Community Builder: How to Hack Slack
Claire Wasserman, Founder of Ladies Get Paid, describes how she's using an internal team communication tool to build a network of thousands
“Slack is crack.” Every Monday, that’s how we ended our team meeting. A recurring refrain, we were repeatedly warned that slacking too much probably meant that we just should’ve picked up the phone.Slack came out of the gate in 2009, quickly inserting itself into our work lives as a how-did-we-ever-exist-without-it tool. It facilitated communication between colleagues, instantly eradicating email and pretty soon, phone calls too. Our team got hooked.
I didn’t realize Slack could be repurposed as a community builder until someone at a conference casually mentioned they’d used it as a way for attendees to connect. That sparked my interest and must’ve gotten lodged somewhere in the back of my mind.
Fast forward a few months. My frustration with the wage gap was growing and this clown show of an election was too much to bear. I held a town hall for women to speak up about money. A hundred of us crowded into an apartment and shared stories of botched negotiations, passed over promotions, and the very real glass ceiling that each of us had experienced in some form or another. There was also one among us who stood up and declared, “I am a woman and I make a shit ton of money.” We all cheered.
The energy in that room was electric. It was as if, for the first time, we had a safe space to publicly and without shame, talk about a subject we rarely discussed even with our girlfriends. The women didn’t want to stop talking; New York Magazine wrote that I had to turn off the lights to get people to leave.
On my way home, I scrolled through Slack, catching up on my co-workers’ conversations. As I was about to power down, it struck me: what if all those women could keep the conversation going but this time, through Slack? I created a new account. The next day when I sent a thank you email to everyone who’d attended the town hall, I included a link. This empty shell of a Slack group they would hopefully fill with with their voices and stories. I imagined what the channels could be and all the things its members might discuss.
It’s been four months since that first town hall and twenty thousand messages on Slack have been exchanged. Slack feels like secret clubhouse where we can openly share our stories, voice our challenges and frustrations, free of judgement and free of boys. One channel has now grown into twenty, separated by city and by topic: articles-resources, jobs-collaborations-gigs, advice-mentorship, and most popular, introductions. I’m proud to see the compliments they give one another, “Beautiful work!”, “Let’s connect!”
It’d been absolutely fascinating to watch the interactions unfold on Slack. The best thing about it – besides being free – is that it’s given me a bird’s eye view to user behavior. For example, the topic of negotiation kept coming up, over and over. It quickly became clear that this was a universal struggle and not being adequately addressed. We weren’t going to become better negotiators simply by talking about it. This discovery was enough to start my own company to create an empowered community and teach women the skills they need to get ahead in their careers.
Though the core of my business is offline, the stickiness of it is Slack. Slack is the glue that binds us together between events and it is what gives value to those outside of New York who cannot otherwise participate. It instantly, and with no financial investment, has scaled me. With zero development on my end, it essentially functions as a free social network. In these early startup days where credit cards are my best friend, the fact that Slack costs me nothing is a godsend.
Things I’ve learned:
- Instant scale. Without any effort, we now have women as far away as Australia joining. Slack provides value to those who are unable to attend our events and keeps those who do, in touch.
- Slack = Beta test. By watching how people interact and what they request (i.e. a bunch of women asked me to add a classifieds channel), it indicates to you what you could eventually build in-house. Now you won’t waste precious funds developing something people don’t actually want.
- You’re in control.You decide who comes in and out which is crucial for driving traffic to your site, not Slack (i.e. the only way you can get access to our group is by first signing up at ladiesgetpaid.com)
- Encourage your members to say hi. We have a dedicated #introductions channel. By removing the anonymity, it will create a deeper sense of community.
- Creates sub-communities. By adding different channels you are essentially creating communities within the community. This in turn fosters connections among members who will now have loyalty to each other – and to you.
- Keeps things organized.Slack is organized chaos with separate channels keeping conversation threads sorted, putting Facebook groups to shame. Easily search through conversation chains without infinitely scrolling.
- Get people involved ASAP. You can select certain channels that automatically add new members upon sign up. This gets them immediately engaged and demonstrates to them your core offerings. For example, upon signing up for Ladies Get Paid, you’re automatically added to the #introductions, #articles-resources, #jobs-gigs-collabs, and #advice-mentorship channels. I think you can tell what our business is about just by looking at those channels.
- Find your evangelists.Slack offers a ton of stats that can help you determine, by the sheer number of messages people exchange, who your power users are. As every tech company knows, the first step to market is identifying and empowering your evangelists. Slack is a great place to start. (I should mention that most stats are limited to the paid version. That being said, you can upgrade for a 30 day trial where you’ll find all this information.)
- Mentorship. Slack has a number of integrations that make mentorship and community building even more effective. My two favorites are Google Hangouts and Donut. Hosting a Google Hangout is a great way to engage with members; it can also be easily marketed by simply sending a notification out to everyone within a certain channel. One less email your members receive means one less unsubscribe for you. Donut is an algorithm that randomly pairs members together to encourage them to get together IRL. You can set the frequency – I chose once a month – and the women opt in to the channel. We’re beta testing this in New York only and so far, so good. Now we just need to find a donut shop to sponsor us :)
- Slack won’t create itself. Creating a new channel is sort of like, “When a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, did it make a sound?” When you make a new channel, you need a plan to market it: how does it get communicated? Who hears about it? Those already part of the network and future members may need to be made aware in different ways.
- Not everyone knows about Slack. Because we were so obsessed with it in my last job, I made a silly assumption everyone else was too. It took me a bit of time to realize that a number of people weren’t joining because they either had no clue what it was or they weren’t familiar with how to use it. Now I send an FAQ link as part of new member onboarding and unsurprisingly, engagement has gone up.
I’m not the only one who’s hacked Slack. Everyone from colleges to entrepreneurs to those who serve God have discovered its community building powers. Interestingly, many of them charge an entry fee (average: $30), of which Slack takes no cut. I’m curious if these Slack groups are end destinations in and of themselves, rather than a portal to a larger business. Before you think Slack is about to pivot, they’ve actually resisted increasing calls for features specifically dedicated to community building.
The Ladies Get Paid community has grown organically, in large part because of Slack. I’ve noticed that a woman from a particular company will join, exchange one Slack message and then fifteen other women from her company sign up. Now that’s true word of mouth. It’s even started to get meta: new members who join, cite referrals from other Slack groups. I wonder what it would be like if we all combined, creating a mega braintrust of Slack on Slack on Slack.
My role as the founder and creator of a Slack group gives me both a unique vantage point as well as the responsibility to moderate it. Having the ability to delete is a reminder of my power as the founder. Knowing when to jump in and when to stand back is crucial; when you see queries unanswered, it’s tempting to be the first responder. Instead, encourage your members that “The more you give, the more you get.” Those who help others will in turn, be helped. If you’ve laid out a clear mission, trust that members will self-moderate. In a sense, it’s sort of like setting up a little city where you create the norms and values to which your members subscribe. That being said, it is ultimately them who decides what this group will eventually become.
Today we are over a thousand strong, small enough to feel special but large enough to have continuous conversation. But how long will that last? Part of me fears that more members means more noise; diluted conversation and diminished connections. I worry that men will infiltrate, along with the trolls and the mean girls. I fear we may cannibalize ourselves with the growing number of channels. I also fear that Slack is too good. What if, when we eventually build many of these features in-house, the members won’t want to leave Slack?
In the meantime, I’ll continue to watch the women give each other virtual high fives when they kick ass at work, commiserate when it doesn’t go well, and find comfort in simply knowing that they’re not alone.