Working at Slack today is going to be like working for Microsoft or Facebook in their early days, says Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield. He made the comments at the end of a media tour of Slack’s office at 1028 Hamilton Street in Yaletown this week.
Slack has forged a strategic position, partly thanks to good timing, Butterfield explains. He characteristically hedges his comment moments later, explaining that the extent of the company’s success “is yet to be determined,” presumably in a positive sense.
Butterfield seems genuinely happy and relaxed as he mentions that this is his favourite office. He mostly splits his time between Vancouver and San Francisco. The office is small enough here that an employee of any tenure and rank is likely to bump into him throughout the day.
Between Butterfield’s time at Flickr before creating Slack as a game design company that morphed into its present identity as a platform powering collaboration and communication, he estimates that this is his seventh office in Vancouver. Slack was founded in 2014 and has since gone on to raise USD $540 million. Its latest USD $200 million funding round in April 2016 gave the company a post-funding valuation of $3.8 billion.
He likes the downtown location for Slack because it maximizes convenience for their urban tech workforce. Transit is easier to access. Food options are better. And when it comes to arranging meetings with clients that might be coming in from any of the Lower Mainland’s sprawling suburbs: “downtown is equally painful for everyone to get to,” Butterfield says.
“There’s no stress like you might expect from a corporate environment. It really feels like a family.” – Heather Morrison, Slack customer service regional manager
The retro-industrial style space, typical of other Yaletown and Gastown offices, is an amalgam of red-brown brick, wood structural beams, and polished metal. A square pillar-shaped green wall, on closer inspection, is made of lichen (or moss – depending on whom one asks) that has been sprayed with a petrifying chemical to it; it adds a natural-looking hue to an office section by the coffee bar. The office has an open design, where workers can glide from their electrically-modified sitting/standing desks to lounges, meeting spaces and one-on-one conference booths.
There’s a gym in the basement for employees to use before or after work (Employees say that Butterfield emphasizes a work-life balance and is prone to telling his employees to work hard, then go home).
Real estate in Vancouver tends to come at a premium, but Slack has leased 21,753 square feet of the renovated building in arguably the city’s trendiest neighbourhoods.
While Slack has more than 600 employees, the current headcount in Yaletown is just around 82, with capacity for 120. Thirty-eight percent of the employees here are in customer service, with about a quarter in engineering, as well as sales, design, marketing, and other roles.
Not unlike many other tech companies in the Vancouver area, the workforce seems diverse across gender and ethnicity (and Slack does keep track of these things). It is also overwhelmingly young, with many (perhaps most) employees being recent post-secondary grads. When pressed, our tour guide guesses that some of the engineers at the office are in their 30s. (Another reporter mentions that he doesn’t think he’s seen anyone over 40 on the tour). The debate over hiring millennials seems to have won out decisively in one direction here – again, not atypical of many tech companies here and abroad.
A tour of the building’s second to fourth floors gives the impression of a space that’s perhaps just a bit too open (though given Slack’s stated intent to hire up to the building’s capacity, that will likely change). It’s not a buzzing beehive of activity — yet.
That said, employees aren’t just drones at cubicles, either. They seem energized (perhaps by the offerings of the coffee bar and healthy snacks on hand), smiling away as they quietly yet efficiently tap away on their computers and chat with users (Slack now offers live support) to solve their problems. The sales team has ping pong paddle-sized round photo cut-outs of their own faces at their desks for some reason. There’s a playful vibe.
A group of about a dozen employees are rapping hip hop verses as they get warmed up for training in public speaking. Training is largely self-directed after employees get about two weeks of training in San Francisco, yet the teams here seem collegial and collaborative (in keeping with the purpose of the app they’ve built).
Heather Morrison, who acts as customer experience regional manager and is involved in hiring, says Slack is looking to hire people who are really passionate, considerate, empathetic, and courteous (apparently, core values at the company).
She talks about the highlight for her of working at this office: “There’s no stress like you might expect from a corporate environment. It really feels like a family.” Top leadership and new employees may end up having a quick chat as they brush past each other on the way to their desk or company huddles.
The Vancouver office operates alongside the headquarters in San Francisco (where Butterfield spends more of his time on funding and PR responsibilities), Dublin, Melbourne, New York, Toronto and London, geographically dispersed so that Slack can support users in different time zones. Slack has about three million daily active users, with plenty of room to grow.
Will the Vancouver office be big enough to house its employees in just a few years? Either way, Butterfield explains that working here is going to look very good on a person’s resume in a few years, given the company’s ambitious plans.