The Slack letter to Microsoft is built on meaningless platitudes

Photo: Stewart Butterfield, Slack

Slack wrote an open letter to Microsoft, ostensibly welcoming it to the market for workplace collaboration systems. It’s a weird hunk of prose, direct and honest on the surface, but fundamentally insincere. The choice to publish this letter — and to fill it with platitudes — makes me question the judgment of the company.

Here’s what happened. On Wednesday, Microsoft launched Microsoft Teams, a product that competes with Slack and connects up with Microsoft products like Outlook, Word, and Excel. Slack has passed $100 million in annual revenue and its success inevitably pushed Microsoft to compete with it. So what’s a startup to do? Slack not only published this open letter, it paid for a full-page ad to post it in the New York Times.

When the audience is murky, writing become weird

Who is this open letter aimed at?

Is it really aimed at Microsoft? Is Slack really offering Microsoft advice on how to get sharing right? If so, it’s a selfless act — but reading the letter doesn’t support those conclusions. None of the advice in it will actually be helpful to Microsoft.

No, the letter is, of course, a letter to Slack’s customers and to the press. So it’s a humblebrag — they want you to read “you should do this” as “we do this right, and we want to make sure you noticed, because Microsoft is going to do it wrong.” This makes the letter come off as insincere. It also shackles the writers, because they can’t go into too much specific detail, or they will make their actual objective too transparent.

On the plus side, the letter is free from jargon, weasel words, and passive voice. It’s very direct and clear. It’s just not believable.

A close reading of Slack’s letter reveals the meaningless platitudes

When I was at Forrester, my first editor, Bill Bluestein, used to scrawl the initials “MP” next to people’s writing. So you’d inevitably have to ask him “What is MP?” “Meaningless platitude,” he replied. The fact he wrote it so frequently that he had an abbreviation for it was telling.

A meaningless platitude is a statement that is so true and obvious that no one could disagree with it. Like “Use your time wisely.” The hallmark of a meaningless platitude is that no one could take the opposite position (“Use your time foolishly.”). Because it is obvious, it carries no meaning — you don’t learn from it. So it wastes space and makes the person writing it look shallow and lacking in insight.

The Slack letter is full of meaningless platitudes, which I’ll highlight. I’ll use italics to show statements that are insincere. And I’ll underline the humblebrags. That way you can see the massive proportion of this letter that is either obvious, fake, or self-serving. My comments in brackets.

Dear Microsoft,

Wow. Big news! Congratulations on today’s announcements. We’re genuinely excited to have some competition.

[No, you’re not. Microsoft entering your market is not a reason to cheer.]

We realized a few years ago that the value of switching to Slack was so obvious and the advantages so overwhelming that every business would be using Slack, or “something just like it,” within the decade. It’s validating to see you’ve come around to the same way of thinking. And even though — being honest here — it’s a little scary, we know it will bring a better future forward faster.

[The “scary” part is the only honest part.]

However, all this is harder than it looks. So, as you set out to build “something just like it,” we want to give you some friendly advice.

First, and most importantly, it’s not the features that matter. You’re not going to create something people really love by making a big list of Slack’s features and simply checking those boxes. The revolution that has led to millions of people flocking to Slack has been, and continues to be, driven by something much deeper.

[No one with any experience in enterprise software thinks the features are the only hard part. Microsoft has been doing enterprise software longer than any other company out there. I bet that they understand that it’s more than features.]

Building a product that allows for significant improvements in how people communicate requires a degree of thoughtfulness and craftsmanship that is not common in the development of enterprise software. How far you go in helping companies truly transform to take advantage of this shift in working is even more important than the individual software features you are duplicating.

Communication is hard, yet it is the most fundamental thing we do as human beings. We’ve spent tens of thousands of hours talking to customers and adapting Slack to find the grooves that match all those human quirks. The internal transparency and sense of shared purpose that Slack-using teams discover is not an accident. Tiny details make big differences.

[“Communication is hard” — ask any two-year old. Or anyone older than that. Is there any problem on earth that is not at its core a communication problem? Meaningless. Platitude.]

Second, an open platform is essential. Communication is just one part of what humans do on the job. The modern knowledge worker relies on dozens of different products for their daily work, and that number is constantly expanding. These critical business processes and workflows demand the best tools, regardless of vendor.

That’s why we work so hard to find elegant and creative ways to weave third-party software workflows right into Slack. And that’s why there are 750 apps in the Slack App Directory for everything from marketing automation, customer support, and analytics, to project management, CRM, and developer tools. Together with the thousands of applications developed by customers, more than six million apps have been installed on Slack teams so far.

[Your friendly advice to Microsoft appears to be shading into a Slack press release. Your ego is showing.]

We are deeply committed to making our customers’ experience of their existing tools even better, no matter who makes them. We know that playing nice with others isn’t exactly your MO, but if you can’t offer people an open platform that brings everything together into one place and makes their lives dramatically simpler, it’s just not going to work.

[Ah, the king of weasel words. “Deeply.” Much more than just regular committed.]

Third, you’ve got to do this with love. You’ll need to take a radically different approach to supporting and partnering with customers to help them adjust to new and better ways of working.

When we push a same-day fix in response to a customer’s tweet, agonize over the best way to slip some humor into release notes, run design sprints with other software vendors to ensure our products work together seamlessly, or achieve a 100-minute average turnaround time for a thoughtful, human response to each support inquiry, that’s not “going above and beyond.” It’s not “us being clever.” That’s how we do. That’s who we are.

[Deep into bragging now.]

We love our work, and when we say our mission is to make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant, and more productive, we’re not simply mouthing the words. If you want customers to switch to your product, you’re going to have to match our commitment to their success and take the same amount of delight in their happiness.

[This is problem with bragging in a letter that’s supposed to be advice to Microsoft. This statement needs evidence. But providing evidence wouldn’t work in a letter to Microsoft. So we get this big wet smooch instead.]

One final point: Slack is here to stay. We are where work happens for millions of people around the world.

You can see Slack at work in nearly every newsroom and every technology company across the country. Slack powers the businesses of architects and filmmakers and construction material manufacturers and lawyers and creative agencies and research labs. It’s the only tool preferred by both late night comedy writers and risk & compliance officers. It is in some of the world’s largest enterprises as well as tens of thousands of businesses on the main streets of towns and cities all over the planet. And we’re just getting started.

So welcome, Microsoft, to the revolution. We’re glad you’re going to be helping us define this new product category. We admire many of your achievements and know you’ll be a worthy competitor. We’re sure you’re going to come up with a couple of new ideas on your own too. And we’ll be right there, ready.

— Your friends at Slack

What Slack should have done

I think the strategy behind this letter is dubious. No one could write this “to” Microsoft and be effective. It’s fake and it reads as fake.

Here’s what I would have done in their place. One of two things:

  1. Be silent for now. Or make a very brief statement (“We see their entry, and we will be addressing it with product features.”) Then make your product better. Then announce what you’ve done.
  2. Alternatively, make a statement on your blog about what you believe in. Make it more specific than this letter, and don’t address it Microsoft. Address it to your customers. Title it “What we have to say to customers in after Microsoft’s announcement.” And don’t publish it in the New York Times.

If you like Slack, that’s great. But do you agree with how they responded to Microsoft, or do you think they should have done what I suggested?

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  1. Agree with your criticism of the writing and messaging. Many ways for slack to write a successful full-page ad in the NYT. (Aside: I do think MPs, used sparingly, can do a lot of legwork in communicating empathy and building trust.) Disagree that slack should have done nothing, or limited their proclamation to their blog. Why? The ad has done what every successful marketing piece or advertisment should do: generate awareness. Look at Google Trends for searches of “what is slack” (and similar queries) and you’ll find a MAJOR bump in numbers.

  2. Also seems to have had the unintended consequence of raising awareness about Teams for MSFT. We are an O365 Enterprise customer and hadn’t heard about this until someone pointed me to this PR move on Slack’s part. Now we are paying attention and will likely trial this internally to replace Slack if it the product does what we need.

  3. While I appreciate your critique of their writing style, I like what they did. Get snarky with the giant, and let him know you’re not afraid; while also letting your customers know that you’re not afraid. But that could be my bias for the little guy.

  4. This article is MP itself. Analysing the letter just means you have a poor understanding of PR. Of course it was fake, because it was a PR stunt. Played by the book. Like Apple did in the 80s with IBM.

  5. All great perspectives. Why do I get the impression of a Fiat 500 expounding its virtues to a Mack Truck rumbling towards it? Letter is certainly full of MP, doubt its effectiveness.