Meet the SA-born chaps who built a Slack for developers

Chat rooms used to be popular hangouts for cyber dating, gaming and a whole bunch of things. Today, they’ve undergone a professional makeover. They’ve become billion dollar communication tools catered for the modern workplace, which is fast-paced, knows no borders and encourages collaboration.

“It’s weird that you end up taking a conference call at home and do Amazon shopping at work. Tech today enables you to do anything from anywhere,” says Mike Bartlett (pictured top right), one of the founders of a chat collaboration tool, called Gitter. He’s talking to me over Skype from his flat in London. I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Cape Town.

Born in South Africa, Bartlett together with Andrew Newdigate (pictured top left), are behind Gitter, a fast-growing instant messaging and chat system for developers and users of GitHub. It joins the plethora of chat collaboration tools like HipChat and Slack available today, each within its own niche.

“Email is probably here to stay to some degree. But it’s really just one of the spectrum of communications that people use,” says Bartlett. “Email is great for well thought out ideas — you raise an issue, present a streaming thought. While chat is very much real-time. It’s about really quick turnarounds.”

Read more: Email is dead… Long live email

Gitter aims to distinguish itself from the rest of the chat tools through its accessibility. Unlike something like Slack, which is built for closed-off conversations within organisations, Gitter supports public rooms and public communities by default.

By focusing on the developer communities of GitHub, so far the London-based company has raked in 275 000 registered users with 1 000 signups a day. While free, it does have a premium option of US$5 per month for private rooms, which have unlimited integrations, users, chat history and so on.

“In all big cities in the world, from London to Cape Town, there are all these GitHub’s happening all the time — creating communities around different languages, source technology, front-end, back-end and designers. So there already was this kind of atmosphere in the industry that we felt,” explains Bartlett.

Newdigate says that 99% of their startup’s communication happens through Gitter. The startup relies on a remote team of nine developers, working from Cape Town, London, Nottingham, Minnesota, Italy, Lisbon and Germany.

Gitter chat room

It’s originally built in Cape Town, though the founders have decided to operate out of the UK. This way they’re within earshot of their investors, who have committed US$2.2-million since the startup launched in early 2014. The investors include Index Ventures, Nexus Ventures Partners among others.

“I still visit Cape Town every six months or so. I’ve always been impressed with the talent coming from South Africa. We’re really interested in building a sort of group there.”

“I’m also just a big city guy,” explains Bartlett. “It’s either big cities or outdoors like the Alps.” It’s the latter where the idea of what is now known as Gitter was born.

It all started while working at Skype in London. Bartlett realised two of the conferencing tool’s biggest shortcomings: Firstly, he found, Skype was very poor in its execution on messaging. Secondly, Skype was poor at executing on enterprise customers.

After leaving Skype, he took some time off and went to a skiing resort in the French Alps for the whole season. This was where he, together with Newdigate, started formulating an idea around what this product would look like.

“It was a more broad purpose, enterprise messaging collaboration tool,” Bartlett said. He then managed to secure some funding for a tool called Troupe.

Little did the pair know that on the other side of the pond, Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield was about to launch team messaging application Slack.

Read more: Slack integrates with Google calendar to remind you of events

“Pretty much half way through the build of Troupe, Slack came out,” Barlett recalls. “It was exactly what we wanted to do. Slack was obviously executed really well and they had pretty deep pockets.” A pivot was in order.

“We basically looked at that situation and thought that we have to build something else, but with the technology that we’ve already built,” he explains.

But whereas Slack is built for private communication among businesses and teams, Gitter is looking to unlock the power of open professional communities. It is therefore able to support rooms with more than 40 000 people, whereas Slack has a 10 000 user limit per group.

“On Gitter, none of the conversations are guarded — anyone on the internet can see these conversations, the archives are Googled, so they’re searchable in the public sphere. Slack doesn’t have that capability at all,” explains Barlett, who adds that they are working on moderation features. “We’re built for public and community first and foremost.”

Gitter will soon allow people with other identities or accounts to sign up, so people without GitHub but with a Google account will be able to sign up and join the conversations. The founders see Gitter’s trajectory as becoming sort of a real-time LinkedIn.

Jacques Coetzee: Staff Reporter


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