From Rags to Riches
Stewart Butterfield may have started life in a log cabin without running water, but these days he is the proud founder and CEO of Slack, one of the biggest messaging applications in the world.
In fact, Butterfield has proven himself repeatedly as a major player in the software industry, by founding multiple well-known websites and applications including Flickr and a number of gaming platforms.
An Early Start
Canadian born Butterfield discovered a passion for coding and web design when he received his first computer at the tender age of 8.
After teaching himself to code, Butterfield studied at St. Michaels University School in Victoria, British Columbia, earning a BA in Philosophy in 1996. After this, Butterfield went on to complete a Master of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, England, where he specialized in cognitive sciences and the philosophy of the mind.
With such insight into the workings of the mind, it’s no surprise that Butterfield has been able to accurately read the market and create products loved across the globe. And with an original start-up value of $2.8 billion, Slack proved to be Butterfield’s greatest creation very early on. However, the path to Slack’s success was not a smooth one.
Before Slack existed, Butterfield developed a wide breadth of expertise and faced a number of trials and tribulations.
Like many aspiring entrepreneurs, Butterfield strove to establish a number of start-ups in a post-tech bubble landscape. However, if anything is to be learned from his example, it is that failure can lead to even greater success.
The Journey to Success
While Stewart studied Philosophy to both Degree and Masters levels, his love for design and coding still played a heavy role in his life. Not only did these skills help to make him extra cash during college - he helped design websites - it also led to a collaboration in 2000 with his friend Jason Classon. Together, he and Classon launched the start-up Gradfinder.com.
Despite showing promising signs in its early life, the bursting of the -com bubble forced Classon and Butterfield to re-evaluate their position. Both men walked away from Gradfinder.com with a healthy profit (after selling the site) and the experience encouraged Butterfield to broaden his work as a freelance web designer. As a result Butterfield created the ‘5K competition’ in which he challenged would-be designers to create websites under 5 kilobytes – a challenge that you’ll still find online today.
Teaming up with Classon and his then-wife Caterina Fake, Butterfield furthered his passion for design by founding Ludicorp, a start-up interested in building a massive multi-player online game. While this venture failed to work out, it proved to be the stepping stone to his next success – Flickr.
During one lonely night stuck in a New York hotel with food poisoning, Butterfield arrived at a new concept of sharing photos with people online and with this, Flickr was born. As testament to Butterfield’s ability to appeal to a mass market, Flickr is still a well-known website today. As evidence of his commercial and entrepreneurial accumen, the sale of Flickr to Yahoo made Butterfield a healthy $30 million profit.
Following this success, Butterfield returned to his original dream of making a multi-player game and in 2009 he gathered his former co-workers from Flickr and Ludicorp to found Tiny Speck. In 2011 Tiny Speck released the game Glitch which was not only deemed ‘too weird’ by the gaming community but also suffered from numerous technical issues. Yet from this failure, Butterfield discovered a new and greater opportunity, which came in the form of a tool Tiny Speck had originally created to enable players to chat online.
With a rebrand and new positioning this instant-messaging based, team communication tool became Slack in 2013 and has since become the fastest-growing app on the internet. Financed initially by venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins and Andreessen Horowitz, the early $340 million investment has enabled Slack to create an annual recurring revenue of $64 million, attract 930,000 paid seats and maintain an impressive 3 million active daily users.
A Billion Reasons to Admire Butterfield
In 2005, Butterfield was named one of Businessweek’s Top 50 Leaders within their entrepreneur category and he was noted as one of the top 35 innovators in the world (under the age of 35) by MIT Technology Review.
In 2006, Butterfield’s name appeared in Time Magazines ‘Time 100’ as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and in 2015 he was dubbed Wall Street Journal’s ‘Technology Innovator’. This year, Stewart Butterfield also won the Founder of the Year award at TechCrunch’s 9th annual Crunchies.
Today, valued at $1.64 billion Steward Butterfield is proof that tales of rags to riches are definitely possible. Butterfield’s many experiences across a number of businesses have helped him create a company worth billions of dollars. From his losses with Ludicorp and Tiny Speck to his highs with Flickr; each experience has paved the way to educating, enhancing and ultimately enabling entrepreneur Butterfield to find the perfect pivot with Slack.