It’s time for Slack—and people who love it—to worry.
Facebook on Thursday announced that it now has more than 30,000 organizations using Workplace, which is essentially an ad-free version of Facebook for the office. That’s pretty rapid growth: It officially launched a year ago with about 1,000 companies.
Slack, for its part, boasts some 6 million users. Facebook doesn’t say how many users Workplace Chat has, making direct comparisons difficult. But it’s worth noting that some of the companies using Workplace Chat are very, very large: Starbucks was among the first, and it added Walmart last month. Delta, Lyft, Spotify, and Heineken are clients, too.
In other words, Facebook’s plan to also colonize our work lives just might be working, whether we like it or not.
To commemorate Workplace’s first birthday, Facebook also announced Thursday that it’s launching a desktop Workplace Chat app, which sounds a lot like Slack’s desktop app. It means that you’ll no longer have to open Facebook Workplace in your browser to chat with co-workers. And Workplace Chat will soon get group video chat features on both desktop and mobile, making it a potential rival to Google Hangouts’ new video-conferencing service, called Meet, as well as startups such as Zoom.
Enterprise software isn’t typically the most exciting sector in the tech industry. And big tech companies copying smaller tech companies’ products is obviously nothing new. But Facebook’s entry into the professional sphere is worth paying close attention to, because the social behemoth could become even more pervasive—and more powerful—if it becomes an integral part of people’s professional identities, too.
Slack, the upstart founded in 2009 by former Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield, has a lot going for it. It entered the work world at a time when it was becoming clear to many organizations that email was too slow and cumbersome to facilitate real-time collaboration among teams—and many of the enterprise software products that were trying to replace email were overcomplicated and confusing. Partly through its sheer simplicity and speed, Slack caught fire, first among tech startups and media companies, and then in workplaces and organizations of all kinds. It was recently valued at more than $5 billion. It also happens to be quite fun.
It does have weaknesses, however. Uber ditched Slack in 2016 because Slack couldn’t handle the scale of its communication needs, the New York Times reported. And Uber isn’t even that big compared to the likes of Starbucks and Walmart. Serving clients of that size requires infrastructure that a privately owned startup like Slack can’t build overnight. But it’s no sweat for a company as large as Facebook. Video chat, which is notoriously difficult for companies to provide reliably on a large scale, might prove to be a significant advantage for the likes of Facebook and Google. Walmart is already using Workplace to internally broadcast its all-hands meetings.
Facebook has also undercut Slack on pricing for Workplace’s premium tier. It charges $3 per user per month for the first 1,000 active users, versus Slack’s standard monthly rate of $6.67 per user. Facebook’s coffers are so deep that it could probably run the product at a loss for years if that’s what it took to steal market share.
More broadly, Facebook has become perhaps the most adept of all tech companies when it comes to copying—and crushing—the products of smaller rivals. (See: its currents efforts vis-à-vis Snapchat.) One big advantage, of course, is that so many people already use Facebook. That’s particularly valuable in the case of Workplace, which functions so much like Facebook itself that companies report very little learning curve for employees transitioning to it. That’s a big selling point for large companies, which tend to be risk-averse.
For all that, however, Facebook still faces one very large obstacle when it comes to dominating intra-office communication. That obstacle is Facebook itself—that is, its social network.
There’s a sense in which it might be convenient to rely on the same company to communicate with your co-workers that you rely on to communicate with your friends and family. But it’s also scary for a lot of people, who prefer to keep their work and personal lives separate. Facebook does insulate its Workplace apps from the broader social network, but you’re still putting both aspects of your life on the same company’s servers, thus linking those identities.
It’s possible, then, that Facebook’s efforts will eventually fizzle. Slack is not just popular but beloved by many, and that’s a potent selling point that Facebook can’t just buy or replicate. “Beloved” is also not a word you hear often in conjunction with Facebook these days, although its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp still inspire loyalty.
But remember, it isn’t just up to employees to choose the service they like the most. Even if Slack continues to dominate among smaller teams, especially those using its free tier, Facebook could squeeze it by winning over the corporate honchos who make such decisions for the large companies that have money to spend on premium products. So the pressure is now on Slack to prove its worth to those companies—or risk being consigned to the less profitable part of the market.