I’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about building communities in my career. Early on I helped start a little meetup called likemind, which brought folks from around NYC together on the third Friday of every month for coffee and conversation. There were no rules or agendas, just a notice posted online and some people talking at a coffee shop in the West Village. Within about two years it had spread to over fifty cities around the world (it’s indirectly responsible for me meeting James). While we tried to find a way to bridge the offline world of likemind online, we never quite found the right solution. Some communities are what they are.

Companies are also a kind of community and I have started two of those. As you grow an organization its effectiveness is deeply entangled with how people work together and within the frameworks of culture and business priority you’ve laid out. For most of my time doing company-building my work community has been hybrid offline/online, though obviously that’s also shifted in the last year as we started Variance to be remote and fully delivered on that idea when COVID hit the world.

Along the way I’ve also been part of a number of online communities and am still active in a few. They share a few key commonalities—curated participants, shared context/understanding, strong community management/moderation—that make them work well. Most recently those communities have moved almost exclusively to Slack and have shaped a lot of how I think about using the tool in service of company-building.

One of my main takeaways has been that more specific channels are better than fewer generic channels. The reason for this is simple: the goal of Slack (or any service like it) is to get people to communicate publicly. To do that requires making people feel safe to post their thoughts. And while lots of specific channels may add some complexity to the overall setup, it makes it much easier for anyone with a thing to say to know where to say it.

Not everyone agrees with me, though. And that’s ok. Mostly because it turns out that Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack, does. Here’s what he said in an interview with Ben Thompson of Stratechery (paywall link, sorry):

So if I have to explain Slack to someone who doesn’t understand it at all, I’ll say something like, you move messaging from inboxes to channels, and channels are better because once you create a channel for everything that’s happening across the company — so every project, every business unit, every office location, every functional team, every initiative, every customer — everyone knows where to go to ask their question, everyone knows where to go to give her update, everyone knows where knows where to go to get caught up on something. So you actually are bridging inside of the company a lot. The customer support agent who can’t solve some problem on their own knows where to go to find the Android developers team, and the sales person who wants to get some more information about the roadmap in some particular area can go talk to the product team, and that structure that’s created of channels inside the organization is really important and the bigger the company, the more complex that gets.

It’s that bit in the middle—“everyone knows where to go to ask their question, everyone knows where to go to give her update, everyone knows where knows where to go to get caught up on something”—that really resonated with me. That’s the goal for Slack channels and, for that matter, all the tools inside the organization. How do you make them more discoverable, accessible, and personal?

In an effort to continue to share best practices, here is the meat of a doc I wrote up about how we use Slack at Variance:

  1. Public > Private: We are a remote-first company, even if you happen to be sitting next to someone, try to use Slack so everyone can see/participate.  This includes direct messages, which should be reserved for conversations that either a) need to be private or b) are wildly off-topic.
  2. Synchronous + Asynchronous: Slack is not just for real-time communication (though it can be great for that). It’s also a place to visibly ask others questions with they can reply to in their own time. Thinking of it in both ways is critical for success.
  3. More specific channels > fewer general channels: This is still up for debate, but it’s my opinion that it’s better to have a few more specific channels that people know exactly what to talk about in than more general ones where people may feel anxious about saying something off-topic. With that said, it’s better to start general and go specific when a topic starts to overwhelm a channel.
  4. Archive > Keep: If a channel is dead, get rid of it. You can always bring it back if you need it. Part of this is also using apps like Dash, which set up temporary channels that expire.
  5. Move to calls when chat won’t due: Sometimes you just can’t communicate the thing you’re trying to communicate with messages. That’s fine. Just kick off a Slack call (or a Zoom call or a phone call). Again, here, if you can just offer it up publicly and others can join in if they want.
  6. Keep Everything Organized: Use prefixes religiously to keep it easy for people to understand what a channel is. Keep bots out of comms channels and label them appropriately.