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Slack CTO and co-founder Cal Henderson speaks to NAR in an interview in Tokyo on Nov. 15.
Interview

Business chat app Slack seeks to crack Asia from Japan

US startup co-founder sees opportunities in South Korea, India

TOKYO -- Slack Technologies, an operator of business chat software, will start offering a Japanese version of its service on Friday, making it the U.S. startup's first attempt in Asia at localization. Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Cal Henderson told the Nikkei Asian Review that his company also sees opportunities in the rest of Asia, particularly South Korea and India.

Japanese will be the fifth language after English, French, German and Spanish the San Francisco-based company is offering. According to Henderson, Japan is promising, because it is an early adopter of technology and people here are willing to try new technologies. He noted that Slack already has 500,000 weekly active users in Japan including those who don't pay to access the service, and he expects the launch of a local-language version to boost numbers.

With the launch of the Japanese version, it has also set up a local customer center and started accepting payment in yen.

About future geographical expansion, Henderson, who was in Tokyo for the launch of the Japanese version, said the company was looking at a few other languages for the next stage. He said the large workforce of information workers definitely offers opportunities, especially in South Korea and India. He pointed in particular to India's mobile workforce who would need a service like Slack. 

Yet, the company doesn't have any plans for similar expansion into China. Henderson said that China was low-priority for the company because the number of users of its English-version Slack remained low.

The U.S. company has raised a total of $540 million of capital via 10 rounds of funding, according to Henderson. Among the investors are a fund run by Japan's SoftBank Group and Accel, a Silicon Valley venture capital.

The Slack app allows users to have group chats on "channels" -- set by topic -- within an organization they belong to. It has 2 million paying users, of which about 20% are in the Asia-Pacific region, Henderson said. Revenues are made of payments by users. Big corporate customers include IBM and Japan's internet service provider DeNA, he said.

Slack's "competitors" are emails and SMS that are widely used in office communications, Henderson said. "Over the next decade, 'channels' will replace emails as a primary way people communicate in business," he said. "So, [the] potential is huge."

But Slack faces strong competition -- Microsoft recently started a similar service called Microsoft Teams, and Japan's ChatWork offers another group chat software.

Yet the amount of capital that Slack has managed to raise so far reflects investors' high expectations of the company. Henderson said his company already has "plenty of money" and will develop new functions by using machine learning and artificial intelligence, such as a more personalized way of browsing.

Henderson said capital might be deployed for future acquisitions that would add new functions, although Slack is not actively pursuing a merger or acquisition now. He said the company was open to the right opportunities and that a listing in the future is "possible" although there were no immediate plans.

Henderson is previously led the technical development of Flickr, an American photo-sharing service now owned by Yahoo.

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