Slack, an Upstart in Messaging, Now Faces Giant Tech Rivals

Last fall, Microsoft announced a direct Slack rival called Teams, to be given free to all 85 million users of its Office 365. At the same time, Facebook made its work collaboration tool, Workplace, widely available free. Atlassian, a smaller company, has signed big customers, too.

As a result, Slack, which built up momentum as a lovable underdog, must fend off some of technology’s largest and fiercest competitors if it wants to be more than a niche tool for small businesses and teams.

Microsoft, for instance, already offers ways for employees to collaborate. And while its offerings have not been viral hits, they have offered boring but important features that big companies demand, like strong data security and regulatory compliance controls.

There is no illusion within Slack that success is certain. But Stewart Butterfield, the chief executive, said small tech companies with new ideas had long defeated larger rivals that tried to copy them. Think of Apple’s beating IBM in personal computing, Google’s beating Microsoft in search and Facebook’s crushing Google in social networks.

One advantage Slack does have is focus, Mr. Butterfield maintains. Microsoft, for example, has numerous Slack-like products including Yammer, SharePoint, Skype for Business and now Teams. The executives who run those businesses within Microsoft must “compete for budget and mind share and attention,” he said, providing an opening for Slack to gain users while Microsoft managers wage internal wars.

Microsoft said users would embrace Teams because it had strong encryption and global support and worked seamlessly with software they already used, like Excel. “We think customers value coherence,” said Bryan Goode, the general manager of Office 365 at Microsoft.

Born From Games

Slack is the product of Mr. Butterfield’s second failed attempt to make a video game. His first, called Game Neverending, had a photo-sharing feature that became…

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