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'Email is the cockroach of the Internet,' says Slack co-founder

Stewart Butterfield doesn't think email is going away as he discusses the meteoric rise of the highly valued startup that grew from a failed game.

Slack co-founder Stewart Butterfield discusses how a failed game led to the fast-growing business tool.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

DUBLIN -- Fast-growing business tool Slack might be seen as a potential email killer, but its founder believes email isn't going away just yet.

Co-founder Stewart Butterfield discussed the company's progress at Ireland's annual Internet conference Web Summit today. In a session provocatively titled "The Email Killer?" Butterfield described how Slack grew from a failed video game, outlined the chances of a consumer version of the service, and offered a figure to anyone thinking of buying the fast-growing and highly-valued company.

Launched in August 2013, Slack is a collaborative messaging tool that allows workers within a company to chat in groups, work together on projects and search previous correspondence. The service now boasts more than 1 million daily active users and the company is valued as high as $2.8 billion. Its competitors include collaborative software such as Convo, Fleep, Glip and Cisco Spark.

Slack's big selling point is that it replaces those lengthy email chains that send shudders down the spines of many workers. "Email has many benefits as the lowest common denominator for official communications," said Butterfield, but it's "terrible for internal communications," because your conversations are "locked up in your inbox." He argues that with a collaborative tool like Slack you don't start your first day at a new company with an empty inbox -- instead you have the whole history of the company's teamwork even before you turned up.

Butterfield acknowledges that email still has some life left in it, however. He reckons another 30-40 years, in fact, joking, "Email is the cockroach of the Internet!"

Slack is currently focused on helping workers communicate within their business. Butterfield is clear that a consumer version is not on the horizon any time soon. "Never say never," he said, "but it's definitely not on our roadmap."

Like Butterfield's earlier venture Flickr, Slack has its roots in a failed game, when the developers realised their internal communication tool was a better potential product. Despite the failure of the game, Butterfield believes that the concept of playing still informed the development of Slack. "I see games as a substrate of human interaction," he says. "I don't play golf, but I imagine golf is a great pretext to go for a walk with your friends. My dad plays bridge, he doesn't like to play online because there's nothing there, but he also wouldn't invite those people around to his house to do nothing."

The collaborative nature of Slack is its big selling point -- but that also presents a challenge when the team tries to sell it to people. "With most software," Butterfield points out, "you can decide to try for yourself...the hard part [when trying to sell Slack] is getting a whole bunch of people to change their behaviour all at once. That means the crankiest person on the team has a veto!"

Plenty of people have changed their behaviour with Slack, and discussion about Slack's growth inevitably leads to talk of money. The $2.8 billion figure being bandied about dwarfs the $25 million Yahoo paid 10 years ago for Flickr. But Butterfield is sanguine on the subject of money: "You hear people laughing about companies being sold for millions after the creator sold it for $600,000," he says, "but $600,000 is a lot of money -- people literally kill people for a lot less than that."

Of course, everyone has a price. "If someone offered us a hundred billion dollars tomorrow," said Butterfield with a smile, "we'd probably take it."

"On the other hand," he continues, "we're growing really fast, I love the people I work with, our customers are super-happy..." Butterfield acknowledges that the time is right for Slack. "We work hard but we've also had unbelievably lucky timing...there are so many trends that we've caught at the top of the wave. We'll never have a chance like this again."