Slack didn’t kill email — and it might have made it strongerJuly 4, 2018
It’s been four years now since Slack arrived to kill email — and yet, email persists. While the group chat app has plenty of ardent fans and continues to grow quickly, it also draws criticism for its distracting, always-on nature. At many workplaces, if you’re at work, you’re also expected to be available on Slack. For some people, that means the thing that “replaced” email is something much more demanding.
Mathilde Collin says the workplaces of the future ought to take a different approach. She’s the co-founder and CEO of Front, which makes tools for sharing inboxes with your teammates. If you’ve ever emailed a business address starting with “contact@” or “info@,” there’s a chance the team is managing the emails with Front.
But Collin’s longer-term vision is to build what she calls an asynchronous version of Slack. Like Slack, Front will be integrated with all the other software tools you use — Asana, Trello, Github, Google Docs, and so on — and collect any important notifications in a place where you can read them on your time. It takes away the constant pinging of Slack in favor of something calmer and more conducive to doing focused work. Not only hasn’t email died — the tech industry’s current focus on Time Well Spent might have made it stronger.
“If I send you a message on Slack, then you’d rather reply right away,” Collin says. “Otherwise, there is no way for you to put it in a folder or to deal with it later. And my belief is that where work happens is actually in your inbox, and is actually asynchronous. And so I think that for sure at a point there will be a platform, a communication platform, and everything will be connected to it. I think that it will be coming from something that’s asynchronous, and not synchronous.”
The kicker is that among Collin’s investors is Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield. They’ve debated whether workplace communication should be synchronous (like Slack) or not (like Front) for four years, she says. “We disagree, but I think I’m right,” Collin says. The company raised a fresh $66 million round of funding earlier this year, bringing its cumulative total to $79 million.
Collin lays out her thoughts on the future of work on this episode of Converge, an interview game show where tech’s biggest personalities tell us about their wildest dreams. It’s a show that’s easy to win, but not impossible to lose — because, in the final round, I finally get a chance to play and score a few points of my own.
You can read a partial, lightly edited transcript with Collin below, and you’ll find the full episode of Converge above. You can listen to it here or anywhere else you find podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Google Play Music, Spotify, our RSS feed, and wherever fine podcasts are sold.
Casey Newton: I read an interview with you where you said that your vision is bigger than Slack. So did I read that right? And if so, tell me about this vision.
Mathilde Collin: Sure, so a few things. One is, we started with shared email addresses as just a wedge to enter the market. But then, if you think about it, any email that you are receiving, not in a shared inbox but “casey@converge,” for example — they also require a collaboration. You also want a better interface. Sometimes you want integrations with other tools, and so Front being a tool that any knowledge worker could use when they deal with email instead of Gmail and Outlook, is a very big market, because everyone uses email. So then once Front is installed on everyone’s computer then I think we have a big opportunity. Because one of the things that is happening with software today is, you have a lot of software that is specifically fixing one issue. As your company is growing, you end up with so many software [tools] that you are using, and information gets fragmented, and I think it’s not great for many reasons.
Everything at some point has a link with email, whether with an email contact or an email file or an email word. And so our vision is to be what we call an “enterprise operating system.” So it means that other apps will be connected to your inbox, and so then you’ll have one login, and then you have one single source of truth, and your systems will talk to one another and work together. And if you’re building software, I don’t think that there is an opportunity that can be bigger than that.
If you talk to Slack, they talk about becoming a similar command hub for your organization — where you open up Slack, and it’s integrated with all of the other apps that you use and you open it up and you see everything that’s happening across Github and your Twitter replies and your Google documents. Slack is like the beating heart of your workplace. I feel like you describe something really similar. You want people to open up Front and anything that’s happening with any of the apps that you’re using in your business, it’s sending in notifications and you can see them all from Front.
Right. So here is what’s different — Slack is synchronous. If I send you a message on Slack, then you’d rather reply right away. Otherwise, there is no way for you to put it in a folder or to deal with it later. And my belief is that where work happens is actually in your inbox, and is actually asynchronous. And so I think that for sure at a point there will be a platform, a communication platform and everything will be connected to it. I think that it will be coming from something that’s asynchronous, and not synchronous.
So we’ve really set up a battle between you and Slack, which is interesting because the Slack founder Stewart Butterfield is an investor with your company.
Right, and I’m having drinks with him next weekend. So if you could release this podcast after.
Yeah, we’re gonna do that, we’re gonna withhold that to make sure that you’re able to have a nice time.
I think he’s amazing.
You guys must have like philosophical debates about like, what is the best way to run a workplace communications hub.
Exactly, and we’ve had that for the past four years. And we disagree, but I think I’m right.