GeekWire Podcast: Inside the Slack Wars, as Microsoft and Google get serious about enterprise chat

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Slack’s logo in furniture form at the company’s headquarters. (Photo by Scott Schiller, via Flickr.)

If you’re not familiar with Slack, odds are you don’t work at a startup. This messaging platform has been taking workplaces by storm over the past few years. But Slack is facing new competition from new enterprise messaging platforms like Microsoft Teams, which launched earlier this week, and Google Hangouts Chat, which was announced last week as a private preview.

This week on the GeekWire Podcast, we speak with Samir Diwan, the co-founder and CEO of Polly. Polly is a bot that runs polls and surveys in Slack, and now in Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts Chat, as well.

Polly CEO Samir Diwan

We dive into the advantages of each platform, as well as potential drawbacks. We also learn more about Polly and get Diwan’s take on what has made Slack so successful.

Listen to the podcast above or download it as an MP3, and keep reading for an edited transcript of our talk with Diwan. 

Todd Bishop: You are a Microsoft veteran. You’ve now got your own startup that you’re running with your co-founder and you are basically building on top of these enterprise chat platforms. Just to take a step back, for people who haven’t used Slack, it’s pretty basic. It looks very simple when you go in there. It’s a chat tool with the ability to run bots on it. What has been so magical about this? Because it has a lot of users who are very passionate about it.

Samir Diwan: It seems very simple and it actually is, conceptually. It just lets you communicate with your team. Persistent chat. We’re used to the old-school MSN Messenger and Skype for Business where you chat with somebody and it disappears. That’s what it seems like on the surface, that it’s just making communication easier. But the beauty of Slack is the way it really pulls in all aspects of your work into one place, and that makes it easier to be productive with your teammates, by interacting with people and with the tools that you use. And I think that’s really the magic behind Slack, that it allows you to do so many things beyond just communication.

Bishop: You write in a post on the Polly blog, that we also republished on GeekWire, that Slack is “becoming to the enterprise user what the iPhone has become to the consumer: the one thing users can’t live without, because their whole life is there.” I really experienced this myself using Slack. We’ve got a bunch of bots that run, so when somebody signs up for an event ticket or somebody pays their invoice or all sorts of different things, I automatically get notices. So it’s not just the hub for personal communication — you’re communicating with online services, as well.

Diwan: That’s exactly it, and a lot of companies, what they’ll do is they won’t just interact with bots, they’ll actually write their own tools. They’ll write their own bots. And now essentially what you can do is automate company processes that previously you had to go out to the web for, or people did manually. A lot of those things are also finding their way into Slack so it’s not just third-party developers like us building for Slack but it’s the geeks within companies building things for everybody else. That just makes Slack more addictive and it gives it an advantage over all the other tools that they have because now you’re bringing in company processes as well.

Bishop: With that as the backdrop, in just the past week we’ve seen some major announcements from Microsoft and Google. Google unveiled something called Google Hangouts Chat, which is an extension of their Hangouts messaging platform, and Microsoft on Tuesday went live with Microsoft Teams, which is part of Office 365. What do you think of them? Because — and we’ll get into this a little bit later — you offer the Polly bot for all three of these platforms, so you have some unique insights. What’s your take on this competition?

Diwan: Competition, for us it’s great. Ideally these platforms push each other to build more functionality, build better products that service their users and as a result we can take advantage of that. Competition for us is great.

I think each one of these players brings something unique. With Microsoft, it’s very obvious what their big strength is, and that’s their distribution. They’re giving Microsoft Teams away as part of Office 365. Their users don’t really need to pay anything extra and a lot of those users have been jealous of Slack but IT’s not letting them install it or they haven’t really experienced Slack and don’t know what the magic’s about. Microsoft has the ability to now replicate that with those users and also lean heavily on its Office brand with its integrations with Office around productivity tools, but also just get past that notion where IT, for whatever reason says, “Hey we’ve already paid for G-Suite or we’ve already paid for Office 365. We’re not going to pay for another tool.” This allows them to reach those users as well and start building that engagement that Slack has been enjoying from its user base.

Microsoft Office CVP Kirk Koenigsbauer talks about Microsoft Teams at the product release event in Redmond, Wash. on Tuesday. (Microsoft Photo)

Bishop: On Teams, people might be saying, “Oh wasn’t that launched like four months ago?” It was previously available on preview and the key with now the global availability is that users can get it by default now, unless the administrator turns it off. And before it was the other way around, the administrator had to proactively turn it on. And with 85 million commercial users of Office 365 out there, that’s a big market. Microsoft also is integrating a lot of Word and Excel and Outlook into Teams, lots of interesting stuff happening there. It’s almost becoming the hub of Office in some ways. I should say, you can envision it becoming that.

Diwan: That’s why we’re building here. We’re trying to build a venture-backed company on the backs of these platforms. That’s because we believe it will be the hub. That is going to be the launching point for the enterprise worker, that’s what we believe. Just looking at those 85 million users, once the announcement actually went live with Microsoft Teams on Tuesday morning, we were just looking at our install rate and we, for a couple of hours, had one new team installing Polly every single minute.

Bishop: Wow. Now they mentioned you during the event.

Diwan: They did.

Bishop: So I’m sure that helped.

Diwan: I hope it did! Yeah, we’ve been working closely with the folks at Microsoft, both giving them feedback on what we think the platform should look like, how we can best unlock Polly’s capabilities on Microsoft teams. Hopefully they’ve been using that feedback to make the platform better.

Bishop: With Google Hangouts Chat, what is their competitive differentiator?

Diwan: I think Google Hangouts right now, it’s still very early. Slack’s been in the market for over three years. Microsoft Teams, they announced their preview and have had users using the product for now four months. Google Hangouts, I feel like it’s a little early. What we do see is their commitment. If you look at what Google is doing and how they’ve been approaching a lot of their products toward the enterprise, they’ve been intentionally making this shift in a lot of their products to establish themselves as a big enterprise player.

They’re trying to flex their muscle, and with Hangouts moving in that direction — it’s promising, but I think there’s a lot to be seen with Google right now. It’s really early to know where they actually stand in this mix. They also have some kind of a distribution advantage with G-Suite, which I believe is currently installed at over 3 million companies but we don’t exactly know the scale. They could be a bunch of small businesses. They haven’t really shared that information out, but it’s still a distribution channel that they can lean on. There is potential.

Bishop: To that point, it’s still in private preview. In other words you have to request an invite and then they let you in. So Google Hangouts Chat is not something that just the average person could go out and use today in that form. Now Google Hangouts of course is obviously something that exists publicly — but this specific enterprise application that’s called Google Hangouts Chat is not available publicly yet.

Diwan: Correct.

Bishop: You say in your conclusion of your post assessing this market that it still comes down to developers. In fact you reference the famous Steve Ballmer quote, “Developers, developers, developers.” Why is that so important in this case?

Diwan: If you go back to why I think Slack is a big deal, it’s the fact that you can pull in all aspects of your work. Now a lot of these tools and these platforms, they can’t actually scale out to do everything. It’s the analogy to an operating system. When you extend the platform to developers, they build on these additional experiences which then bring in the users and tie them to that platform. They can’t live without it. And that really works well for company internal tools especially, because as the developers build these shortcuts, these tools that then make people’s lives more productive, more easier, and give them more information, that ties them to that platform. And switching now is more complicated. They get used to it and they love it.

Bishop: The other big difference between Microsoft and Google and Slack is that Slack is an independent company, and Microsoft and Google, it’s almost like this is an outgrowth of their underlying cloud efforts. You’ve got Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform and it’s like, “OK if we have a cloud platform and a productivity suite well I guess we gotta kind of do this,” where it seems like Slack is just able have a startup’s focus. You know about this. They’re just drilled in on this one idea. Do you see them having an advantage because of that long term? Or is it a disadvantage because they don’t have all that infrastructure?

Diwan:  I think the disadvantage that Slack has is they can’t lean on distribution. But I think one thing that Slack has shown is that they have really won the hearts and minds of developers and users, and this is something that Microsoft and Google still need to go prove. The way people use Slack, the engagement level is just so high and this goes back to what you mentioned around how I made the analogy to the iPhone, which is it’s the tool that people can’t live without. Right now Teams and Hangouts aren’t that, and Teams and Hangouts need to get to that in order for them to win this game. That’s my opinion, but I believe that to be true, and with Slack even though they don’t have this big infrastructure to lean on, essentially they’re coming at it the other way. They’re coming at it from the bottoms up.

There’s no reason why, if Slack continued down this path and continued to grow and continued to get all this engagement — they could easily move into other aspects of enterprise productivity like identity. Active Directory’s a big deal for Microsoft and if you scaled this out 10 years what would Slack be? And if it’s the one tool you can’t live without, then it just makes sense — let’s just tie identity to it and then at that point G-Suite, Office 365, Active Directory that kind of stuff gets at risk. I feel like a lot of this is potentially a defensive move but there’s a lot of value to be captured here for Microsoft and Google.

Bishop: I know exactly what I would want Slack to add, if I could have one feature right off the bat. To-do lists. I want an integration — a real integration — between Trello and Slack. Trello is kanban-style organizer. We’ve explored doing Trello at Geekwire and I just can’t justify asking our reporters to go to a whole other tool, and the integration between Trello and Slack, it’s a little wonky. It’s not great.

Diwan: Yeah.

Bishop: Could you see Slack doing that?

Diwan: I could see Slack potentially buying a tool to do that. I don’t see them building that from the ground up in-house. I think this is the classic, “Should they build it or should they let the ecosystem build it?” And in theory, the ecosystem should build it. I think a challenge that any developer is going to have is that there’s so many established players that it might be difficult to build something from the ground up that doesn’t match the expectations of the user. And so really it’s incumbent upon Trello or Asana or these kinds of tools to go build killer integrations into Slack.

Just going back to our thesis of why we do what we do and why we think certain incumbents can’t do it that well, is that we’re building it for this interface. We’ve taken out the web. We’ve taken out email. And our objective is to nail it in Slack, to nail it in Teams, and to nail it in Hangouts. I think that’s why we’ve had success and I think until these bigger companies, or in this case an Asana or a Trello or one of these other list tools, doesn’t wholeheartedly adopt that, there’s going to be some gaps and that’s really what should happen. I don’t think Slack should build this in-house.

Bishop: Okay, and by the way when I say to-do lists I guess the high-falutin’ phrase for that would be ‘task management and prioritization.” Workflow, I guess is what they would call it inside a big company.

So tell us about Polly. You are a TechStars Seattle graduate, which means you’ve gone through the TechStars program, which is a way for companies just starting out to get some funding and experience and investors. What’s your elevator pitch for Polly?

Diwan: I think you’ve already nailed our elevator pitch, which is we like to keep it simple. We’re re-imagining polls and surveys through a messaging interface for the enterprise user. That’s really what it is and if you want to dig in a little, our approach is to go from the ground up.

Bishop: Inside a company, you want to know what the people on the front lines are thinking.

Diwan: Exactly, and we want to build a tool for those people on the front lines. Slack has kind of paved the way for us and we’re just following that roadmap, versus classic enterprise software where you sell to the CIO or you sell to some exec or some administrator. We’re really trying to build a product that engages every single person at the organization and have them use the tool a lot and since we’re a survey company, we generate interesting data. If we have interesting data — selling it is a lot easier once you have the data.

Bishop: I should install Polly on our Slack channel at GeekWire, right?

Diwan: You should, I’m surprised you haven’t.

Bishop: I will. I commit to you now that I will. Once I do that, tell me what will happen and what I can get from it as a manager, and then what employees here will get as employees.

Diwan: We like to offer services that kind of span the spectrum. If you look at Slack, people who aren’t used to it will think, “Hey this is just about GIFs and animated pictures and jokes and emojis.” But then if you look at the other end of the spectrum, there’s serious work that happens and we like to do the same thing. We like to span that spectrum. You could have polls and surveys that are about jokes — which a lot of people do — about where should we go for lunch. The thing that we like to do is we like to make our product feel alive. Almost every aspect of Polly is interactive. When you vote, results update in real time right in front of you.

We also have the ability to set up more sophisticated surveys, to set up surveys that take place over time and as soon as we get companies and teams tracking data over time, we can plot trends within the company. We can give managers or product leads insight on what teams think about the product. For example, is quality improving? Is quality going down? How is morale? How has the quality of meetings changed over the past three months because we tie polls to meeting events and as soon as meetings are over we get them to rate the quality of the meetings. All of these things are built into Polly, which allow you to generate data that allow you to track things at the company.

Bishop: So here’s one potential use case. We have these debates, in fact we had an epic one yesterday afternoon, about headlines. Andwe kind of do it informally but usually we have three or four distinct options. Could a reporter here just go into Slack, set up a Polly survey, and put in four different headlines and have all of his or her coworkers vote on the best one?

Diwan: Yeah I mean that’s super straightforward. You’d probably be up and running in a matter of seconds. The cool thing is just like Slack, the survey would live within Slack and you would be collaborating and interacting with the data right in front of you. You can now use Slack’s threaded functionality to start discussing the results of the survey or the headlines offering tweaks right there all in one place rather than me sending you the survey by email, everyone completes it, and everyone’s jumping back and forth.

Bishop: You mentioned that after meetings there are post-event surveys. Does that happen automatically? In other words, does the bot know that the meeting has ended and then send out the survey?

Diwan: So there isn’t that level of sophistication just yet. We haven’t built in integrations with Google Calendar yet. But the way we have it set up is the subject around the poll is set up for the meeting and you — for example, all hands meetings, they tend to happen around the same time every week or every month — so you just tie the timestamp of the recurrence to the meeting and as soon as the meetings ends. So if it’s supposed to end at 10 AM, at 10 AM the survey goes out.

Bishop: Is the data anonymous? In other words, if I sent out a survey as a manager, do I see who voted for what?

Diwan: We have the ability to toggle that, so you can have it so everyone can see everyone’s responses, which is useful for, “Hey where should we go for lunch?” It doesn’t really make sense to make it anonymous. But if there’s more sensitive things, like are you happy at work or what did you think about so and so’s plan, that you might want to make anonymous, we have the ability to do that.

Bishop: And then is it transparent? In other words, not just anonymous but do people see the results.

Diwan: It’s the same thing, it’s a toggle and when you author the poll we literally give you those options within seconds and it’s all within Slack. So it’s really easy to configure. It’s really easy to set up. Previously it was always complicated, you have all these toggles but Slack has given us a lot of interactive tools that make it really easy and effortless so people don’t have to think about it too much when they’re authoring these things.

Bishop: You’ve raised some venture capital as you’ve said coming out of tech stars. Is it about 1.2 million? Am I remembering that correct?

Diwan: Yeah, that’s right.

Bishop: Where are you headed from here? How many employees do you have? What’s your road map ahead?

Diwan: We’re currently at team of five. We’re hiring, so if anyone’s listening and they want to join the team come let me know. We’re looking for developers as always.

Bishop: Yeah, you and everybody else.

Diwan: Yeah, and we’re a team full of developers. We’re actually five engineers.

Bishop: Oh wow. How’s that working out so far?

Diwan: It’s great.

Bishop: Who does the marketing?

Diwan: You know, so all our marketing is — we actually haven’t had any outbound marketing. Everything — that’s the beauty of these platforms. They’re a massive distribution channel to enterprise users. It’s never existed before. We don’t have to worry too much about marketing. We do, but not as much as a typical company or a typical startup and I’m sure that’s gonna catch up to as at some point.

From here, we basically launched on these other two platforms, but to get started we provide a pretty basic product. They’re making their way to be comparable to our offering in Slack, so there’s a lot to grow there. We’ve actually had a lot of new unique surveys being created by the community, so Polly users, and one thing that we’ve always wanted to do is start looking at the really creative things that people are doing and creating a template that other people can now opt into. And then at the same time, start benchmarking certain users against the rest of the Polly ecosystem. It really goes with our philosophy of trying to reach users from the bottoms up of an organization because now there’s so many different things that are happening. Traditional surveys are all just about HR and employee morale. We have so many things going on around project management, around product quality, around meetings, around sprints. There’s so many interesting data points being gathered and it’d be great to bring the ecosystem together so that way we could compare data anonymously.

Bishop: Okay, very interesting. You’re based here in Seattle but did the company start here?

Diwan: It did. My co-founder, Bilal Aijazi, he’s based out of the Bay Area. We met at Microsoft. He likes to say that I’m the second person he met when he moved to Seattle and we worked on partner teams at Microsoft. Go to know each other there. Eventually he left for the Valley to work at a consumer messaging startup, so he’s kind of had this whole messaging stuff in his head for a while now.

Bishop: And how does Polly make money, or how will you make money?

Diwan: We do make money, but we’re focused more on growth right now. But the way we make money and the way we will make money is to sell analytics back to the companies that are using the product.

Bishop: So some sort of deep level of analysis of, over time, what the trends are.

Diwan: Exactly.

Bishop: So what do you think about Slack itself as a company in your interactions with them? They seem like such a successful startup. What’s been their secret that you’ve seen?

Diwan: The one thing I see with Slack, and I feel like they do it better than anyone else, is their culture and it permeates to the relationships that they have with developers like us. When you visit Slack and you have meetings with them, they’re just full of energy. They’ve done an incredible job creating a community around building solutions for these platforms. They haven’t just started events for Slack but they’ve created events that bring together the entire messaging community, partnering with Microsoft, Google, Cisco. A bunch of other partners because they know ultimately they want people building for these platforms and that’s gonna result in their success.

Bishop: Originally a Pacific northwest company or maybe a Pacific Southwest, to be more accurate. They were Canadian. Stewart Butterfield is from Vancouver or the Vancouver area I believe and they were actually based in Vancouver if I understand correctly. It started as a different company. There’s a whole history to Slack that is really interesting.

Diwan: Yeah there’s definitely a history. I think Stewart still spends most of his time in Vancouver.

Bishop: Yeah. My one last question: I love the bots — to me, bots are kind of like apps for Slack. What are your favorite bots, apart from Polly, for Slack?

Diwan: I really like StatsBot. StatsBot essentially will pull in some of your analytics from mixed panel Google Analytics and essentially monitor it for you over time and it’ll send in some alerts based off of if it notices any trends that might be concerning or something that you need to pay attention to. It showcases how Slack brings transparency to an organization. Whereas before you would need to go one or two people would go to their Google Analytics account, look at it, and maybe share that data with everybody else. But essentially what a bot like this does is it pulls all that data and makes it transparent. That way everyone operates in the know and the cost to each person to know that is nothing, but you have more educated employees working for your company now.

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