Slack’s New “Shared Channels” Put Inter-Company Email In Their Crosshairs

The business-messaging kingpin is letting multiple companies share a collaborative workspace, as well as rolling out its first support for languages beyond English.

Slack’s New “Shared Channels” Put Inter-Company Email In Their Crosshairs
[Photo: Flickr user Missouri State Archives]

Since its earliest days, workgroup collaboration phenom Slack has had a big, audacious goal: It’s wanted to kill email. And though the dream isn’t yet reality, the company has made major progress. Slack now has 6 million daily active users; 2 million of its users are part of 50,000 organizations that pay for the service. (That 6-million-user total is up from 500,000 in early 2015, a figure that seemed dazzling at the time.)


In my own purely anecdotal experience as a Slack user here at Fast Company, the service is an extraordinarily potent slayer of internal email: My inbox is nearly 100% free of messages from my colleagues. But it’s still full of missives from people outside of our company who I work with for one reason or another.

Today, at its first-ever conference, Slack is announcing a major effort to accomplish for inter-company communications what it’s already done for intra-company ones. A new feature, launching as a beta for paid customers, called Shared Channels lets two Slack-using organizations interact in spaces available to users from both sides. They can be public or private (the latter feature isn’t yet available in the initial version, but will be coming along) and include interface refinements such as corporate logos that appear as part of everybody’s avatars so that it’s clear who works for which outfit.

April Underwood, Slack’s VP of product, told me that Shared Channels are part of the company’s “march to make Slack more useful for more types of customers and more types of work,” particularly as larger organizations sign on to use the service. Along with Slack users benefiting from Shared Channels, Underwood expects the new feature to help boost the company’s growth as people from multiple companies in a channel learn from each other about the most effective ways to use the service and get more out of it. “This is the first time we’ll have inter-company network effects for Slack,” she says.

For now, Shared Channels don’t permit more than two organizations to interact; Underwood says that opening the feature up further is an intriguing idea, but Slack wanted to take things one step at a time.


More Languages, More Competitors

Slack is used in 100 countries and 55% of users are outside the U.S.; it has 330,000 weekly users in Tokyo alone, which doesn’t sound that far off the total of 420,000 in New York City. But despite the fact that it’s long been obvious that the service’s appeal is global, it’s only been available in one language: English. Now the company is launching internationalization for French, German, and Spanish, with Japanese on the way. I asked Slack cofounder and CEO Stewart Butterfield if there was any particular reason why the new languages are debuting at this particular point in time. “We’d liked to do everything at the same time and have everything done back in 2013,” he said. “This has been a big priority for a long while.”

Support for additional languages, like Shared Channels, is part of Slack’s effort to keep on growing. Its success so far has spawned a whole category of Slack-like services. Last November, for example, Microsoft introduced Teams, a new Office 365 component that’s pretty much a Slack for Microsoft-centric organizations. A startup named Redkix offers a Slack-esque service that wants to make email more useful rather than killing it. And Atlassian, whose HipChat predates Slack and often gets mentioned in the same breath, announced a new Slack rival called Stride last week.

So far, Butterfield says, the existence of Slack wannabes has been no more than “a very mild impediment” to the company’s growth efforts: “It’s usually a couple of extra questions for our salespeople in the larger organizations.” Speaking about Microsoft’s offering in particular, he said that he thinks “they’re probably a year, a year and a half away from having a product that’s feature-complete enough to be competitive.” For now, however, he says that he’s been issuing a challenge to the reporters he’s talked with: “If you can find us a customer who’s using Microsoft Teams with more than a couple thousand people, we’d love to hear about it.”

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.