9 Years Ago, a Simple Marketing Decision Helped Slack Become a $27 Billion Company

Way back in 2013, the team at Tiny Speck, the developers of Slack, had a marketing problem. Sure, they had built something useful: As a group chat system, Slack worked.

But customers weren’t looking for a group chat system. Marketing the software and its features? As with most things, people buy software to perform specific tasks or solve a problem or need they already know they have. 

Why would I adopt, much less purchase, a “group chat system” for my business if I don’t think — much less know — I need a group chat system, no matter how feature-packed it might be? A solution isn’t a solution when I don’t realize I have a problem.

As Slack founder Stewart Butterfield wrote in a memo to his team:

Our position is different than the one many new companies find themselves in: We are not battling it out in a large, well-defined market with clear incumbents. Despite the fact that there are a handful of direct competitors and a muddled history of superficially similar tools, we are setting out to define a new (my italics) market.

And that means we can’t limit ourselves to tweaking the product; we need to tweak the market, too. 

How? As Butterfield put it, “We don’t sell saddles here.”

His premise was simple. Say your company makes saddles. You could market in terms of price. Leather quality. Comfort. Adjustability. Size or fit or durability. 

Or, instead of selling saddles, you could sell horseback riding. The lifestyle. The feeling. The bond with a horse. The sense of adventure. You could market like Harley-Davidson: freedom, independence, cool, maybe even badass (if being badass is your thing).

You could sell a vision of the person your customers want to be.

That’s what Butterfield did: He decided Slack should focus — both in marketing and future product development — on what its customers could become:

  • More relaxed and productive by knowing information is one search away
  • Masters of their own information who won’t be overwhelmed by the never-ending flow of communication
  • Less frustrated by not knowing what is going on with their team
  • Able to communicate purposively, knowing each question they ask can build value for the entire team

To Butterfield, Slack was selling organizational transformation: helping people and teams be more productive, collaborative, and effective, and with a whole lot less email. Slack was “just” a set of tools to get them to that place. 

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.

Customers? They don’t care about what you sell.

They care about what they get. How it will solve a problem. Meet a need. Help them feel. Help them work.

If you’ve created something new, or are in a relatively niche market, don’t try to sell saddles.

The better you do that — the better you share a vision of the person your customers can become — the more likely you are to be the one they choose to help them get there.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.