Stewart Butterfield cofounded Flickr with his wife and then launched a nonviolent MMO that gained a cult following. Today, he’s releasing Slack, a team messaging unifier and archiving app for Mac OS X, Windows, iOS, and Android which got this resounding tweet of approval from Marc Andreessen yesterday. For all his feats, he should be Internet famous. But unlike his other famous Flickr cofounders, Butterfield has been innovating under the radar, attempting to solve one of the hardest problems in business. So how did he get from Flickr to gaming to here?
“Slack is gratifying to work on in the same way that Flickr was,” Butterfield says. “The mission is to make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant, more productive.”
It might sound strange to find a common thread between a photo community, an online video game, and a productivity portal. But Butterfield’s work has always been to get people talking, and he concerns himself with how to architect the environment where people talk. The path Butterfield took to get to this pure vision, however, is a strange one.
“People sometimes forget how early Flickr came,” Butterfield says. “Facebook didn’t add photo sharing till a year after Flickr was acquired by Yahoo.”
Flickr was famously developed as a side feature for the MMO Game Neverending that Butterfield was developing with his then-wife Caterina Fake and the rest of their company, Ludicorp. The team realized that the photo-sharing aspect of the game could be spun off into its own service. This was 2003, and the new Flickr was the first home on the Internet for users to interact with each other’s photos–one of the first gasps of Web 2.0.
Flickr was lauded for its FlickrLive chat service that let users swap photos in real time, a unique novelty in 2004. In 2005, Flickr became the first Internet beast swallowed by Yahoo. Initially, the purchase paid dividends for Flickr users as monthly user storage space was increased from 20 MB to a then-massive 100 MB in Dec 2006. But being enveloped by the Internet titan engulfed the startup team in a sea of competing internal projects vying for precious resources. Flickr was stifled.
“It was impossible to squeeze money to hire people,” Butterfield says. “Even when YouTube was 1/20th of Flickr’s size, they had twice as many people working on it. You just couldn’t do things you wanted to do. There are big plans we had back in 2006 and 2007 that Flickr still hasn’t done.”
Butterfield left Flickr and Yahoo in 2008 with one last cheerful, bizarre letter, his hallmark humor intact as he headed out the corporate door. Free of the competing priorities of the media giant, Butterfield went back to his startup roots.
After six months, he formed Tiny Speck along with several Ludicorp alumni. They returned to gaming with Glitch, a browser-based nonviolent MMO where players roamed the minds of 11 cosmic giants. Rather than fighting each other with swords, Butterfield told CNET, players could have their rival religious factions battle each other for converts.
Glitch launched in Fall 2011. Zany and filled with lore, Butterfield remembers it being described as “Monty Python crossed with Dr. Seuss on acid.” That indescribability confused critics, however, and popularity went to the bland, straightforward Skinner box browser games FarmVille and CityVille. Despite gaining a cult community, Glitch shut down a year later in Dec 2012.
The closure was brutal, Butterfield says. He couldn’t make it through 60 seconds of telling his employees that the game was over without getting upset. Tiny Speck had money left over from VC investment, and paying that back would’ve made economic sense.
Instead, Butterfield and a skeleton crew of Tiny Speck let about 30 employees go, but spent a chunk of the VC money and a solid month finding every exiting employee a job–a move this reporter has never seen in any startup. Then the scrappy studio hearkened back to its Flickr invention and took a hard look at what they could turn into a product.
Butterfield and the rest of Tiny Speck were old-school web folks–they used IRC to communicate during Glitch’s development. Eventually, that wasn’t enough. But instead of choosing a middling team messaging software to improve productivity, Tiny Speck built their own. Then they added hacks to include features. And then added more hacks. And more hacks. So when Tiny Spark pulled the plug on Glitch, they had a customized, turbocharged team communication platform: Slack.
The platform worked so well that after devoting themselves full-time to Slack in January 2013, they left their beloved IRC behind and integrated all communication through it by March. Dogfooding led to rapid feature inclusion. By June, they were inviting friends in other companies to try Slack out for themselves, including folks at Rdio. Positive testimonials from companies including BuzzFeed litter Slack’s website.
Through sheer word of mouth, Slack has gained 16,000 users since opening a quiet beta–viral growth that investor Andreessen called “unprecedented” in yesterday’s tweet. Though his vested interest derives from the millions invested by his company, Andreessen Horowitz, Slack has received constant Twitter love since last fall.
Around Slack’s Fall 2013 soft launch, Tiny Speck released open source all but a few pieces of code and game art as a farewell to the Glitch community. The generous donation of hundreds of hours of code and animation marks Butterfield as much as finding jobs for his laid-off employees at Glitch. He’s gone into the corporate rabbit hole and come out looking for new ways to keep people talking.
Whether it’s in the brain of a cosmic god or making team coordination a library instead of a heap of unmarked file cabinets, Butterfield has breathed new air into the way people communicate with the Internet–all with signature humor.