Stewart Butterfield is a bit of a serial side project merchant, not to mention a dab hand at providing quotable headlines.
But let’s take a step back to 2004, to when Stewart ran a gaming company called Ludicorp. A gaming company that was running out of cash and seriously considering selling the furniture to make payroll.
Their main product was called Game NeverEnding (GNE), and it’s fair to say it wasn’t a runaway success. However, part of the game-playing experience was a side project they’d been working on: an embedded photo-sharing tool that contributed to the wider game.
Butterfield and his team saw that if they could focus on the popularity of this photography aspect, and maybe pivot into something new, it could be their get-out-of-jail-free card.
And so it proved to be.The side event became the main event. They extracted the killer feature and launched Flickr in 2004. Becoming one of the earliest and brightest iterations of the nascent web 2.0 revolution.
(Keep in mind kids, social media and online sharing still wasn’t a ‘thing’ in those days.)
But the best was yet to come. And history was about to repeat itself.
Somewhere, waiting in the future was Slack. To get there, Stewart just had to jump through a few more hoops. (Did someone say resilience?)
Cut to 2008.
For various reasons — which you can google another time — Stewart penned Yahoo a legendary resignation note and returned to his gaming roots. He formed the company Tiny Speck, which created a game called Glitch — a non-violent MMOG.
Glitch had some of the elements of Farmville and Minecraft, and was described as ‘Monty Python crossed with Dr Seuss on acid’. Unfortunately, Glitch the game became Glitch the self-fulfilling prophesy. It tanked.
But just like GNE years before, something buried within Glitch was about to take the company to a whole new level.This time it was a messaging tool — originally written to serve the internal team, streamline communication and keep everybody in the loop.
When Glitch went away, Slack stayed around.
In a masterful pivot, Stewart launched Slack as a global cloud-based team messaging collaboration tool. And to this day, it is the fastest growing B2B application in history, not to mention the fastest company ever to receive a billion-dollar valuation.
Slack stands for ‘Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge’, which we can only assume is a firmly tongue-in-cheek reference. It is used by over 4 million active users each day, and is currently valued at around £4 billion. That’s a big number, but if you want a small one, and an insight into Slack’s biggest competitor, check this out. In the first 4 years of the company, the internal employee mailing list received a sum total of about 50 emails. Period.
Since Stewart has openly stated that email is the ‘cockroach of the internet’, it’s safe to say he was pretty happy about that.
So what makes the guy tick?
Hard to say. This writer is no psychologist, but maybe growing up in a Canadian hippy commune and being christened Dharma Butterfield helped create a free spirit, open mind and curious disposition. (In case you’re wondering, he dropped the ‘Dharma’ and switched to Stewart when he was 12.)
Or maybe it wasn’t the log cabin and lack of electricity. Maybe it was travelling to China alone at 16 or finding himself at Cambridge a few years later, where he picked up a degree in philosophy.
Either way, the guy’s got some serious grey matter and, by all accounts, he cares. He cares a lot.
He cares about his products, about being a good boss, about good coffee, about having ukulele jams in the office at 3pm, and about ice-making machines (seriously, he’s backed at least 3 of them on Kickstarter). But perhaps most importantly, he cares about taking side projects and pivoting them into main events. And does it well.
He’s certainly got a bit of previous experience there, and Slack seems to be the side project that will secure Stewart’s long-term legacy.
He’s spotted the potential in the margins and turned them into multimillion-dollar success stories. But the breakthroughs and game-changing products were successful because something else didn’t work out. I think this is a lesson for us all.
Stewart says that Slack still has a ways to go, but he and his team are continually working to make the product even better. And they are covering all the bases by offering powerful enterprise products.
Little did he know that the while the games they bet the farm on would fail, the tools they used to build them with would become the stuff of start-up mythology.