Slack is far from the first tech company to steal the idea behind buzzy, audio-based social media platform Clubhouse. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are on it, too. The difference is that Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield didn’t pretend he was rolling out some all-new feature. He said the quiet part out loud—directly to Clubhouse CEO Paul Davison’s face.
Butterfield made his announcement on Clubhouse, in a chat with tech executives that also featured Davison. “I’ve always believed the ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ thing, so we’re just building Clubhouse into Slack, essentially,” Butterfield said. He gave a quick rundown of all the Clubhouse features he planned to replicate on his larger and better-funded platform, and then wrapped up by quipping, “So look out for Clubhouse built into Slack.”
This, of course, is how most big tech companies operate. Despite the fanfare about innovative prowess, they frequently just acquire or copy new startups that come along with clever ideas. For example, when Snapchat came up with the idea of “stories,” short-lived photo posts that would disappear after a day, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter soon stole it. It was a baldfaced play to neutralize a new rival’s competitive advantage by cloning its distinguishing features—and it worked. There are now about twice as many people posting Instagram stories each day as there are daily users on Snapchat.
Slack vs. Microsoft
Butterfield knows plenty about copycat apps. After he launched Slack in 2013, Microsoft came along to talk about buying it from him. When those negotiations fell through, Microsoft created a copycat version of Slack called Teams, which quickly eclipsed Slack and now has 10 times as many users. Butterfield has complained bitterly about Microsoft’s tactics, and Slack filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft in the EU.
Usually, though, tech companies try to hide the fact that they’re copying a competitor by presenting stolen features as original ideas. When Facebook announced its Clubhouse clone, a spokeswoman said: “We’ve been connecting people through audio and video technologies for many years and are always exploring new ways to improve that experience for people.” Twitter announced its Clubhouse copycat as “a small experiment focused on the intimacy of the human voice.” LinkedIn touted its Clubhouse rip-off as “a unique audio experience connected to your professional identity.”
So it’s refreshing to hear Butterfield come out and plainly say “we’re just building Clubhouse into Slack.” It’s the kind of candor you might expect from someone who has been on the other side of the clone wars—and simply accepted it as part of doing business in tech.