Slack opened its Asia Pacific digs in Melbourne yesterday and there to cut the ribbon were co-founders Stewart Butterfield and Cal Henderson.
Business Insider sat down with Butterfield to ask why the company chose Melbourne as its regional HQ, as well as taking a tour with architect Fairley Batch, who designed the new $US2 million office in Carlton to align with Slack’s guiding principles: craftsmanship, thriving, solidarity, playfulness, courtesy and empathy.
Talking to Butterfield, it’s clear he’s tired, and no wonder. For the past two years he’s been leading one of the fastest-growing apps in history.
Slack, recently valued at $US2.8 billion, has pulled in more than 2.3 million daily active users in just three short years.
I read previously that Butterfield has a thing for coffee — presumably the thing that keeps him running still.
“Everyone at hot startups drinks a lot of coffee. But you can’t drink just any coffee. Nobody can drink just any coffee anymore and be taken seriously…. And so five times in a row, Stewart stalks past the Starbucks at the corner of Second Street and Folsom. He’s looking for an independent cafe.”
Having arrived in Melbourne — Australia’s cafe Mecca — it seemed only natural he would have already sampled the local grind.
And I was right. He found the highly popular “Brother Bubba Budan” on Little Bourke St, described as “a cafe worth crossing town for, even with all the competition”.
“The crazy thing was on the way there, I passed 15 places — just judging by the design, the espresso machines, the baristas and the clientele -– that were probably all excellent,” Butterfield said.
The coffee and the nightlife in Melbourne were big drawcards for Slack when it was deciding whether the APAC HQ would be there or in Singapore.
Slack also has this thing about craftsmanship. It’s a value they consider to be one of the guiding principles of the company.
“All of the hipster stuff here is grounded in craftsmanship,” said Butterfield, adding that it was an “attractive” fit for the culture of Slack.
“We had a whole giant list and it got down to Singapore and Melbourne.
“The startup scene (in Melbourne) was definitely a factor. A big difference between here and Singapore was the type of people we could hire, it’s a better workforce here.
“Not that there is anything wrong with Singapore but it’s totally different environment here. Good universities, lots of people.”
Melbourne is the fourth Slack office, after Vancouver, San Francisco and Dublin — and soon, New York.
Unlike other companies, which keep offices uniform and consistent, Slack aims to make each office individual.
“Each of the offices is unique. It’s not a McDonald’s,” said Slack’s site development manager Linda Shaw.
“A lot of companies go in and think it should all just be this one way. But it shouldn’t. It should fit the culture of where you’re at.”
And the Melbourne set up is no different.
As soon as you walk out of the elevators, over wooden slats and past the neon Slack sign you’re transported into a rainforest-like space of greenery, raw timber and floor to ceiling glass.
While walking through the office I overheard numerous people comparing the fit out to a day spa. They’re right — you almost expect to hear the soft babbling of a brook or the light trill of a chime.
The fact there are so many plants — 325 to be exact — to create the tranquil feeling means Slack has had to employ a gardener to come in once a week to maintain them.
But don’t think this differentiation means the offices try to distance themselves from one another.
One of the greatest things I saw was a system Slack installed in its kitchen called Perch. Basically, it’s a window into the other office kitchens globally via an iPad and it’s actually awesome.
“For example, I’m from the Vancouver office, and I just has a little chit chat with on of my colleagues yesterday,” said Shaw.
“He was making himself a latte, and I was like ‘Steve, it’s Linda! I’m here in Australia!’
“We feel all really connected. And when new employees do their first week in the San Francisco office they can then come back and still keep in touch with the people they met.”
The company has leased 800 square metres on one floor in the former Maltstore, a 1904 heritage-listed structure built on Swanston Street, Carlton.
With steel fixtures and bare brick walls, the building’s history remains amid the fresh, tropical environment. Two of the concrete silos that once stored ingredients like barley and hops are now a meeting room and lounge. A third remains in its original state at the request of the state’s heritage authority.
The space, which is designed to house 70 employees — currently there are just 16 — is split into two areas: work, the desks and development area, and play, the lounge and kitchen area.
“Our employees work hard for us and we want to treat them well,” said Shaw. “We wanted to create a space where they feel good about coming into work, and I think we really have achieved that.”
One thing you won’t find in the office is the traditonal techy ping pong or pool table.
“Yes, we are a technology company but we’re not Google, we’re not going to have the slides, we’re not going to have the pool table” said Shaw.
“We want an office that reflects a design office, not a tech office. But we do have this layer of fun, but in a subtle way.
“Stewart has always has a philosophy that I really admire, he always says: ‘I want you to come in, I want you to work really hard for eight hours and then I want you go go home and have a life.’
“A lot of companies are like ‘come play ping pong for three hours’, and before you know it, you’re working until midnight trying to get a report out. His philosophy is work hard, go home, be interesting, come back refreshed.”
But the best feature – soon-to-be feature – of the office, is the music Slack has playing in the bathrooms.
Because as Shaw puts it: “People don’t want to hear their colleague’s business.”
The San Francisco office is even known for the French radio station played in bathroom.
“Apparently that’s the most popular thing,” said Shaw.
Here’s a photo tour of the Melbourne digs.
Walking into the office, the decor is a stark comparison of what you would expect of a leading Silicon Valley tech company.
Architect Fairley Batch from Breathe Architecture said the materials and colours used in the office were a conscious choice for Slack, and the attention has been paid to the closest detail.
Patterns in the timber screens and cupboard are even 'abstract Slack logos', said Batch.
Most of what you see, from the tables to the flooring, is made from natural materials.
'It's been crafted in a way that's not standard to relate back to Slack's ideals: craftsmanship, thriving, solidarity, playfulness, courtesy and empathy,' said Batch.
All these materials are sustainable and Australian-sourced.
Even the floor boards are recyclable wood that can be removed for a later purpose.
This is used as an 'all in' space, where on Friday afternoons teams might group together for a presentation or during the week as a break out space.
Batch said the multi-level layer also creates a place for people to sit, rather than having a flat, dead space.
'All those cupboard are full with food, snacks. There's always food for breakfast, we do catered lunches,' said Shaw, who added that she'd had yoghurt and cereal for breakfast there that morning.
It's a video link though an iPad that acts as a window into the other Slack offices.
Linda has seen someone she knows.
This is the Lounge, a chill out area for employee to work remotely from or catch up on a footy game.
'We were told that it is very important in Australia to have the footy on,' said Shaw, 'so at all times there's footy, horse racing and tennis.
'People can come, work from their laptops and still have the game on. Everyone has laptops because at Slack you're never chained to your desk,' she said.
This is one of the two converted concrete silos in the office.
Interestingly, if you stand in the dead-centre your voice is echoed though the room. Cool.
'This room is called irukandji, after the indigenous word for jellyfish,' said Shaw. 'All of our conference rooms are named after animals that kill you in Australia.
'We also have saltwater, dandarabilla, great white, redback and drop bear.'
And yes, that table is inspired by the one in the UN.
All meeting rooms have video conferencing capabilities, part of what Slack do and how they communicate.
Walking between the play to the work area, the designers were conscious about making sure the noise would not travel.
'The area in the middle is pivotal to the office environment because it's a space between the play side, and the work side,' said Batch.
'We needed to find a buffer to prevent noise travelling too far, as well as a space for people to meet in meeting room.'
For this reason the walls are cover with an Australian product called Autex, a recycled PET plastic which helps to dim sound.
Shaw loves the product so much at it has been incorporated into other Slack offices.
Batch said green is the basis of the colour scheme used throughout the office.
'We just have so much greenery throughout the space, it was a natural choice for use to choose that complemented the natural vegetation,' she said.
And also so that those in the meeting room can look out and see the plants, and what's happening.
But should you need privacy there is a 'hire and fire' curtain which follows the circumference of the room and can close around you.
No hot desking here.
'Everyone should have a desk, a little home where they can put their stuff,' said Shaw.
And interestingly you won't find any desk phones.
No phones are allowed in the office space. Should you wish to take a mobile phone call you can do so in the phone booths provided.
'You don’t need to hear the next person’s conversation when you’re concentrating, trying to get work done,' said Shaw.
The reason why this phone booth is so dark is because you need to walk into it for the light to turn on. Many of the lights in the office work off sensors as a means to reduce energy where possible.
Shaw said when outsiders walk into the office and no one is talking they can get the wrong impression, 'but we’re all on Slack, collaborating, telling jokes – it’s great'.
* The writer travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Slack.
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