Slack is the classic Silicon Valley accidental success. Born three years ago, with roots in a failed video game, the messaging software is now used by five million people.
The company behind it, Slack Technologies, found success by combining something that Silicon Valley fetishizes — rich data on how people use a product — with something it often overlooks: How do people actually feel while using it?
This combination produced an unlikely hit that, when it became available in 2014, grew mostly by word of mouth, which is unusual for corporate software. Last year, the privately held company was valued at nearly $4 billion.
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Now Slack faces a significant new challenge. It has become big enough to draw a competitive response from giants like Microsoft, but not big enough to have the roster of large corporate clients it needs to compete with the giants.
Last fall, Microsoft announced a direct Slack rival called Teams, to be given free to all 85 million users of its Office 365. At the same time, Facebook made its work collaboration tool, Workplace, widely available free. Atlassian, a smaller company, has signed big customers, too.
As a result, Slack, which built up momentum as a lovable underdog, must fend off some of technology's largest and fiercest competitors if it wants to be more than a niche tool for small businesses and teams.