Tech: The rise of Slack and the death of corporate email

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 24, 2019 - June 30, 2019.

Slack, co-founded by CEO Butterfield, is more than just a messaging app with a cult-like following. Photo by Reuters

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IN March last year, music streaming giant Spotify launched an unusual direct public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, as opposed to the initial public offering route most companies take. On June 20, messaging software firm Slack Technologies took a page out of Spotify’s book for a similar path. “Companies like Slack that do not need to raise any money are taking the cheapest, most efficient way to list their shares,” Rishi Jaluria, software analyst for DA Davidson in Portland, Oregon, told The Edge Singapore in a recent interview. Direct listing also saved Slack nearly US$150 million (RM623 million) in investment banking fees.

Like Spotify, which has a huge mindshare alongside its hefty market share in streaming music, Slack has a cult-like following and is rapidly becoming the go-to messaging platform for companies large and small. It has deftly used a combination of freemium offerings and word-of-mouth promotions to boost sales. If you are an executive who is inundated with corporate email and work in a collaborative environment as part of a team, particularly in the technology or media, chances are that you already use Slack. “I have cut my emails down substantially since we started using Slack,” says Josh Brown, CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management and a personal finance commentator on TV.

Slack’s flagship software is essentially a productivity tool that saves time and helps streamline workflow and enhance more collaborative team effort. Think of Slack as a ­“SuperApp” for work-related communications. So, corporate colleagues no longer just email each other but are also doing voice mails, instant messaging, texting, video conferencing and sharing files or documents and, indeed, even helping each other finish work projects on a single platform. Jaluria, a long-time software analyst, says in his years of covering the software sector he has not seen companies with as much buzz as Slack. Everyone he knows — clients, friends, workmates, relatives — is either using Slack or looking to use it.

Duckju Kang, a former hedge fund executive who now runs a personal finance website called ValueChampion.Asia in Singapore, has been using Slack for the past three years. “While Slack has been a game changer for productivity, a good product does not equal great business and does not necessarily equal a great stock,” says Kang. “A great business needs not only a great product, but also a deep moat that allows it to fend off competition easily. Investors can still lose money by investing in great businesses if they are paying too much for their investments.”

The workplace chat and collaboration software maker has 10 million daily active users in 600,000 organisations in over 150 countries. More than 50 million weekly work hours are spent on the platform, more than one billion messages are sent weekly, and paid customers average nine hours connected to Slack every week, with at least 90 minutes of active usage on a typical workday. Those who use it do not just get hooked on it. Eighty-seven per cent of Slack users report that it improved communications and collaboration within their organisations. But Jaluria notes that while Slack may have a fanatical following among tech workers, its use is not as widespread in finance or industrial sectors, where collaborative team-based work is done. “In the long run, the key will be Slack’s ability to gain meaningful penetration” outside the tech sector, he says.
 

Replacing corporate email

Founded in 2009 by Canadian Stewart Butterfield, Russian immigrant Serguei Mourachov and Cal Henderson from England, Slack in its most recent equity-raising obtained US$427 million in Series H funding last year, which implied a total valuation of US$7.1 billion. With a reference price of US$26 a share, Slack’s stock began trading at US$38.50, or 48% higher on listing day on June 20, closing at US$38.62 for a market capitalisation of US$19.5 billion.

DA Davidson’s Jaluria notes that Slack offers several key advantages over email. “Slack is dynamic, real-time and collaborative, as opposed to email, which is static, ‘point in time’ and meant more for person-to-person communications.”

Moreover, Slack offers historical context by archiving messages and enabling new users to an organisation or team to quickly access information. Slack can also serve as a central hub for teamwork through integrations with other software tools such as Microsoft Office 365, file hosting provider Dropbox and remote video conferencing service provider Zoom Video Communications, whereas email systems may rely on users’ switching environments constantly. Jaluria compares Slack to secure electronic signature firm DocuSign, which has helped replace physical signatures on documents. Docusign is popular among real estate agents, insurance agents and lawyers.

Clearly, unlike the recently listed ride-sharing behemoth Uber, which has little visibility in its own path to profitability, most analysts expect Slack to turn operating cash flow and free cash flow positive within two years. On May 30, Slack released the financial results for its first quarter, which showed revenues still growing as losses narrow further ahead of its direct listing. Its revenues in the financial year ended April 30 grew 67% over same period last year to US$134.8 million. It reported a net loss of US$31.9 million for the April quarter, smaller than the US$34.6 million reported loss for the January quarter as sales and marketing expenses fell sharply.

The software platform late last month also provided pre-listing guidance on its business prospects for the current quarter and year. Slack expects revenue growth to slow in its first quarter as a listed firm. For the second quarter of its 2020 financial year ending July 31, it expects revenue of US$139 million to US$141 million, up 52% in the mid-range, a significant slowdown from the 67% annualised growth it reported for the first financial quarter. For the full 2020 financial year that ends on Jan 31, 2020 (FY2020), Slack expects US$590 million to US$600 million in revenue, up 49% in the mid-range. Revenues grew 110% in FY2018 and 82% in FY2019.

Slack competes with collaborative productivity tools such as Microsoft’s Teams, salesforce.com’s Chatter, Facebook’s Workplace, and Google’s Hangouts Chat. Can it ward off larger competitors that have long-standing relationships with enterprise customers?

“There are lots of competing messaging and communications products but I think only Microsoft has come close,” says Jaluria. “I feel Microsoft’s Team has had traction only because basically it has been given away for free with Office 365, while people are happy to pay for Slack because it is a better product.”

He cites a relatively new Slack feature called “Shared Channel”, which gives employees the ability to set up a channel on Slack to collaborate with people outside of the organisation on a work project that is unique. Most of Slack’s competitors have focused on non-desk office workers such as those in retail, hospitality and even manufacturing. Slack’s focus has been on areas in which there is true collaboration on work projects such as technology, media and, now increasingly, finance.

The direct listing comes at a time when software stocks, particularly those with a subscription model, have been ascendant. Microsoft recently became the world’s largest listed company with a trillion-dollar valuation, ahead of Apple and Amazon.com, which have been battling it out for second place. Software companies are fairly insulated from trade wars, which have affected semiconductor and hardware stocks.

Slack has been compared with Zoom, which did its IPO at US$36 a share in late April. Zoom’s stock has nearly tripled in the seven weeks since its listing and traded at US$102.30 on June 20, giving it a market capitalisation of US$28 billion.

“Slack’s valuation is rather high compared with Zoom’s,” says ValueChampion’s Kang, who advises investors to be wary of the stock. “The fact that Slack’s growth is slowing confirms that it is indeed very different from Zoom, which has far better growth prospects.”

Yet, Slack and Zoom are not seen as long-term standalone firms in Silicon Valley. Analysts expect that one or both will eventually be bought out by a predator and, as such, have a built-in acquisition premium right from the start.

“Slack has been talked about as an acquisition target for many years, particularly before Microsoft revamped its Team product,” Kang concedes. “Now that Microsoft has its own product in the space, Slack definitely could be a target for other cloud platforms or service providers such as Amazon, Google or salesforce.”

Still, Kang notes that Slack’s valuation is similar to Zoom’s on an enterprise value-to-sales basis. “Even if both were getting an acquisition premium, their valuation probably shouldn’t be the same, given their different growth prospects and competitive environments,” he argues. “A prospective buyer would be more incentivised to pay up for assets such as Zoom than for Slack because, presumably, it is harder to grow the business post-acquisition if your existing competition is already strong.”
 

Future of work

So, should investors bet on the death of corporate email? “I think there will always be some form of corporate email but, in industries and companies where a lot of people work closely in a collaborative environment, Slack will be the way to go,” says Jaluria. “It is more than just a messaging app. It is integrated into the workflow. It is a hub where people come together and collaborate on whatever project they may be working on.”

Slack is becoming synonymous with the future of work. In a knowledge-based economy, as companies hire more contract workers, and more full-time corporate employees work remotely — from home or on the road — rather than from offices, CEO Butterfield is hoping that Slack will emerge as the preferred communications platform. As more work becomes unstructured and team-based in nature, the betting is that platforms such as Slack will thrive, replacing most of the internal corporate emails, though companies will continue to rely on emails for external communications. At over 45 times price-to-sales multiple, the stock is clearly not for the faint of heart. Investors eager to get a slice of Slack might want to wait for a pullback.

Assif Shameen is a technology writer based in North America
 

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