Monday 4 January 2016 4:01 am

Flickr and Slack founder Stewart Butterfield on starting one of the fastest growing startups ever

"I lived in Cambridge in the late 1990s, and even then they were working on Silicon Fen,” says Stewart Butterfield. We’re talking about replicating Silicon Valley because, as the founder of Flickr and now team collaboration tool Slack, he’s well placed to comment. And it’s not that he’s picking on Cambridge; the point is that centrally planning a replica tech hub would be near-on impossible anywhere.

“There are some things you can do, but it is a little bit hopeless. When Flickr was acquired by Yahoo, the people that were sitting adjacent to me were Jeff Weiner, now CEO of LinkedIn, and Bradley Horowitz, who’s senior VP at Google. There was the CEO of Groupon, several big-name VCs… the point is that it wasn’t like Yahoo at that time was anything special. It’s just that, if you worked at Ebay, PayPal, Facebook, Apple, all your peers went on to work at or start other companies, and then other companies. The network is incredibly dense. If you want to do interbank finance, you come to London. Media company? New York. And Los Angeles if you want to make movies. That’s just how it works.”

Butterfield himself is a Canadian; his chief technology officer is a Brit. “That’s the great thing about the Valley: anyone can go – but you do have to go there.”

Best laid plans

And Butterfield probably understands how things can just spring up unplanned better than most too. Twice in his life, he’s accidentally built an enormously successful business. In 2004, Flickr was born. But Butterfield hadn’t actually intended to create the photo-sharing platform; he and his co-founders had set out to make a game called Game Neverending – Flickr was just created using a few features from it. And then, the same thing happened again. Having sold Flickr, Butterfield secured investment – £17.5m – to build a new game, Glitch. Years of trying ended in failure, and the team were left with £5m. But along the way, they’d managed to build something: a real-time messaging and searchable archiving system for workplaces.

Slack works across all devices, meaning that, at any given moment, an employee can access messages, shared documents, videos and historic material from their phone, tablet or desktop. It is compatible with numerous applications – from Dropbox to MailChimp. It doesn’t work with email, but businesses using it report a 50 per cent reduction in email use among employees. In two years, Slack’s staff numbers have grown from eight to 300, and 2m people use it every day. The company now has a valuation of $2.8bn.

Its clients range from a dentist in South Shields to the Wall Street Journal, Paypal, Adobe, Salesforce, Ocado and Airbnb. Slack could’ve predicted that Republican Scott Walker was going to pull out of the presidential campaign because his team stopped using it the day before. “For most of the time, we’ve just been trying to keep up with the growth. For 17 weeks, we were growing at 5 per cent a week. It’s actually really difficult to keep up with that. While trying to make sure our customers are okay, we’re hiring new people all the time. Every new person needs to be trained and that means someone else’s time. We’re having to keep pace while also being the cause of future growth.”

Vision present and future

But maintaining a vision is something Slack and Butterfield seem rather good at. “When we were just 50 employees, we tried to be deliberate about the kind of workplace we wanted. Our engineering chief of staff wrote a whole essay on what we look for, and we published it.” As staff numbers grew, “core values” became important. Slack now has six – empathy, courtesy, craftsmanship, playfulness, thriving and solidarity – but Butterfield is keen to not be too “Californian about it”. “When new people come in, I do a CEO welcome. After going through security practices and so on, I joke, ‘we‘ve just had a management offsite meeting to talk about corporate values’. That always gets a chuckle.”

But jesting aside, Butterfield is growing a tech firm at a time when tech “is becoming more and more fashionable”. This isn’t because of vast investment inflows or founder splashes across Vanity Fair, though – it’s because “people are appreciating how much of an impact tech has had on the regular person’s life.” Indeed, applications like Tinder and SnapChat act “as a proxy” for this awareness. “Fifteen years ago, if you used an online dating site, it was definitely perceived as an act of desperation – you know, no-one would admit to doing it. Whereas now, it’s perfectly socially acceptable – ‘we met online’. Chat rooms were the same: seen as deviant. But messaging and photo messaging are mainstream applications. In fact, it now has an obvious and very powerful hold over people.”

Our addiction to technology is something Butterfield refers to as “almost a reverse function of intimacy” – the fact you’ll sit at a meal with those you know best and be on your phone. Yet it’s easy to see how an application like Slack, despite seeming like “more technology”, will make life an awful lot easier – and less technologically intensive – because you can see everything that’s going on all in one place.

And this is important to Butterfield, who is naturally slightly reticent around our always-on world. “It’s like cheap, easy calories. We don’t really know, as a species, how to deal with it, and it’ll take a couple of generations to work it out. In the meantime, there’ll be a cognitive and emotional form of diabetes people go through.” But this isn’t solely negative. Butterfield likens it to “going from a state of being where people frequently starve to death and worry about their children doing so, to being in a position where they don’t have to worry. It’s the tech equivalent of knowing we have to deal with Burger King and KFC, but no-one will ever die of hunger again.”

Slack, he says, is “an iteration. Thirty years ago, the first businesses started switching to electronic mail. This isn’t going to terminate at Slack; it’s a multi-hundred-year arch. This is just the next step of us, as a species, figuring something out.”