecycle management features before, but now it is also putting its acquisition of Azuqua to work and using that company’s graphical interface and technology for making it easier to create these automation processes. And while the focus right now is on processes like provisioning and de-provisioning accounts, the long-term plan is to expand Workflows with support for more identity processes.
As Okta also stresses, administrators can also manage very granular access across the supported third-party tools like assigning territories in Salesforce or access to specific group channels in Slack, for example. For temporary employees, admins can also set up automatic de-provisioning workflows that revoke access to some tools but maybe leave access to payroll services open for a while longer. There are also built-in tools for automatically managing conflicts when two people have the same name.
“Millions of people rely on Slack every day to make their working lives simpler, more pleasant, and more productive,” said Tamar Yehoshua, Chief Product Officer at Slack, one of the early adopters of this service. “Okta Lifecycle Management Workflows has significantly increased efficiency for us by automating the provisioning and de-provisioning of users from applications in our environment, without us ever having to write a line of code.”
This new feature is part of Okta’s new Platform Services, which the company also debuted today and which currently consists of core technologies like the Okta Identity Engine, Directories Integrations, Insights, Workflow and Devices. The core idea behind Platform Services is to give Okta users the flexibility to manage their unique identity use cases but also to give Okta itself a platform to innovate on. One other new product that sits on top of the platform is Okta Fastpass, for example, which allows for passwordless authentication on any device.
It’s like Google Docs for everything. Screen is a free interactive multiplayer screensharing app that gives everyone a cursor so they can navigate, draw on, and even code within the apps of their co-workers while voice or video chatting. Screen makes it easy and fun to co-design content, pair program, code review or debug together, or get feedback from a teacher.
Jahanzeb Sherwani sold his last screensharing tool ScreenHero to Slack, but it never performed as well crammed inside the messaging app. Five years later, he’s accelerated the launch of Screen to today and made it free to help all the teams stuck working from home amidst coronavirus shelter-in-place orders.
Sherwani claims that Screen is “2x-5x faster than other screen sharing tools, and has between 30ms-50ms end-to-end latency. Most other screen sharing tools have between 100ms-150ms.”
For being built by just a two-person team, Screen has a remarkable breadth of features that are all responsive and intuitive.
A few things you can do with Screen:
Share your screen from desktop on Mac, Windows and Linux while chatting over audio or video calling in a little overlaid window, or join a call and watch from your browser or mobile
Use your cursor on someone else’s shared screen so you can control or type anything just like it was your computer
Overlay drawing on the screenshare so you can annotate things like “this is misspelled” or “move this there”, with doodles fading away after a few second unless your hold down your mouse or turn on caps lock
Post ephemeral text comments so you can collaborate even if you have to be quiet
Launch Screen meetings from Slack and schedule them Google Calendar integration
Share invite links with anyone with no need to log in or be at the same company, just be careful who you let control your Screen
Normally Screen is free for joining meetings, $10 per month to host them, and $20 per person per month for enterprise teams. But Sherwani writes that for now it’s free to host too “so you can stay healthy & productive during the coronavirus outbreak.” If you can afford to pay, you should though as “We’re trying this as an experiment in the hope that the number of paid users is sufficient to pay for our running costs to help us stay break-even.”
Sherwani’s new creation could become an acquisition target for video call giants like Zoom, but he might not be so willing to sell this time around. Founded in 2013, Screenhero was incredibly powerful for its time, offering some of the collaboration tools now in Screen. But after it was acquired by Slack after raising just $1.8 million, Screenhero never got the integration it deserved.
“We finally shipped interactive screen sharing almost three years later, but it wasn’t as performant as Screenhero, and was eventually removed in 2019” Sherwani writes. “Given that it was used by a tiny fraction of Slack’s user-base, and had a high maintenance cost, this was the correct decision for Slack.” Still, he explains why a company like Screen is better off independent. “Embedding one complex piece of software in another imposes a lot more constraints, which makes it more expensive to build. It’s far easier to have a standalone app that just does one thing well.”
Screen actually does a lot of things well. I tried it with my wife, and the low latency and extensive flexibility made it downright delightful to try co-writing this article. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of social use cases springing up if teens get ahold of Screen. The whole concept of screensharing is getting popularized by apps like Squad and Instagram’s new Co-Watching feature that launched today.
The new Co-Watching feature is like screensharing just for Instagram
Eventually, Screen wants to launch a virtual office feature so you can just instantly pull co-workers into meetings. That could make it feel a lot more like collaborating in the same room with someone, where you can start a conversation at any time. Screen could also democratize the remote work landscape by shifting meetings from top-down broadcasts by managers to jam sessions where everyone has a say.
Sherwani concludes, “When working together, everyone needs to have a seat at the table”.
When Slack first launched in 2013, the product was quickly embraced by developers, and the early product reflected that. To get at advanced tools, you used a slash (/) command, but the company recognizes that as it moves deeper into the enterprise, it needed to simplify the interface.
Today, the company introduced a newly designed interface aimed at easing the user experience, making Slack more of an accessible enterprise communications hub.
Jaime DeLanghe, director of product management at Slack, says that the messaging application has become a central place for people to communicate about work, which has grown even more important as many of us have begun working from home as a result of COVID-19.
But DeLanghe says usage was up even before the recent work from home trend began taking off. “People are connected to Slack, on average, about nine hours a day and they’re using Slack actively for almost 90 minutes,” she told TechCrunch.
To that end, she says her team has been working hard to update the interface.
“From my team’s perspective, we want to make sure that the experience is as simple to understand and get on-boarded as possible,” she said. That also means surfacing more advanced tooling, which has been hidden behind those slash commands in previous versions of the tool.
She said that the company has been trying to address the needs of the changing audience over the years by adding many new features, but admits that has resulted in some interface clutter. Today’s redesign is meant to address that.
New Slack interface. Screenshot: Slack
Among the new features, besides the overall cleaner look, many people will welcome the new ability to nest channels to organize them better in the Channel sidebar. As your channels proliferate, it becomes harder to navigate them all. Starting today, users can organize their channels into logical groupings with labels.
New nested channel labels in Slack. Screenshot: Slack
DeLanghe is careful to point out that this channel organization is personal, and cannot be done at an administrative level. “The channels don’t actually live inside of another channel. You’re creating a label for them, so that you can organize them in the sidebar for just yourself, not for everybody,” she explained.
Other new features include an improved navigation bar at the top of the window, a centralized search and help tool also located at the top of the window and a universal compose button in the Sidebar.
All of these new features are designed to help make Slack more accessible to users, as more employees start using it across an organization.
The COVID-19 crisis is touching all aspects of society, including how we work. In response, many companies are considering asking some percentage of their workforce to work remotely until the crisis abates.
If your organization doesn’t have a great deal of experience with remote work, there are a number of key things to think about as you set up a program. You are going to be under time constraints when it comes to enacting an action plan, so think about ways to leverage the tools, procedures and technologies you already have in place. You won’t have the luxury of conducting a six-month study.
We spoke to a few people who have been looking at the remote working space for more than a decade and asked about the issues companies should bear in mind when a large number of employees suddenly need to work from home.
The lay of the land
Alan Lepofsky, currently VP of Salesforce Quip, has studied the remote work market for more than a decade. He says there are three main pieces to building a remote working strategy. First, managers need to evaluate which tools they’ll be using to allow employees to continue collaborating when they aren’t together.
Most developers think of Stack Overflow as a question and answer site for their programming questions. But over the last few years, the company has also built a successful business in its Stack Overflow for Teams product, which essentially offers companies a private version of its Q&A product. Indeed, the Teams product now brings in a significant amount of revenue for the company and the new executive team at Stack Overflow is betting that it can help the company grow rapidly in the years to come.
To make Teams even more attractive to businesses, the company today launched a number of new integrations with Jira (Enterprise and Business), GitHub (Enterprise and Business) and Microsoft Teams (Enterprise). These join existing integrations with Slack, Okta and the Business tier of Microsoft Teams.
“I think the integrations that we have been building are reflective of that developer workflow and all of the number of tools that someone who is building and leveraging technology has to interact with,” Stack Overflow Chief Product Officer Teresa Dietrich told me. “When we think about integrations, we think about the vertical right and I think that ‘developer workflow’ is one of those industry verticals that we’re thinking about. ChatOps is obviously another one, as you can see from our Slack and Teams integration. And the JIRA and GitHub [integrations] that we’re building are really at the core of a developer workflow.”
Current Stack Overflow for Teams customers include the likes of Microsoft, Expensify and Wix. As the company noted, 65 percent of its existing Teams customers use GitHub, so it’s no surprise that it is building out this integration.
Why are we all trapped in enterprise chat apps if we talk 6X faster than we type, and our brain processes visual info 60,000X faster than text? Thanks to Instagram, we’re not as camera-shy anymore. And everyone’s trying to remain in flow instead of being distracted by multi-tasking.
That’s why now is the time for Loom. It’s an enterprise collaboration video messaging service that lets you send quick clips of yourself so you can get your point across and get back to work. Talk through a problem, explain your solution, or narrate a screenshare. Some engineering hocus pocus sees videos start uploading before you finish recording so you can share instantly viewable links as soon as you’re done.
“What we felt was that more visual communication could be translated into the workplace and deliver disproportionate value” co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas tells me. He actually conducted our whole interview over Loom, responding to emailed questions with video clips.
Launched in 2016, Loom is finally hitting its growth spurt. It’s up from 1.1 million users and 18,000 companies in February to 1.8 million people at 50,000 businesses sharing 15 million minutes of Loom videos per month. Remote workers are especially keen on Loom since it gives them face-to-face time with colleagues without the annoyance of scheduling synchronous video calls. “80% of our professional power users had primarily said that they were communicating with people that they didn’t share office space with” Thomas notes.
A smart product, swift traction, and a shot at riding the consumerization of enterprise trend has secured Loom a $30 million Series B. The round that’s being announced later today was led by prestigious SAAS investor Sequoia and joined by Kleiner Perkins, Figma CEO Dylan Field, Front CEO Mathilde Collin, and Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger.
“At Instagram, one of the biggest things we did was focus on extreme performance and extreme ease of use and that meant optimizing every screen, doing really creative things about when we started uploading, optimizing everything from video codec to networking” Krieger says. “Since then I feel like some products have managed to try to capture some of that but few as much as Loom did. When I first used Loom I turned to Kevin who was my Instagram co-founder and said, ‘oh my god, how did they do that? This feels impossibly fast.’”
Systrom concurs about the similarities, saying “I’m most excited because I see how they’re tackling the problem of visual communication in the same way that we tried to tackle that at Instagram.” Loom is looking to double-down there, potentially adding the ability to Like and follow videos from your favorite productivity gurus or sharpest co-workers.
Loom is also prepping some of its most requested features. The startup is launching an iOS app next month with Android coming the first half of 2020, improving its video editor with blurring for hiding your bad hair day and stitching to connect multiple takes. New branding options will help external sales pitches and presentations look right. What I’m most excited for is transcription, which is also slated for the first half of next year through a partnership with another provider, so you can skim or search a Loom. Sometimes even watching at 2X speed is too slow.
But the point of raising a massive $30 million Series B just a year after Loom’s $11 million Kleiner-led Series A is to nail the enterprise product and sales process. To date, Loom has focused on a bottom-up distribution strategy similar to Dropbox. It tries to get so many individual employees to use Loom that it becomes a team’s default collaboration software. Now it needs to grow up so it can offer the security and permissions features IT managers demand. Loom for teams is rolling out in beta access this year before officially launching in early 2020.
Loom’s bid to become essential to the enterprise, though, is its team video library. This will let employees organize their Looms into folders of a knowledge base so they can explain something once on camera, and everyone else can watch whenever they need to learn that skill. No more redundant one-off messages begging for a team’s best employees to stop and re-teach something. The Loom dashboard offers analytics on who’s actually watching your videos. And integration directly into popular enterprise software suites will let recipients watch without stopping what they’re doing.
To build out these features Loom has already grown to a headcount of 45. It’s also hired away former head of growth at Dropbox Nicole Obst, head of design for Slack Joshua Goldenberg, and VP of commercial product strategy for Intercom Matt Hodges.
Still, the elephants in the room remain Slack and Microsoft Teams. Right now, they’re mainly focused on text messaging with some additional screensharing and video chat integrations. They’re not building Loom-style asynchronous video messaging…yet. “We want to be clear about the fact that we don’t think we’re in competition with Slack or Microsoft Teams at all.We are a complementary tool to chat” Thomas insists. But given the similar productivity and communication ethos, those incumbents could certainly opt to compete. Slack already has 12 million daily users it could provide with video tools.
Loom co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas
Hodges, Loom’s head of marketing, tells me “I agree Slack and Microsoft could choose to get into this territory, but what’s the opportunity cost for them in doing so? It’s the classic build vs. buy vs. integrate argument.” Slack bought screensharing tool Screenhero, but partners with Zoom and Google for video chat. Loom will focus on being easily integratable so it can plug into would-be competitors. And Hodges notes that “Delivering asynchronous video recording and sharing at scale is non-trivial. Loom holds a patent on its streaming, transcoding, and storage technology, which has proven to provide a competitive advantage to this day.”
The tea leaves point to video invading more and more of our communication, so I expect rival startups and features to Loom will crop up. Vidyard and Wistia’s Soapbox are already pushing into the space. As long as it has the head start, Loom needs to move as fast as it can. “It’s really hard to maintain focus to deliver on the core product experience that we set out to deliver versus spreading ourselves too thin. And this is absolutely critical” Thomas tells me.
One thing that could set Loom apart? A commitment to financial fundamentals. “When you grow really fast, you can sometimes lose sight of what is the core reason for a business entity to exist, which is to become profitable. . . Even in a really bold market where cash can be cheap, we’re trying to keep profitability at the top of our minds.”
You’re forgiven if you thought Yammer, Microsoft’s proto-Slack, not quite realtime, chat application was dead. But it’s actually still alive (and well) — and still serves a purpose as a slower-moving social network-like channel for company- and team-wide announcements. Today, Microsoft announced that, among other updates, it will offer a Yammer integration in Teams, its Slack competitor. Yammer in Teams will live in the left-hand sidebar.
With this, Microsoft’s two main enterprise communications platforms are finally growing together and will give users the option to Teams for fast-moving chats and Yammer as their enterprise social network in the same way Facebook messenger and its news feed complement each other.
Oh, and Yammer itself has been redesigned, too, using Microsoft’s Fluent Design System across all platforms. And Microsoft is also building it into Outlook, too, to let you respond to messages right from your inbox. This new Yammer will roll out as a private preview in December.
With this update, Teams is getting a number of other new features, too. These include secure private channels, multiwindow chats and meetings, pinned channels and task integration with Microsoft To Do and Planner (because having one todo app is never enough). Microsoft is also making a number of enhancements to Teams Room, with upcoming support for Cisco WebEx and Zoom meetings, the Teams Phone System, which is getting emergency calling, and the IT management features that help admins keep Teams secure.
A Teams client for Linux is also in the works and will be available in public preview later this year.
In a wide ranging interview with Wall Street Journal global technology editor Jason Dean yesterday, Slack CEO and co-founder Stewart Butterfield had some strong words regarding Microsoft, saying the software giant saw his company as an existential threat.
The interview took place at the WSJ Tech Live event. When Butterfield was asked about a chart Microsoft released in July during the Slack quiet period, which showed Microsoft Teams had 13 million daily active users compared to 12 million for Slack, Butterfield appeared taken aback by the chart.
“The bigger point is that’s kind of crazy for Microsoft to do, especially during the quiet period. I had someone say it was unprecedented since the [Steve] Ballmer era. I think it’s more like unprecedented since the Gates’ 98-99 era. I think they feel like we’re an existential threat,” he told Dean.
It’s worth noting, that as Dean pointed out, you could flip that existential threat statement. Microsoft is a much bigger business with a trillion dollar market cap versus Slack’s $400 million. It also has the benefit of linking Microsoft Teams to Office 365 subscriptions, but Butterfield says the smaller company with the better idea has often won in the past.
For starters, Butterfield noted that of his biggest customers, more than two-thirds are actually using Slack and Office 365 in combination. “When we look at our top 50 biggest customers, 70% of them are not only Office 365 users, but they’re Office 365 users who use the integrations with Slack,” he said.
He went on to say that smaller companies have taken on giants before and won. As examples, he held up Microsoft itself, which in the 80s was a young upstart taking on established players like IBM. In the late 1990s, Google prevailed as the primary search engine in spite of the fact that Microsoft controlled most of the operating system and browser market at the time. Google then tried to go after Facebook with its social tools, all of which have failed over the years. “And so the lesson we take from that is, often the small startup with real traction with customers has an advantage versus the large incumbent with multiple lines of business,” he said.
When asked by Dean if Microsoft, which ran afoul with the Justice Department in the late 1990s, should be the subject of more regulatory scrutiny for its bundling practices, Butterfield admitted he wasn’t a legal expert, but joked that it was “surprisingly unsportsmanlike conduct.” He added more seriously, “We see things like offering to pay companies to use Teams and that definitely leans on a lot of existing market power. Having said that, we have been asked many times, and maybe it’s something we should have looked at, but we haven’t taken any action.”
As Slack has grown in popularity, one of the company’s key differentiators has been the ability to integrate with other enterprise tools, but as customers use Slack as a central work hub, it has created its own set of problems. In particular, users have trouble understanding what apps they have access to and how to make best use of them. Slack announced several ways to ease those issues at its Spec developer conference today.
Andy Pflaum, director of Slack platform, points out that there are 1800 app integrations available out of the box in Slack, and developers have created 500,000 additional custom apps. That’s obviously far too many for any user to keep track of, so Slack has created a home page for apps called App Launcher. It acts a bit like the Mac Launchpad, a centralized place where you can see your installed apps.
Slack App Launcher. Image: Slack
You access App Launcher from the Slack sidebar by clicking Apps. It opens App Launcher with the apps that make sense for you. When you select an app, Pflaum says it takes you to that app’s home screen where it will be ready to enter or display relevant information.
For example, if you selected Google Calendar, you would see your daily schedule along with meeting requests, which you can accept or reject. You can also launch meeting software directly from this page. All of this happens within Slack, without having to change focus. App Home will be available in Beta in the next few months, according to Pflaum.
Another way Slack is helping ease the app burden is with a new concept called Actions from Anywhere. The company actually launched Actions last year, enabling users to take an action from a message like attaching a Slack message to a pull request in Jira, as an example. Pflaum said that people liked these actions so much that they were requesting the ability to take actions from anywhere in Slack.
“At Spec, we are previewing this new kind of action — Actions from Anywhere — which gives users the ability to take an action from anywhere they are in Slack,” Pflaum said. To really take advantage of this capability, the company is adding a feature to select the five most recent actions from a quick-access menu. These actions fill in automatically based on your most recent activities, and could be a real time-saver for people working inside Slack all day long.
Finally, the company is enabling developers to open an external window inside Slack, what they call Modal windows, which open when users have to fill out a form, take a survey, enter expenses, or provide additional information outside the flow of Slack itself.
All of these and other announcements at Spec are part of the maturation process of Slack as it moves to solve some of the pain points of growing so quickly. When you grow past the point of understanding what a complex piece of software can do, it’s up to the vendor to provide ways to surface all of the benefits and features, and that’s what Slack is attempting to do with these new tools.
Workplace collaboration software business Slack (NYSE: WORK) has added Sheila Jordan, a senior vice president and chief information officer of Symantec, as an independent member of its board of directors. The hiring comes three months after the business completed a direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange.
Jordan, responsible for driving information technology strategy and operations for Symantec, brings significant cybersecurity expertise to Slack’s board. Prior to joining Symantec in 2014, Jordan was a senior vice president of IT at Cisco and an executive at Disney Destination for nearly 15 years.
With the new appointment, Slack appears to be doubling down on security. In addition to the board announcement, Slack recently published a blog post outlining the company’s latest security strategy in what was likely part of a greater attempt to sway potential customers — particularly those in highly regulated industries — wary of the company’s security processes. The post introduced new features, including the ability to allow teams to work remotely while maintaining compliance to industry and company-specific requirements.
Jordan joins Slack co-founder and chief executive officer Stewart Butterfield, former Goldman Sachs executive Edith Cooper, Accel general partner Andrew Braccia, Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar, Andreessen Horowitz general partner John O’Farrell, Social Capital CEO Chamath Palihapitiya and former Salesforce chief financial officer Graham Smith on Slack’s board of directors.
“I believe there is nothing more critical than driving organizational alignment and agility within enterprises today,” Jordan said in a statement. “Slack has developed a new category of enterprise software to help unlock this potential and I’m thrilled to now be a part of their story.”
Slack closed up nearly 50% on its first day of trading in June but has since stumbled amid reports of increased competition from Microsoft, which operates a Slack-like product called Teams.
Slack co-founder and chief technology officer Cal Henderson will join us onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco next week to discuss the company’s founding, road to the public markets and path forward. Buy tickets here.