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How Slack changed the way we work

Slack co-founder Cal Henderson explains the idea behind the chat app, and its future in the workplace.

Posted: Dec. 7, 2018 7:38 AM
Updated: Dec. 7, 2018 7:40 AM

Emoji, timestamps and local keyboards. These are just some of the things Slack had to worry about as it brought its workplace communication platform overseas.

Slack launched in San Francisco in 2013 to help companies and employees better collaborate. It's been called an "email killer," providing users a chatroom-like service to cut down on cluttered inboxes. The privately-held company, valued at $7.1 billion in August and slated to go public in early 2019, is available in German, Spanish, French, and Japanese.

"We saw a lot of usage outside English speaking countries and thought, that's an opportunity for us," said director of research Christina Janzer. "We were seeing rapid adoption happening without us doing anything."

Slack now boasts eight million daily active users globally, across more than 500,000 organizations. More than half of its users are outside the United States. Japan is its second largest market, where Slack says it had around half a million active daily users as of July.

Dealing with cultural differences and language barriers is something companies that enter international markets must address. But for a company at the forefront of the future of work, it is even more imperative to get it right. For Slack, it took about a year of research and product development to prepare for its launch in the four new languages in late 2017, according to Janzer.

Part of Slack's charm is the "friendly" tone that comes through with notes such as "You're up to date. Go forth and do great things!" after you've read all your Slack messages.

"Slack in English is relatively 'friendly,' but we didn't know if that would resonate in Germany or in other markets," said Janzer, who joined Slack in 2016 from Facebook. So she commissioned some research.

The research, which included surveys and interviews with local users, reinforced that Slack's friendly tone was an "impactful driver of satisfaction" across the four international markets, Janzer said.

But how this translates varies. In the Spanish version of Slack, the company decided to use the informal translation of the word "you."

"We saw that was common in business and it matched what we found our target customers wanted," Slack international product manager Kathryn Hymes told CNN.

In the French version, it went with a formal variation but ensured phrases have "a lightness to it," said Hymes. "There are some differences in how you actually convey formality, playfulness, humility or appropriateness [in different languages]."

And direct translations don't always carry the same meaning. Even keyboards and the way people input text differs in some countries. In Japan, Slack added an explicit "send" button. And the size and choice of the font also needed to be considered. Lato, the font used throughout Slack's English version, does not support Japanese characters.

Other details involved translating emoji names, tweaking timestamps and adjusting capitalization. For example, all nouns are capitalized in German -- not only proper nouns.

The platform's language expansion is "a sign of the maturity of their growing up," said Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research. Rather than just land new customers in Japan, Slack is aiming to service the global communication needs of companies, he added.

To make money, Slack relies on businesses to sign up for its paid version of the platform. For businesses that have offices outside the US, the ability to communicate efficiently and globally, in a variety of languages, is essential.

Slack isn't without competition from Big Tech: Microsoft's Teams group chat software, Google's Hangouts and Facebook's Workplace are also trying to help organizations and groups communicate. But how they do it differs: Whereas other companies layer chat into a suite of other software products, Slack allows for easy integration with third-party applications.

For now, Slack will continue to push ahead: "We're always working toward expanding to new markets," Janzer said.

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