This week’s news that Salesforce is taking over Slack has a lot of people pondering the pros and cons of such a merger. One thing is clear, however: combining Slack’s collaboration functionality with Salesforce’s sales productivity tool is a huge step forward in the history of enterprise software.
My team at Emergence Capital has been a student of the cloud since we invested in Salesforce in 2002. Since then, we’ve focused exclusively on enterprise software, working with productivity leaders like Box and Veeva, as well as collaborative leaders like Yammer and Zoom.
However, as the cloud matures, an unfortunate truth has emerged: collaboration software is increasingly at odds with productivity. As the number of apps skyrocketed in both categories, data loss (and frustration) has soared as employees pan over apps to get their work done. It is difficult to stay in the flow when your tools constantly force you to do so.
The solution: deep collaboration
Collaboration and productivity tools were developed separately. The move to remote or hybrid work is the catalyst we need to merge them. We used to rely on collaboration tools for lighter tasks – updates, check-in, GIF sharing, and so on – and reserved deeper, more substantial collaboration for face-to-face meetings. The old stack (mostly) worked for this approach.
In a world where we work closer together remotely, we need a new pile. Collaboration tools cannot be a goal. It has to be embedded in the work itself.
My team calls this stack Deep Collaboration. The term refers to software that combines productivity and collaboration functions in one place to get a specific task done. In a future of deep collaboration, a person performing a particular task doesn’t have to leave a single piece of software behind to get that task done. All the productivity and collaboration functions (both internal and external) that you need to get a job done are in one place.
Combining the Salesforce product with Slack is a huge boon for people trying to sell. Today, many of our portfolio companies’ sales teams create in-house Slack channels to collaborate on each deal. Increasingly, they are also creating external Slack Connect channels to collaborate with customers after the sale. However, you track and forecast these deals in Salesforce. This information fragmentation can slow sales cycles, make it harder to forecast deals, and burn out sales reps.
What about Google Docs? Isn’t that deep collaboration?
No. Microsoft and Google have added great collaboration features to their productivity suites over the years. However, both are generic, not order-specific platforms. As such, they are limited in their ability to be the only place where a particular job is done. And with it, in their ability to reduce data loss and frustration due to command registers.
Take, for example, forecasting, planning and analysis (FP&A), a key finance function that relies heavily on gathering data from functions in an organization and then sharing it with them. Finance professionals today rely on Excel and Google Sheets, but these general tools lack the FP and A-specific features like version control, detailed permissions, and planning modules that are required to work together effectively. Founded in 2018, Cube integrates collaboration and sharing capabilities into its FP&A tool.
In the field of legal procurement, you can redefine and comment on contracts with MSFT Word and Google Docs, but there is a lack of comprehensive, order-specific productivity workflows such as approvals and approvals. Ironclad was founded in 2014 and extends Word’s text editor to include contract processes and functions for internal and external collaboration. (Disclosure: My company is an investor in Ironclad.)
These are just two examples from a promising group of deep collaboration companies that also include Workstream (BI analysis), Layer (spreadsheet workflows), Mosaic (strategic financial planning), Basis (financial forecasting), Figma (design) and Maze ( Product research) and more built to address this challenge.
Focus on the task at hand, not the person
One of the most exciting elements of successful deep collaboration companies is that they unlock substantial cross-functional collaboration as anyone can be close to the work themselves.
This is because deep collaboration companies don’t focus on building for a specific person (e.g. salesperson, designer, etc.), but rather building for a specific task. Most high-quality tasks involve people from different departments. This new stack allows them to work together in deeper ways.
This is a major departure from traditional software development. For example, Salesforce was designed for salespeople, with a user interface and data architecture geared towards that person. However, the task of selling is inherently cross-functional. Marketers are involved in landing the lead and creating business certainty. Engineers are involved in the creation and potential configuration of demos. Product managers are constantly looking for feedback from potential customers. The Slack acquisition, if well integrated, could enable collaboration and data sharing across these capabilities and help Salesforce break the old people-based paradigm.
Figma is a great example of a deep collaboration company that is wonderfully implementing this new paradigm. Figma focuses on the task of designing something. In the old paradigm, designers were practically the only person involved. They downloaded expensive software from the Adobe Suite, edited files, and then saved versions of those files in Dropbox and sent links to other designers. In addition to the file, they may also have comments on their design “Slacked / Emailed / etc”. Unsurprisingly, this approach resulted in version issues, a lot of metadata loss, and very little involvement from anyone outside the design team.
Figma turned this on its head and democratized the design process. It created both the design suite and the collaboration suite natively in the browser, using technologies such as WebGL to ensure a seamless joint design. They have also set a price to ensure distribution within a company and to differentiate between paid editorial seats and vacant audience seats. As a result, Figma is where every person involved in product design, from product managers to engineers and marketers to designers, works together. It quickly becomes where the work of design is done (although competitors have paid attention to it and are turning to this paradigm as well).
Another great example of the cross-functional benefits of deep collaboration at an earlier stage is Maze. Maze focuses on product research work. In the person-to-person paradigm, this is an isolated task with each relevant function using their own tools without compromising collaboration. Product managers use tools like SurveyMonkey to gather information about feature ideas. User researchers interview people who interact with prototype products. Marketers use tools like Optimizely to test copy performance (often after the product investment has already been made). This leads to an incoherent process that gathers important insights within functions and leads to suboptimal products.
Maze focuses on bringing all the tools needed for product research together in one place. It makes testing prototypes on a large scale child’s play, extends conventional surveying tools with product-specific functions and enables copy tests before a product is put into operation. Perhaps most importantly, Maze enables anyone to view the results of their research and collaborate. As a result, the entire team can test and review every decision point in the product creation process, creating strong alignment and cross-departmental accountability.
A key question in evaluating the effectiveness of deep collaboration software is: What part of the real work that needs to be done is actually done in the software? In other words, how much app switching does it take to get the job done? How much data loss is there? The most successful companies of this next era will be the room in which this happens.
Over time, productivity software has become increasingly tailored to the end user. Collaboration software is overdue to follow suit. With the Slack / Salesforce mashup, the future of deep collaboration is coming a little faster.
Jake Saper is General Partner at Emergence Capital.