Sometimes, you must first fail before you can succeed.
Few can speak to this as much as Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder of team collaboration tool Slack.
In many ways, his “failures” are also his “successes”.
It started with Game Neverending, his first project, and his first public failure. Developed by his then company, Ludicorp, Game Neverending was intended to be an online multiplayer game for the masses, but it never saw the light of day. When it became apparent that the game would not survive, Butterfield shifted his focus to the game’s photo-sharing tool, turning it into its own stand-alone product, Flickr.
Determined to make his game-developing dreams come true, he would try his hand again. With much of the same team from Ludicorp, Butterfield cofounded Tiny Speck, and began building a new online-game in Glitch.
It was during this development process where Butterfield would inspire a worldwide behavior change revolution – though he didn’t know it at the time.
Frustrated by existing communication tools, Tiny Speck developed its own tool to help better manage the creation of the game. During the three years leading up to the game’s launch, the Tiny Speck team, consisting of 45 people, had only sent 50 emails.
Then, at the end of 2012, the eureka moment came. Butterfield closed the book on Glitch, and Slack, the communications tool his team had developed, sprang forward.
But the Slack squad only knew how their team interacted on the platform, and if the product was to work across industries with varying company sizes and workflows, they needed a bigger sample size.
For the next seven months, Butterfield and his colleagues begged friends at other companies to trial Slack. This gave them the opportunity to see the tool from an outsider’s perspective, and each new company armed the team with unique observations and feedback that they would later use to optimize and tweak the product.
Finally, in August of 2013, Butterfield felt the product was polished enough to be shared more widely and announced a preview release. The launch amassed a large amount of media attention, and within 24 hours, 8,000 companies had signed up for the service. Two weeks later, that number doubled to 15,000. Slack was an instant hit.
That type of staggering growth, although unprecedented, was an accurate indicator of what was to come. Slack quickly became the fastest growing business-app ever, and was considered a unicorn shortly after its first year. Last September, just four years and a month after the company’s launch, it was valued at over $5B.
How did it all happen? What was different about Slack?
Team Communication For the 21st Century
First and foremost, it was created at the perfect time. Built for the era of mobile phones and short text messages, Slack’s growth coincided with the rising trend of companies operating remotely, and offered a less formal, more user-friendly way of keeping in touch with co-workers.
Around the same time, Microsoft Office, Windows, and seemingly every other tech company that could were churning out new tools left and right. Each trying to better each other. In most cases, the competition was healthy, and the tools themselves evolved greatly. But what was left was a scattered ecosystem of tools and services. The fragmentation led to friction and inefficiency. While the tools themselves had improved, the user-experience was left behind. There was no glue to hold it all together.
Enter Slack, integrating all the tools and housing them all in one place. Twitter. Salesforce. Dropbox. Google docs. You name it, it’s all on Slack.
And when you combine that seamless third-party integration with a thoughtfully-designed interface, full of vibrant and playful colors, and an endless amount of customizable applications like to-do lists, reminders, project management tools, scheduling assistants, and hundreds more, what you get is a communications tool that boosts your productivity tenfold.
Perhaps the biggest reason for Slack’s growth is its customizability. Created for any workplace, the product can be catered to your team or individual needs. Channels can be made for departments, projects, office locations, or whatever you deem fit. If a channel becomes too loud, you can “mute” it. If you need to conduct deep, uninterrupted research, you can activate “Do Not Disturb” mode. You can customize “highlight words” that are important to you so that you are notified every time that word is mentioned – be it your name or an urgent project you’re working on. If you’re going to be busy for the day at work conference, or are going to in a long offline brainstorm, you can set your status to reflect that. Files, images, PDFs, spreadsheets and other documents can be shared in real-time with a simple drag and drop.
In group chats, or “channels”, Slack allows you to overhear conversations, giving you an ambient awareness of work developments that you do not get from email. If you want to share something confidential, you can do so through a private channel or direct message.
Files, images, PDFs, spreadsheets and other documents can be shared in real-time with a simple drag and drop. And everything on Slack, from notifications to links to images, are all searchable so that you can find what you need and find it fast.
Consistently evolving and introducing new features to meet user demands, Slack is delivering on its mission to make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant, and more productive.
A Behavior Change Revolution
While it may not be obvious on the surface, Slack is one of the leading behavior change companies of our time.
In a medium post, written on his page, Butterfield states the following:
“The best – maybe the only? – real, direct measure of “innovation” is change in human behavior. In fact, it is useful to take this way of thinking as definitional: innovation is the sum of change across the whole system, not a thing which causes a change in how people behave. No small innovation ever caused a large shift in how people spend their time and no large one has ever failed to do so.”
“By that measure,” he goes on to say, “Slack is a real and large innovation”.
And he’s right.
Butterfield knew he couldn’t sell a “group chat system”. People simply wouldn’t buy that. Instead, what Slack sells is “organizational transformation.”
“We’re selling a reduction in information overload, relief from stress, and a new ability to extract the enormous value of hitherto useless corporate archives. We’re selling better organizations, better teams. That’s a good thing for people to buy and it is a much better thing for us to sell in the long run. We will be successful to the extent that we create better teams.”
This is not a one-to-one behavior change. Slack must be sold to companies, both massive and tiny, and everything in between. Companies that adopt Slack are betting on a massive, positive behavior change. They want effortless communication. They want to work more efficiently. They want a business tool that works for them rather than against them, helping them make more inspiring decisions and form more empowering habits.
“We’re asking a lot from our customers. We are asking them to spend hours a day in a new and unfamiliar application, to give up on years or even decades of experience using email for work communication (and abandon all kinds of ad hoc workflows that have developed around their use of email). We are asking them to switch a model of communication which defaults to the public; it is an almost impossibly large ask. Almost.”
The change is both dramatic and far-reaching. We know this to be true because we at DiMassimo Goldstein are a proud member of the Slack revolution.
We weren’t looking to abandon email entirely, but to reduce it, and Slack has done that. We found ourselves having too many meetings, which Slack has helped cut down. The transparent communication makes it the perfect place to review projects as a team, on the go, and from anywhere.
Put simply, it has made our work lives easier and most importantly, it has pushed the work we create to help inspire others forward.
That’s why Slack is our Inspiring Action Brand of the Month!
A call to action to people everywhere to direct their attention to the ecological challenges facing our environment. To use this day as an opportunity to adopt new behaviors and habits that benefit our planet, and to ensure that those actions become part of our daily routine moving forward.
No action is too small. No action is insignificant. It is our collective responsibility as humans to be advocates for the protection of our environment, to continue to push the dialogue, and to commit to lifestyle changes that ensure the safety of our planet.
Brands, too, share this responsibility. With large audiences and the ability to captivate, influence, and inspire movements, it is vital that brands create purposeful actions to raise awareness around the many challenges facing our environment, and to implement alternative eco-friendly methods to help solve these issues, in all aspects of their business.
Here are some brands that inspired us by stepping up to the plate on Earth Day this year, reaffirming their commitment to make this planet a better place.
Apple debuted Daisy, a robot that can disassemble iPhones to recover valuable materials, getting one step closer to its goal of making products with only renewable or recyclable materials. Apple is one of the most innovative companies of our time, and inspiring action with inventions like Daisy further stamps their commitment to use technology toward protecting our world’s resources.
Republic Services, the industry-leading sustainable waste disposal company, encouraged its staff, the communities it serves, and its customers to commit to “#1More” action each day to become better at recycling. They released a series of tips to help educate, build awareness, and inspire action in people to recycle properly.
Staples expanded its Electronic Recycling Program to include coffee brewers, and for this entire week, Staples Rewards members who recycle an old coffee brewer at the national retailer can get a $10 coupon for any purchase above $30. Since starting its Electronic Recycling Program, Staples has collected more than 400 million pounds of electronic waste, including ink and toner, which is the weight of roughly 13 Brooklyn Bridges.
Popular outerwear brand The North Face partnered with the National Park Foundation to clean up waste in parks by pulling over 160,000 pounds of single-use plastic bottles and recycling them into “The Bottle Source Collection.” One dollar of every purchase made will be donated back to the parks.
With its new campaign, “Earth Day Every Day,”1 Hotels announced a year-long initiative that will include activations across all properties focused on raising awareness of environmental issues, specifically around saving our shores.
Though not yet an action, ride-sharing service Lyft announced its plans to become completely carbon neutral. If the direct-economy brand can follow through on its promise, millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide can be offset, which would be the equivalent of planting tens of millions of trees or taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road. It’s a lofty goal, but one that would protect the environment and prevent the continuation of mass pollution dramatically if achieved.
As reported by CNET, home automation producer Nest used Earth Day to make an inspiring promise: to install one million smart thermostats at little or no cost to low-income homes over the next five years. The pledge is part of Nest’s “Power Project,” an initiative aimed toward raising awareness around energy efficiency and consumption.
The best marketers don’t sell products. They sell ideas.
Ideas they want you to believe as a consumer. Perceptions that have been thoughtfully designed and delivered. Because in branding, perception is often reality.
But the hard truth is this: The message that marketers want to convey is often not the same message that consumers receive. Your brand isn’t what you tell people it is. Your brand is what people tell people it is.
So, marketers monitor the conversation. They compile metrics from their social platforms, track their mentions, and look at engagement rates. And maybe, the data they’ve gathered is enough to prove the value of their social marketing efforts.
But it’s not enough. Not even close.
The best marketers don’t just monitor the conversation; they listen to the conversation.
Through social listening, you can discover what people are saying about your brand, even if they don’t tag you. This difference is critical, because far more conversations are being had about you than with you.
Social listening can determine what the sentiment is behind these conversations. Social metrics are terrific, but they only tell one side of the story. Having a high number of engaged consumers is great, but only if those engagements are positive. To quote Dan Neely, “Monitoring sees trees; listening sees the forest.”
But unquestionably the biggest power of social listening is its ability to inspire action. Through analyzing the conversations being had around your product, brand, and industry, marketers can identify an entirely new world of opportunities to delight their consumers.
Social listening gives marketers a chance to be directly involved in the consumer experience. It reveals common frustrations that are plaguing your consumers. Then, they use these insights to inform their next business decisions, working to obliterate the gaps, drags, and blocks causing friction for their consumers. Whether it be product development, identifying influencers, or customer care, social listening should influence the way your brand chooses to interact with its consumers.
If social listening isn’t incorporated into your business strategy, you’re operating with blinders on. Simply put, if you aren’t social listening, then you don’t care about your customers, and the customer is king. Always.
No doubt, this makes me an eccentric marketer and an odder ad guy, and casts extreme suspicion on my membership in the creative community.
Marketers are supposed to want to run their own empires – otherwise why spend all that money on a Harvard MBA and all that energy climbing the corporate ladder? Creative directors think the ideal client listens to their presentations, and then applauds. Ad agencies think their job is to please the target audience no matter what the client might think.
I’ve always hated that stuff.
You don’t let your target audience tell you what to be any more than you let your friends tell you who to be. There’s no integrity, surprise or life in that at all. Yet, in many places, it’s the norm.
And you don’t go to a dynamic, growing company – or a turnaround – to run a department like a fiefdom. You go there to be a key member of the CEO’s leadership team. You need that CEO to help you succeed even more than the CEO needs you.
I’ve always sought out clients with vision. Not rude or insulting, but laser focused, blunt, and as domineering about the brand as possible. Sometimes they are articulate. Sometimes they just know it when they see it. Either way, as long as there is really an “it” that will ultimately differentiate the brand in a world of bland, I’m in.
There will be twists and turns. I’ll hang in. I’m in it for the ride and because I believe in the destination.
As a marketing director or CMO, you are going to get the ride of your life working for a Founder CEO, and the twists and turns are no small part of it.
That inertia you feel is the marketing strategy hugging the road of a changing growth strategy. That’s a feeling you’ll rarely get in a big, lazy company.
But if you care about getting to the destination, you’ve got to care about making all the right turns along the way.
It’s exhilarating. But it’s not for everyone. If you can deliver on the business results, if you can be resilient through the twists and turns, and if you can bring on partners who share your passion and resilience, you will become irreplaceable to your visionary leader.
You’ll play your best game along side stunning colleagues. These will be the days and years you’ll never forget.
If you want to make a mark in the world, this is the way. And I’ll see you at the weekly meeting with the Founder/CEO.
People pay us to get people to do things.
And we’re really good at it.
It’s an awesome responsibility.
Changing people’s behavior.
Their decisions and habits.
That’s why we’re not a “performance marketing” agency. Or a “digital” agency. Or a “direct” agency.
That’s why we’re an Inspiring Action agency.
That’s why we only incite more inspiring actions.
And more empowering habits.
And why we use our powers to ignite growth only in organizations that promote those kinds of behaviors.
But responsibility isn’t the only reason.
People bet their careers on our results every day.
We have learned by long experience that inspiring action simply works better.
We learned by being in big, siloed agencies that undermined our results by separating us.
We learned by proving it through results.
That the two most important factors for igniting growth are Inspiration and Action.
Inspiration – is there an idea or experience at the core of the brand that inspires unreasonable passion.
Action – is there urgency and ease and flow and momentum in the funnel of actions that create even deeper engagement and customer value.
Inspiring Action ignites growth by changing behaviors. Each one of us made an inspiring decision to come together.
To use what we’ve learned to inspire action for worthy organizations.
Let me start by saying, we here at DiMassimo Goldstein love a good bar crawl. Be it for a 21st birthday, bachelorette party or a fantasy football draft. A small group of friends hitting up one bar at a time in embarrassing matching T-shirts one person in the group all demanded they wear can be a lot of fun.
And then, there’s SantaCon, when thousands and thousands of overserved Santas, inebriated elves and freaky Frostys takeover the streets and bars of cities around the globe. Every year here in New York, there are articles about bars and businesses bracing for the impact of SantaCon, while neighborhoods fight over who has to host the thing, like relatives arguing over who has to take home an unwanted fruitcake. It’s annoying. It’s inconvenient. And most of all…is that cool for kids to see Santa and his friends acting that way?
At DiGo…we don’t think so.
We noticed that these drunken Santas mostly seem to be of a certain age that is both a.) far from their belief in Santa Claus and b.) far from the stage in life where they would have a child of their own who believes in Santa. And because of this, they don’t realize that their “unique” portrayal of old St. Nick does not go unnoticed by young eyes.
That’s why we partnered with our friends and creative collaborators at Crew Cuts and made this ad to encourage people to #SitOutSantaCon.
We wanted to hear from the children themselves some of the horrors they have witnessed during SantaCon, in order to maybe encourage people who were planning on going to SantaCon to if not sit it out completely, at least please, think of the children.
In just under a week, the video amassed over 20,000 views (and counting). The social campaign received over 50,000 impressions and was picked up by ten different publications, including a write-up in Adweek and a televised feature on Pix11.
Our Facebook event received over one hundred RSVPs – that’s 144 small inspiring actions that together can make a big difference.
Thank you to all who supported the campaign and helped spread the word. We’re looking forward to continuing this mission next year, and with your help, we can end SantaCon in our lifetime.
After he sold his second company to Google, Luis von Ahn received a phone call.
It was Bill Gates.
The richest man in the world, and co-founder of Microsoft, was personally recruiting the young computer scientist to join his team.
But for von Ahn, joining a world-changing company wasn’t enough. Like Gates, he needed to create his own.
So, the Guatemalan-born web wizard —who has become famous for combining humans and computers to solve large-scale problems that neither can solve alone — founded Duolingo, a free, science-based language education platform that is now the most popular way to learn languages online. And while von Ahn’s portfolio consists of several successful ventures, Duolingo is likely to be his masterpiece.
Von Ahn’s passion has always been rooted in the world of academia. A graduate of Duke University, who later received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon, where he now serves as a professor, he knows the education system all too well.
Both sides of it.
He’s seen the prestige of the world’s most elite universities, and the wealth that feeds them. He’s also experienced the resources, or the lack thereof, of the schools in a developing country. This side, sadly, is much more prevalent globally, and it’s the problem von Ahn has made his life work to solve.
In countries like Guatemala, education does not bring equality to social classes, as some may think. It does the opposite. Those with money can buy themselves an education, while those without it can barely read and write. This system sets up career barriers that are almost always insurmountable, and only widens the divide between the upper and lower classes.
By launching Duolingo, von Ahn was taking a seat at the intersection of technology and human behavior, inspired to create a product that could change outcomes in more permanent and integral ways to tackle the global-scale problem of language learning.
The mission was simple: make language education free and accessible to everyone all over the world.
Of the 1.2 billion people in the world learning foreign languages, 800 million of them satisfy three properties:
They are learning English
The reason they are learning English is to get a job
They are from low socioeconomic classes
For these individuals, learning a language can be the gateway out of poverty, but doing so can cost up to $1,000 dollars. Without the money, and no other alternative, the odds are unfairly stacked against them. To change those odds, von Ahn would first have to change behaviors.
Behavior Change Marketing
Learning a language is difficult. Everyone wants to do it, but most give up. The key is making it a habit. Duolingo could never work unless a user visited it regularly, so the success of the company hinged on it becoming a regular behavior, which also meant dislodging other long-held behaviors.
For von Ahn, the environment was technology. How could behavioral design be used to prevent the poor retention rates of other language-learning softwares? How could he reinvent the teaching process to make it a memorable experience worth the consumers’ time?
As the work of behavioral economists has shown us, consumer decision-making is not just about the availability of information. Instead, it’s about how that information is framed and delivered. By framing language-learning as a game, von Ahn was applying behavioral design to keep consumers coming back for more.
He and his team incorporated gameplaying elements to increase engagement. Like other mobile-game apps, Duolingo is friendly and fun. It uses images, video clips, and the microphone on the mobile device to not only help you learn words, but to recite and write them as well.
Behavioral science has proven that marketing efforts that activate goals have a much greater impact on consumers. Duolingo rewards right answers with “points.” Consecutive daily lessons can help the consumer build “streaks.”
“It’s like a video game, where you have to do something every day or you lose your rank,” says Gina Gotthilf, VP of Marketing and Growth for Duolingo.
The streaks give you virtual currency that can unlock bonus skills or purchase outfits for the game’s mascot, a green owl named Duo. Von Ahn picked an Owl because owls are associated with wisdom, and chose to make it green as a joke on the company’s co-founder, Severin Hacker, who’s least favorite color is green (seriously).
An educational resource that’s actually enjoyable to use, Duolingo combines fun with function in a way that no language-learning platform has before.
A major point of differentiation amongst competitors like Rosetta Stone, other than the price, is DuoLingo’s use of Artificial Intelligence. In his research, von Ahn discovered that the hardest part of learning a new language is overcoming the fear of sounding it out in front of others. With AI chatbots, DuoLingo users can practice without pressure, preparing them for real-life conversations without the awkwardness and anxiety that come with the learning process.
The performance data also allows Duolingo to measure how effective different teaching methods are. If a person makes a mistake, or even hesitates to answer a certain question, the app registers that behavior, and will serve a new series of questions to help that person overcome that difficulty.
The Duolingo team has conducted thousands of A/B tests exploring the biases and cognitive shortcuts that affect how people absorb and process information. In doing so, they continue to build on their mastery of behavioral techniques, analyzing how millions of people learn at once, to create the most effective educational system possible, and then tailor it to each student.
For example, if Duolingo wanted to know if people learned faster when being taught plurals before adjectives, or vice versa, they would simply split the next 400,000 users into two groups and test each. Once they have their answer, they can implement it across the entire platform. This allows Duolingo to get smarter and more efficient as the company grows; and it’s working. A recent study by the City University of New York shows that 34 hours of learning a language on Duolingo is the equivalent of an entire university semester learning that same language.
Today, with over 200 million users, it is the most downloaded educational app in the world. In the United States, there are more people learning languages on Duolingo than there are in the nation’s school system.
Outside the U.S., entire countries like Costa Rica and Columbia have adopted Duolingo into every public school that has access to the internet, and the company is currently working on creating offline platforms for countries that do not have stable or reliable internet connectivity.
Von Ahn wanted to show the world that true equality exists only when money cannot buy better educations; and, while he’s just getting started, he realized his impact when he received news about a familiar friend.
Bill Gates used Duolingo to learn French.
The richest man in the world and kids in developing countries – both using the same educational tool to learn.
Some organizations so outperform most organizations that it seems wrong to put them in the same category.
While most organizations fail in their early years, most of the survivors also fail. Among the majority that survive, generating average growth means growing at a few percentage points per year.
Only a small minority are fast-growing companies. Of the fast-growing companies, many are in fast-growing categories. No doubt, the leaders of these companies know that they are beating the odds. Likely, they feel very successful. But the fact is that most of these companies only grow fast quickly for a limited time, and then they revert to the mean — or fail. Particularly in gold rush industries, there may be many fast-growing companies, but nearly all bubbles end in pretty much the same way. They burst.
I’ve long been fascinated with the extreme exception — the company or organization that builds an iconic brand and inspires a movement.
Most businesspeople miss the most important things that make for this kind of success. Perhaps this is because they try to reduce the life of the business to just business. Working closely with the leaders of rare outperforming, high-impact organizations, I’ve always found them to be on a mission to create something very different in the world. While the people at the top of these organizations are typically extremely savvy about business, they haven’t been so much business managers as movement leaders.
Call it “purpose” or “meaning” or “an inspiring idea” that fuels these businesses. Behavior change scientists might call it “a moral frame” that attracts, inspires and encourages the identification we measure as brand affinity, customer loyalty and advocacy.
While most businesspeople seem to judge incentives by the simple measure of whether they bring about the desired action, the leaders of these companies see incentives differently. They realize that all action is not created equal, and they appreciate that the meaning behind the behavior is actually much more important for long-term success and impact. The results of behavioral economics experiments actually bear this out.
Most business managers incentivize action, but great leaders inspire action.
Part of inspiring action is actually forgoing the easy results that could come from generating action with cheap but unaligned incentives. Don’t read that wrong — they don’t forgo the results. In fact, their results are much, much better.
It’s not the results they sacrifice. It’s the ease. Cheap tricks are common, easy to explain and relatively easy to execute. Copying your competitor’s “loyalty” program, for example.
Building a distinct and meaningful brand with an entirely integrated experience is a whole other thing entirely. It just happens to work so much better.