Help Me Understand The Value of Slack Instead of an Email List

Before you have an allergic reaction to the title of the post and respond with “you are stupid”, bear with me for a second as I set up the problem.

I’ve been a heavy Slack user for at least six months (probably closer to nine). We started using it internally at Foundry Group and then I joined a number of Slack instances of companies that we are investors in. For at least three months, I joined a number of relevant channels for each organization and tried to participate. I use Slack on the Mac primary so I used the left side bar to have multiple teams active, tuned my notifications so they weren’t overwhelming, and engaged as best as I could. I tried to post on Slack when I had an issue with the company – usually around a product – that needed to be communicated to a group instead of one person. And, for a few of the CEOs, we used Slack as our primary DM channel.

I hit the Slack wall about a month ago and stopped regularly engaging with the organizations other than Foundry Group. There is a long list of functional issues with how Slack handles things across orgs that makes using it this way a burden that suddenly felt worse to me than email. I could go through them and I expect Slack will eventually address some of them since I can’t imagine that I’m the only person in the world struggling to try to deal with Slack across 15 organizations, but the thing that really perplexed me was a new phenomenon that I noticed a month or so ago.

I’m increasingly being invited to other Slack groups of curated people.

This hit me in the face over the weekend when I was invited to a new Slack group by someone well-known. It’s a fascinating group of randomly connected people who ramped up a handful of channels over the weekend. I stayed on top of it until Monday morning and then was swept away in my normal week.

I just went and checked it again. There are over 60 members, but there were less than 30 new Slack messages since the last time I checked. Most were in one channel. As I skimmed it, I thought to myself that this would have been just as effective, or possibly more effective, as a typical group email list. And, since I do most of my group email lists in Google Groups, they are easily searchable and archivable, so the archive/search argument goes away away immediately.

As the amount of time I have to spend engaging with Slack increases, it suddenly feels more ponderous. And, when I started thinking about it in the context of the very active Foundry Group CEO list, it felt much less effective to switch this to a real time channel, as very few of the interactions necessitate real time.

So – I’m trying to get my mind around the value of Slack instead of an email list for large, cross-organization communication. Other than “it’s a new thing”, what are the foundational benefits of it. If you are someone engaged in a large, cross-organizational Slack group, now is the time to weigh in and give me a clue.

  • Alex Miller

    I’m with you on this one – I think Slack (really every group chat software) is rarely a better choice for network/affinity groups vs email.

    For me it comes down to the immediacy element: chat is useful for urgent or immediate items, but discussions between portfolio companies or other operations professionals from outside my company are rarely urgent and I would prefer to have them filtered into an isolated email folder where I can search and respond when I have free time rather than feeling like I HAVE to respond now (as one does with chat).

  • I’m in the same boat. I was a member of 10 Slack channels at my peak. I’m now down to 7, and am active in 2 – 1 of which is my own Laicos channel. I find myself being less and less active on Slack. It’s almost as if it was a fad that’s fading, but that’s not how it felt when I started using it.

    Group iMessage, Group Twitter DM or mass email is more effective/productive for me at this time.

    Good post.

  • varund7

    Sacrilege! Heresy! How dare you, Brad? How dare you?

    In all seriousness, I do agree. I think you’ll find a lot of anecdotal evidence that Slack isn’t ideal for non-urgent/not-necessarily-real-time communication that’s very similar to your experience. (Already seeing it surface in the comments above). In fact, the heavy-traffic cross-organizational Slacks are perhaps even less beneficial than the low-traffic ones; I had to leave a few community-based Slacks (Less Wrong, Effective Altruism, and the like) because the guilt of missing out on messages was too burdensome, for instance.

    Setting aside the issue of Slack’s excellent brand and marketing, and the impression many have that it affords them a fresh start away from their absolute disaster of an email inbox, I find it hard to make a case for Slack’s functionality that extends beyond the most active of users. Moderators and active members may find the real-time communication gratifying, but for the rest of us, there’s work to do yet.

  • This is something we’ve struggled with a bit at Techstars, particularly with a certain slice of founders that live/breathe Slack.

    What I’ve come to the conclusion on is that Slack is *awesome* for an organization with strong ties: a company (like Foundry or Techstars internally), an accelerator class (Boulder 2016), etc. When you have strong ties, you have common goals and an organizational rhythm which makes this type of messaging work.

    But when you try to extend Slack to an organization with weak ties, it just breaks down. Either a) there are so many people posting so many random things that it’s information overload with a low signal/noise ratio, or b) the Slack dies from lack of use/value. I’m on a number of cross-organizational Slacks and have found generally little value from them; all of them seem to suffer from one of these two problems. People participate for so many reasons and have so many different goals that participating feels like a burden.

    What we’ve gone with for Techstars across the network is a Discourse forum, which is a hybrid web forum and listserv. Users who love email can interact with it 100% via email; others who prefer forums can use it like that. So far, it seems to fit our needs FAR better than Slack.

  • I’ll have a go Brad.

    I am not sure your use cases are in any way reflective of the core user stories that have given rise to the slack Phenomenon if you will.

    Slack is absolutely core to what we do at this stage. But i would never use it externally – why would i? its a square peg in a round hole IMO trying to morph what is a core team messaging product in to a twitter list, or email list.

    The key here is Core. If you are a bit part player in 20 investments you’ll not see the value. If you are a participant in a social or casual Chat – again its not that product.

    For us its taken internal email hell and made it conversational, natively organized and real-time.

    i would compare it to hipchat. I would never think of using hipchat outside of the core team.

    We absolutely love it – my 2 cents.

    • I think you have this right. I would also add its the number of people, which you essentially did by saying core.

      In my mind if you have more than 20 people trying to communicate simultaneously you either are drowned in a sea of messages, or have important messages bypass the system because people know that it won’t work.

      The only thing I would emphasize is that just like email it can’t be a commitment system, but its a great replacement to just getting up and talking if teams are distributed.

    • Brendan Diaz

      Beat me to it, Mark.


      I don’t think Slack was designed for, “fascinating groups of randomly connected people,” or for trying to keep in touch with the CEOs of your various investments.

      The former sounds like a job for… an old AOL public chat room? And the latter, definitely better suited for an email list. Or a weekly phone call. Or both.

      I’m not saying people don’t use it that way – heck people try to jam circles into squares all the time (especially when it’s new and cool and they think they should try it), and sometimes with enough plugins and gimmicks you can even kind of sort of get it to work… but that’s not what it was designed for.

      Remember, Slack was initially designed as a tool used internally to improve ***team collaboration*** for a company actually building a video game.

      We all know that story.

      There’s no game, but now we have a company that’s turned down “multiple” offers in the $8B dollar range with millions of users and “unprecedented growth.”

      What is so special about Slack compared to HipChat, or even just IRC for that matter? It’s prettier (maybe)? It had a friendly bot before HipChat? And until recently it actually seemed less buggy and bloated than HipChat, (but now they’re pretty head to head in those categories).

      Side note: I bet the guys who sold HipChat to Atlassian years ago aren’t too thrilled that their Slack-before-Slack never reached the heights of “fastest growing business software app of all time.” They’re also probably pissed the guys at Slack didn’t just sign up for HipChat before deciding to build their own version at work. But that’s besides the point.

      Slack is about team collaboration.

      HipChat is about team collaboration.

      I remember a Butterfield quote (paraphrasing here) where he said, years ago when you asked someone how they communicate with their co-workers they kind of just shrugged their shoulders. Email? Call them sometimes? Annoying mandatory meetings?

      Butterfield said that today, companies have realized that the communication layer is part of their “stack,” and that it can be improved just like anything else.

      He said a few years ago (sorry HipChat) companies had to try and “convince” people that they needed to improve their communication infrastructure, whereas today people are actively looking.

      Email lists and groups and chains might be great for keeping in touch with CEOs and groups of fascinating people, but *they’re not great for live team collaboration.*

      I have been working with tech startups for the past 10+ years and cross companies *all* have used IRC, HipChat, or some competitor, and now Slack.

      Why? Because it’s easier to collaborate with your product guy and designer via “live” chat than email.

      It’s easier to have a more “natural” conversation with someone via chat than it is via email.

      Etc. etc.

      Does Slack really reduce the volume of messages or notifications you get? No way.

      It probably has the exact opposite effect. But people do like using it, and it is much easier to collaborate in real time via chat than email “groups.”

      You might argue it’s even easier to do that over the phone, and well hey, now you can do that with Slack and HipChat too, but often it’s really not.

      I do, however, have a problem with the complete lack of privacy and security in apps like Slack, HipChat and even Gmail for that matter.

      I love the concept, but I also love my privacy, and I don’t like other people (hackers or companies) reading my “stuff.”

      And that, Brad, is why we built

      ClearChat is an end-to-end encrypted and authenticated drop in replacement for insecure apps like Slack and Dropbox.

      I’ve been using and realizing the value from chat apps for a decade, saw a tremendous problem in a rapidly growing market, and have provided a solution to the problem: an app as easy to use for team collaboration as Slack, but as secure as PGP.

      Privacy and security – you have very little of either. We can fix that problem. And whether we’re talking about the $100billion+ dollar cybersecurity market, Slack’s $3billion+ valuation, or the fact that DuckDuckGo does about 3billion searches per year now… people care about their privacy, and desperately need better security.

      I’m not even pitching you on what we’re doing – I just read your article (like I always do) and got excited and responded. Startup life!

  • Had exactly the same experience a few months back with non-internal Slacks. Was in a few for a bit, then either activity in them faded away and I left because it wasn’t valuable or activity got heavy and I left because I didn’t have time to keep up. For me Slack works great for situations that are important enough I’m going to be interrupt-driven based on activity in the channel. But for things I’m going to engage with asynchronously, email lists are better for me.

  • what’s old is new again etc.

    I’ve been invited to several slack channels + created a couple of my own. I ultimately quit participating because each deteriorated pretty rapidly into random chit-chat. I have twitter for that + don’t need/want another tool for that type of discourse.

    Main takeaways for me:

    – slack is neat, but really has nothing functionally ‘new’ wrt communication. If you need to converse privately + send/save attachments, email continues to perform well

    – there’s a whole lot of me-too-ism around its use recently that makes we suspect there’s some ‘look shiny’ happening

    – if I need to comm privately w/ folks, I’ll text. If urgent, I’ll call (i have your cell #, so heh)

    – virtually everything that slack does – and does well, admittedly – I can do in email or another low-friction tool I already use. Sorry Stewart.

    All that said, the video stuff that’s emerging looks super interesting + the company Stewart + team are building really does seem to be amazing. I hope I’m at least 1/2 as thoughtful + empathetic as he is while I’m running my own business.

    • nick coronges

      Good points. Slack is really about ‘real-time’ communication – so projects where you’re going back and forth, short messages and expect a quicker response. That gets very unwieldy in an email group.

      For designers and developers slack also works better when you’re sending links and uploading files.

      Slack also goes beyond email as a messaging Platform, meaning you have developers plugging into APIs building tools on top of it. So you have integrationns that can broadcast info into a slack channel for common tools like github but also homegrown. We plug into our internal platforms from slack using a simple bot, so for example you can ask the bot what someone is working on or search for people with certain skills. Better to use a bot than create another intranet web tool.

      Like a lot of these things it tends to favor shorter, rapid communication, which doesn’t necessarily mean smarter.

  • pbreit

    Agree. Slack is a terrific product but benefits mightily from being used in the right situations in the right way.

  • I think the advantage is only that Slack is built for shorter communication.. chat, snippets.. whereas email groups are typically for more structured communication

  • Jeremy Lappin


    The problem is that each team on Slack is its own network. The mechanism of toggling between teams is too much overhead for people to handle for a single conversation and the problem becomes worse and worse at scale. As a result, unless 75% of your communication is internally focused, Slack will just feel like another tool and it is ill-suited for cross company commerce. If you look at comments, those that like it all cross this threshold, and those that don’t communicate with too varied a group of people.

    Why they had to build it this way is a little bit less obvious, and it is not so much a Slack problem but a problem with all enterprise software. If you buy/use a tool for your company, you expect to control the data inside, which means that another party cannot. Think about it, all the files, messages in your channels are very important, would you want a team on Slack that Foundry didn’t control?

    Most communication tools work differently to Slack in that it physically sends data between systems…then control of data isn’t a problem…but the cost is you can’t be added to the collaboration to see the history or removed to lose it.

  • 100% agree. I think the main benefit is the fact that it is all easily archived (and easily searched – but gmail makes that argument null).

    I think it is the cool new thing, it is mobile friendly, but I’m not sure I see how it is so different as yet.

  • Rick Mason

    There’s a powerful feature built into Slack that has primarily gone unnoticed so far that has the potential to be a game changer and that’s bots. Take the simple bot, mix it with the many ways to integrate other systems possible with Slack, add a rule set and possibly a little AI and you have a powerful virtual assistant.

    Companies will get created that write bots for knowledge workers. It’s still early and there isn’t a VC fund just for bot companies but it’s coming. We’re still very early yet.

    Stewart Butterfield talks a little bit about what he sees as possible here;

  • I think Slack works great for organizations and poorly for communities.

    For organizations, where you are heavily invested and or incentivized and require a level of involvement similar to a job I think Slack opens up communications well.

    For communities, the UI of Slack combined with the low level of communication means that it’s a poor experience, burying threaded topics, and with all or nothing notifications.

    The use case you describe of the “interesting people” – I’m not sure there is a great solution out there that’s better than an email list but I am certainly intrigued by this:

    • “I think Slack works great for organizations and poorly for communities.”


  • JoelTSanders

    Slack’s great for my small team (4 of us) and my EO Forum Group (7 people). For projects we use Asana (connected to Slack), but we almost never use internal company (team-only) email. I tried joining a Portland startup “community” Slack group months ago, saw a bunch of noise, and never looked at it again.

  • Give Chicago TechStars company a whirl for tasks. See how you like it. Works with Slack.

  • Thought of this article when I read your post:

    Slack has clarified the problem for me because it has similar failings to e-mail but from another angle — it’s been helpful to triangulate. I think I’ve hit on what the problem is, and a potential solution as well. When I figure out how to build it I’ll probably be knocking on your door. 🙂

  • Craig Thrall

    After about a year of using Slack at work I think it’s a nice web IM client, but nothing special beyond that. What I’ve seen happen is people start to use it, use it in place of e-mail, and you end up lacking the ability to organize multiple threads in one place, or see a thread in the context of just that thread without the stream of consciousness around it.

  • Dave Abajian

    I find that Slack reduces overhead load on certain types of comms (short, real time) compared to email but increases it for others (long form discussions). I agree with the comments that it starts to fail as the community expands and participant engagement goes down. it also get messy when discipline around channel creation breaks down.

    The real problem with Slack or any of these tools comes when we expect them to solve a fundamental human problem. Each of us can only participate meaningfully with so many people and in so many discussions. Slack makes it easy to think we can somehow get beyond those limits. But we can’t. For me the solution is to recognize my limits and use the tool for what it can do.

    • RBC

      #boom – put much more eloquently than I did. +100

  • Thinker

    Email, to me, is for more formal requests. Small emails with Gmail, stink. Sometimes they don’t even show up as new, especially when someone is lazy and just types reply for the 100th time. I like Slack, but in order to get value, you need to keep your lists small; don’t let just anybody have access to you on Slack.

  • I’m on a good dozen Slacks but I hardly visit 3 of them regularly just to stay updated on investment related ones. There’s been an overshooting of Slack usage for everything. But it is *not* for everything.

    First test for something new/different: is there something old/existing that already works?

  • jerrycolonna

    I can’t. I hate Slack.

  • You’ve a crazy, over-extended use case being part of many many Slack groups with many many channels. Conversations are separated all over the place vs. being in one inbox

    Imagine though, you’re working only with one Slack group (albeit with many channels) like we do on our team. We can centralise conversations around specific topics in one place, and “chat” about it in a way email can’t.

    Something we’ve observed is the manner people reply. Email is less synchronous, so the replies tend to be slower and more thoughtful. Slack is faster, maybe less thought out, but more open. Our team is remote. Slack arguably replaces a lot of conversation/chat we’d otherwise have in-person. For that… it beats email.

    • No argument there – that’s how we use it internally.

      • Zach Abramowitz

        But doesn’t it lose to in person?

    • That’s how we use it internally too. It’s great for that core use case within a trusted team environment.

      It breaks down when it tries to replace Facebook groups I think, since IF you add the slack channels to your primary mobile/desktop client, it is complete overload/distraction almost instantaneously.

    • RBC

      It useful to stay get a quick check on what other teams are working on, such as sales, devs or content folks. I would object to any of them flooding my inbox, but as I’m focused on the same product it is great to check in regularly and see what they are discussing as a team.

      I don’t see slack as a large, cross-organizational tool, so I’m not surprised you don’t find it useful for interacting with your companies.

      From my experience, what Slack solves is the sub-ten person company communication – or sub-ten person team within a larger company. This limits their usefulness for VCs and the largest corporations and likely puts a cap on their overall growth, however I hope they stay focused on that use case.

  • felixc

    For me, the biggest value is the archive so that new people to the organization have access to past thinking. It takes the value out of individual email repositories into a single, companywide archive.

    On the other hand, I’m not the biggest convert to Slack currently.

  • Scott

    I think there are two issues at play here. Communications management and knowledge management. Each of us has our preferred way to communicate in a given situation (Captain Obvious!). However, most groups struggle with knowledge management and having threads where you can centrally store, comment on and collaborate as a team makes everyone more productive. I am a Yammer user at work and it takes time to understand and build the value of this medium. But at some point, when there is critical mass, the usefulness becomes obvious.

    So I would contend that if you use Slack just as a means for communicating with a specific group, then with the dynamic nature of work these days the value is not truly realized.

    • Spot on about the two challenges. But Slack hasn’t really managed the asymmetry and asynchronous issues around communications. Nor have they fully solved the knowledge management issues around compartmentalization, re-use, re-purposing, weighting of information/data or opinion/fact, etc…

      Slack is a strategic, not tactical tool. But it is implemented more from the latter than former perspective. That’s why it’s not scaling and you have so many issues that Brad and others in the comments raise. I love Slack, but also hate it for a number of personal use issues and for the lack of uptake and consistency by those around me (across many different teams/projects) that I am powerless to control or influence.

  • TMail21

    I think Slack (and Group Chat generally) are great for synchronous communication.

    The problem is that for synchronous communication to work, everyone needs to be online and available at the same time. But now if online and available you face a new problem of continuous distraction across many different ‘channels’. So, then you go into ‘do not disturb’ periodically. But now users cannot reach you when they want to and you are back to square one (i.e asynchronous communication).

    To me the ideal is to combine Slack (or group chat generally) with an asynchronous communication tool designed to integrate with it.

    This article, suggests one way how this may be done.

  • Sue

    I was extremely shy about my aversion to Slack for a while. I felt like a loser for not “getting it.”

    I thought email was far superior for things I had to Do/React To (where often asynchronous is a need), I felt Facebook Groups was a better solution for engaging threaded discussions or “fyi’s” among a private group, and Asana was superior for task management and accountability in my company. Imessage for IM. I gave in this year and started on Slack for MergeLane (and our 10 companies) bc I figured there was something I was missing, and I hate the idea of being irrelevant as new products (this one nearly a cult) come online. I’ve largely given up. Slack with notifications on is OK for immediate IM/synchronous communication with highest-priority people, but I actually don’t think it’s better than alternative messaging apps. The idea that Slack would replace email is absurd to me. I feel the same way about that comparable Asana goal, but I think it’s way closer to truth, at least within a company structure.

  • Baldwin Berges

    Slack literally drove me nuts! It made me feel like I was a dog chasing cars. I do email 2-3x per day and that has made me more productive than ever before…

  • Tabitha Farrar

    One wouldn’t usually hit “reply all” with a quip, and email is not as instant. There are steps: receive email, open email, hit “reply,” hit “send.” With Slack you think and type which makes the communication flow in the way that conversation would. This is the main difference, and why it is so great for small teams.

    Think of it more like a social media inspired workplace tool and the advantages over email stand out. Why don’t we just email instead of using Facebook, Twitter, etc? That’s the same reason so many people prefer to use Slack over email.

    Plus, soon you’ll be able to make a MobileDay call from Slack, which you certainly cannot do with email (shameless plug!). The integrations are another aspect of Slack that make it far more effective than email.

  • Randy Terbush

    Brad, I find Slack to be invaluable when it comes to managing remote teams and putting all of the day-to-day work streams in front of the right groups.

    Things like Github issues, commits, Jenkins activities and results. All of the bot integration that Slack is so good at.

    For distributed teams, the ability to insert a bit of humor in the channel through the day makes the distance go away as it engages people in a way that is hard to do in email.

    Slack does a good job of marking where I left off, so I find it easy to go have a quick look without getting sucked into email hell.

  • I think the positioning is slightly off – for my startup Slack replaced IM not email and in that case provides utility. We still use email.

  • Catherine Young

    A well-curated email group = a well-curated Slack channel.

  • Rob Ryan

    Brad! Fun colors, sounds and the adorable slackbot, of course!

  • Melissa Caron

    “So – I’m trying to get my mind around the value of Slack instead of an email list for large, cross-organization communication.”

    I don’t think Slack is supposed to replace email – especially cross-organizationally. It is meant as a communication tool. I find the best value in being able to comment on a thread in the moment with 10+ people at one time, rather than the @all reply that tends to come out of order.

    As an active member in our VC Portfolio Slack, I find it incredibly convenient and VALUABLE to DM a peer at one of the other companies for best practices or questions. I don’t always need a response right away, but if I do, the directory helps me find their contact info so that I may email them instead (referring to someone’s comment about Do Not Disturb mode).

    There’s also the comfort in knowing that a slack message or question, will hopefully be seen or revisited in the case that an email was ignored, archived or deleted.

  • Slack is replacing Skype. And it’s very good doing it.

  • milliman

    I am glad that you wrote this article because it confirmed my feelings about Slack. I have contemplated introducing it to our small team, but I was wondering how it would improve our communications beyond phone calls, e-mail, texting, and Skype. E-mail is sufficient for most of our asynchronous communications and the other media is great for immediate responses.

    The trendiness may get people to be more responsive than e-mail, but eventually they will fall into the same habits. The group collaboration is nice for larger internal groups. I am leary of the platform as another social media platform because we have enough of them already that serve similar functions. I know Robert introduced Slack to BDNT, but I have been reluctant to add another social media platform to monitor daily.

    For now I still do not see enough value in Slack to deviate from PMO. Thanks for the validation.

  • I advocated and then gave up. Some search and knowledge retention makes it semi valuable, but for the most part just not worth the hassle of trying to get “normal” people on board. I have better luck with Basecamp Pings and discussion groups because my clients can interact via email or the interface.

    I have too many groups to manage and companies to connect to and Slack is horrendous at that model. I suppose it is fine for one company or group with a semi-singular focus, but any other use is a painful user experience. I keep it open in case something interesting comes across, but frankly won’t be investing any more time in Slack nor will I try to get others to use it.

  • I don’t think Slack is supposed to replace email. Personally, it somewhat replaced instant messaging in our workplace.

  • Dave Schwartz

    It comes down to personal preference and the actual use cases. We use Slack at Iterable for: Internal Real-Time Team Communication, Realtime Client Support via Intercom / ZenDesk (which bleed into Slack) and also set up private slack support channels for our largest clients. All are invaluable. Regarding your use case, email sounds just as effective for a list-serve type deal, however, it is not in realtime, email can land in the junk folder, etc. But sounds like you’re just overwhelmed in general by all the multitude of your slack channels / users / etc. Like the focus has become obfuscated. As with any tool, the more focused its use, the more value will be derived.

  • Matt

    For a small team (3 of us ( it’s a blend of email, limited file sharing (upload a file + have the comments directly in the same flow), and DM. Channels force the discipline I know I lack when it comes to having good folder structure, and they’re a nice place to leverage targeted bots (mailchimp and arc bot in my #marketing channel, trello in #projectmanagement) to seed discussions. I couldn’t imagine using it in my day job though, what makes it great one place is what makes it terrible another, imo.
    Edit: And the /giphy bot makes everything a bit more fun when everyone is in different locations