Slack is about to have a new owner — but no one actually knows what the $200 billion company does

Salesforce logo with question marks surrounding it
Salesforce logo with question marks surrounding it

When Salesforce formally announced its intention to purchase Slack for $27.7 billion yesterday, there was a notable elephant in the room: While Slack has become widely known as a workplace messaging tool, Salesforce is known as a company that, well, lots of people find generally puzzling. Radiotopia co-founder and 99% Invisible host Roman Mars seemed to speak for many when he tweeted in response to the Slack news: “I can finally understand at least one thing Salesforce does.”

Tech writer Justin Pot tweeted almost the same thing. Many others chimed in with similar head-scratching jokey explanations, unflattering comments about the company’s 1,000-foot San Francisco office tower, and at least one assertion that Salesforce confusion reveals “the vaporization of production under late capital.” …

Back in August, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average got its latest makeover — dropping ExxonMobil, Raytheon, and Pfizer, and replacing them with Salesforce, Amgen, and Honeywell — I explained why the world’s most famous stock index is also the most overrated.

Today the Dow crossed the 30,000 mark for the first time, and that’s being treated as significant economic news. But as I explained previously, it makes little sense to treat an index of 30 stocks as offering a real snapshot of where the broader economy stands, or where it’s headed. The argument is just as relevant today, if not more so. Read it here:

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Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

Back in August, as retailers started trying to figure out how to lure back shoppers with the first round of Covid-19 shutdowns (mostly) lifted, off-price chains like T.J. Maxx, Ross, and Burlington stood out for one key reason: their reluctance to make a serious pivot to e-commerce. That’s partly because the name brand suppliers don’t want their super-discounted wares so easily found, and partly because off-price shoppers prefer the in-person “treasure hunt” experience. Among those discounters, T.J. Maxx had the most built-out digital store, but it was distinctly limited and accounted for only 2% of sales.

So it’s notable that parent company TJX is introducing an online sales platform for its houseware chain HomeGoods in 2021, according to The Wall Street Journal. Company CEO Ernie Herman chalks this up to consumers’ lingering reluctance to visit stores as often as they used to, and says the digital option aims to “satisfy our customer base and attract new shoppers.” Still, the company isn’t changing its long-term bet: “Not everybody wants to buy their apparel even online,” Herman says. “They don’t always want to buy a sofa, a chair, an accessory item. They want to feel the fabric.” …

Even with mounting rumors of regulation, the FAANG giants continue to brazenly throw their weight around

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Jeff Bezos testifies via video conference during the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law hearing on Online Platforms and Market Power on July 29, 2020. Photo: Graeme Jennings-Pool/Getty Images

Practically everyone agrees that the biggest and most familiar tech companies — the so-called FAANG gang: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google — are overdue for a regulatory comeuppance. Experts maintain it could be arriving soon: After all, many of these firms’ CEOs have been hauled before congressional committees repeatedly, and rumors of potential antitrust action abound. So how are those threatened giants behaving under that heat?

Well, one popular target of regulatory rumors, Amazon, just announced that it’s using its supersized market power to muscle its way into yet another consumer category: prescription drugs, which it is now promising to make available on a two-day delivery scheme for members of its Amazon Prime service. …

The market is treating it like an impossible-to-predict black swan event—but it’s not

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Photo: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

When news broke early this week that Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine trials were showing surprisingly strong results — 90% effectiveness preventing the virus in preliminary findings — some investors evidently saw it as a total game-changer: Markets broadly surged, and the Dow hit its highest level since February.

Set aside whether following the Dow is a useful exercise under any circumstance; the more startling data comes from the intensity of investors making extreme judgment calls on the future of some individual companies. The wider markets suggested general optimism, but individual shares were being brutally sorted into winners and losers: Carnival Cruise Lines (up nearly 40% on Monday) and other travel stocks soared, while Zoom (down 17%), Peloton (down 25%), and others associated with lockdown trends plunged. …

Off Brand

How companies like Canon are cashing in on the shortage boom

A flower grows from the lens of a Canon camera.
A flower grows from the lens of a Canon camera.
Illustration: Guillem Casasus

Just a few weeks into the pandemic lockdowns, as toilet paper and Clorox wipes were becoming a rarified luxury, another shortage quietly emerged: webcams. Lots of people, suddenly thrust into the now-familiar world of constant Zoom calls, remote classrooms, and videoconferences, were scrambling to buy what had previously been a sleepy product, and there weren’t enough webcams to go around.

Canon, the camera-maker, spotted this shortage early — and saw an unexpected opportunity.

To be clear, Canon did not make webcams, and has no plans to start. But within three weeks its engineering and software teams developed free software that would make it easy for Canon owners to convert their cameras into webcams. “A lot of customers didn’t know it would be feasible to do this,” says Rita Dubey, a senior director of customer experience marketing and strategy at the 83-year-old company. It was “a completely different use case.” …

Probably every brand is in favor of voting. And this election year, in particular, it seems like every brand needs to tell you so — cluttering your inbox and text messages and social media feeds with exhortations to do your civic duty. But as Maya Kosoff convincingly and entertainingly argues, these exhortations are often self-serving and ring hollow. Sure, it’s good for companies to give their employees time off to vote; but beyond that, maybe keep quiet.


Key writing takeaways from the DIY Podcast Expert

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Illustration: Michael Kennedy, originally published in Marker

While doing some research about podcasting earlier this year, I got interested in Nick Quah. He was the creator of a newsletter called Hot Pod, covering podcasts from both a creative and business perspective. He seemed to be the expert on the subject. And somehow he was in Boise? Who, exactly, was this guy? And how did he become an authority? Addressing those questions became my new focus.

And the answers turned out to be quite interesting — and quite telling, I think, about how “expertise” is created now, and the new possibilities for DIYing your way into building an audience, whether you have any formal credentials or not. …

Restaurants are pivoting to drive-thrus—but it’s a foreboding economic indicator

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Photo: Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

If you’re looking to find somebody who is optimistic about the future, you might want to ask a McDonald’s franchisee. According to the latest survey of that group by Kalinowski Equity Research, they’re more upbeat than they have been in over a decade. The caveat is that they’re optimistic about the future of McDonald’s.

And Mickey D’s, which saw Q3 U.S. sales rise 5% and shares rise over 16% for the year, isn’t alone. …

There’s a fine line between a company saying what it thinks and delivering a lecture

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Along with about 10 million other people, I got an email overnight from the CEO of Expensify — an expense management service used by many companies — urging me to vote for Joe Biden, and assuring me that any other vote was a “vote against democracy.” It’s a rather lengthy email, and it evidently went to every Expensify user at every one of its client companies. This, to put it mildly, is an unusual move for a company whose business has nothing to do with politics.

I’ve argued in the past that consumers increasingly want companies to look us in the eye and say what they believe; I’ve also encouraged companies to explicitly give their workers time off to vote. And it seems that Expensify management took a thoughtful approach to its decision— an “inclusive process that really engaged the whole company,” the CEO told Protocol; the letter and its particular elements were broadly discussed in a companywide Slack channel before a group of top employees sorted through the arguments and settled on the final product. …


Rob Walker

Senior writer for Marker by Medium. Longtime contributor to The New York Times (Workologist, Consumed). Author of The Art of Noticing (Knopf).

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