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Slack CEO on Frontiers conference, innovations for the platform, Microsoft competition

Stewart Butterfield, Slack CEO, joins Yahoo Finance's The First Trade with Alexis Christoforous and Brian Sozzi to discuss its customer conference called Slack Frontiers, recent innovations on the platform, outlook for the presidential election, his take on Microsoft, and much more.

Video Transcript

BRIAN SOZZI: All right. Adapting in a digital world-- that's the theme of this year's Slack customer conference called Slack Frontiers. Here to discuss the event and what the company is up to is Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield. Stewart, always good to-- good to see you, especially now in that nice scenic backdrop.

I was reading a piece on our sister publication, TechCrunch, and you guys are now, I believe, testing what-- an Instagram-like stories feature for Slack. What is that all about?

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: Well, the big thing it's about is something that we're experiencing as a company, but we're also hearing from customers, which is we need to find a way to take processes, events, things we're doing at work that today must be synchronous and make them asynchronous. So a perfect example of that is the daily stand-up meeting. Everyone has to stop what they're doing at 9:00 until 9:15, go around the room. Everyone gives an update.

If instead of that I could record my update at 8:53 and listen to yours at 10:17, gives me a lot more flexibility. And honestly in meetings like that, people might have 3 minutes of the 15 minutes as actual participation. It also saves time. And if that's the case in the 15-minute meeting, in 30-minute or the 60-minute, you could be saving half an hour. But I think the real key is flexibility.

And the last thing I would say is even for people who are honestly sick of seeing each other on the other end of these video calls all day, seeing someone's face and hearing their voice in a different context without the expectation that you're also on camera is a very different feeling. And then despite the fact that everyone is sick of the calls, people are also reporting feeling lonely and, you know, a lack of connection. And this really helps.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Yeah, I think you're really honing in on something there, Stewart. Well, we've got to talk about what happened on Monday. Slack sort of blew up on Twitter, people taking to the platform to complain about slow service, there were challenges with logging in. You did experience an outage. Were you able-- you were able to fix the problem. Do you understand what happened there, and can you guarantee it's not going to happen again?

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, well obviously it's a-- it is a risk of life, and it's a good indication of the importance. And, you know, personally as a user I understand the frustration. We are building a lot more resilience, and if you look back over the last six months despite the dramatic increase in usage, three of those months have 100% uptime, and the whole period is 99.9.

BRIAN SOZZI: Stewart, what's the next iteration of Slack? So you're working on Slack Connect. You have this new video feature. Just looking at the event this week, to me it looks like you are now positioning Slack for the return-to-work era.

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, I think there's three main streams. So we talked about the stories. There's another aspect of that, which is experiments we're doing with always-on audio. So rather than a call that starts and stops, the ability to kind of recreate the spontaneity and serendipity of office conversations where you can just talk to someone. So that's one.

The second one is Slack Connect. So we announced the ability outside of the context of shared channels for two Slack users at other organizations to be able to direct message each other. And we'll get back into that, but it's very interesting.

And then the third one is a bunch of new features are on the platform, so specifically, for enterprise security and application management but also to take our Workflow Builder, which is something that non-technical users can use, and integrate that with steps from other outside applications. So for example, if you build a workflow that collects data into a form, you can use the Google Sheets snap to add that into a Google sheet.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Stewart, how are you tackling the issue of verification? You know, when somebody has your email address, they can spam you, they can send you all unwanted stuff. You can send your stuff to people who you didn't mean to send it to. What are we doing in terms of verifying that the person I'm sending a message to on Slack is the person I intend to get that message?

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: So that's a great question, and I think one of the really interesting things here is that this is a step forward, Slack Connect broadly, for collaboration and communication. Obviously we believe channels are a better way, and you know, Slack is the tool that people have open.

There's also a big step forward in security and compliance because we can verify the organization, so a lot like the blue checkmark you see on Twitter or Instagram. But there's also additional layers of security. So I don't know if you remember how BlackBerry Messenger worked, but you give someone your PIN and then they can send you a message and then you approve them. It's a lot like that. So this isn't just anyone can send you a message.

Now, if you're a salesperson and you want people to be able to reach you on Slack, you could put it on your LinkedIn. You can put a QR code on your business card or something like that, and of course you can also revoke those after. But we don't expect that that's how most people will use it. This isn't going to be for, you know, sales pitches or spam. This is for people at two organizations that work closely together. So think about the marketing manager and the creative from the agency or the in-house counsel talking to their outside lawyer, those kinds of cases.

BRIAN SOZZI: Stewart, I'm sure you've seen big tech players, they have come under attack by Congress this week. And now, in many respects they may be broken up at some point. It really-- it's wildly unclear. You've been a vocal critic of how Microsoft is competing in the market against you. Should Microsoft be included in the discussion to be broken up? Certainly went through that already, but they were left out of the discussion that we've seen this week. Lots of focus on Apple, Google, and Facebook and even Amazon.

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: Well, I mean obviously we think that their activity should be looked at. Whether they should be broken up I think is a different question and different jurisdictions have different approaches to this kind of issue. I think for us it's very clear, at least according to the EU regulations, that they're behaving in an illegal anti-competitive way, and the investigation is ongoing. So we don't know the results yet, but we're pretty confident that the European commission will find in our favor in that case.

As for the rest of it, it's-- there can be unintended consequences, and it's not obvious what the best path forward is. So I guess the-- as a citizen and also as a leader in technology, I hope that we carefully weigh all the consequences.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Stewart, we-- the great countdown has begun. We're 26 days away from the election. How closely as a CEO are you watching the election, especially when it comes to taxes? I mean, there will be implications for whoever wins the White House.

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, I think that the bigger implications are probably going to come from the current economic environment and the pandemic. I think changes in policy are going to be relatively-- relatively small, I guess on top of that in terms of their impact. Obviously watching it, and really [AUDIO OUT] zero ability to predict the outcome. But also zero ability to predict the effect of that outcome. We're in such an unusual territory, in such an unusual circumstance, that it's hard to know even how to plan, to mitigate, to kind of-- to come up with contingencies.

BRIAN SOZZI: Stewart, are you seeing any stabilization-- finally, at long last, not just for you, for the country at large-- in your small-business customers?

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, we are seeing some. So, you know, definitely Q2 was the brunt of the impact, and we have 130,000 customers around the world. So, you know, some of those are giant companies-- Verizon is one of them. But, you know, companies like Amazon and IBM, T-Mobile-- great success in financial services lately, HSBC and Northwestern Mutual. But there's 130,000 of them. Obviously many of them are small businesses, and some of them are restaurants or small boutique hotel chains or tax preparers or dental offices.

The impact seems to have been blunted. It's a little bit tough to know what's going to happen in the US when there's no stimulus package, but the-- you know, what we saw in terms of growth that didn't happen, so like the expected expansion, starting to return a little bit more to normal. The number of layoffs, the number of bankruptcies, you know, as far as we can tell from our data, it's definitely starting to calm down.