Last July, TechCrunch ran an item about Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield's recent tweet that his new company was hiring.
"Maybe I make a terrible boss, but at least I know it," he tweeted. "Work with me." And based on that tiny little missive, his until-then unknown start-up Tiny Speck was flooded with job applicants hoping they join Butterfield as he and his partners made a second attempt at catching lightning in the Web 2.0 bottle.
Of course, no one knew at that point what Tiny Speck was up to, beyond the fact that the start-up was hiring a creative production team lead. Much informed speculation pegged the effort at some kind of social gaming initiative.
On Tuesday,that Tiny Speck is building an online social game called Glitch, and that it has just launched its private alpha. The game is intended for a public launch sometime in the second half of this year.
It's always hard to know, of course, how a start-up will do. But Butterfield, the company's president, was joined from the get-go (see stop-motion video below of a Tiny Speck meeting) by three other veterans of the early Flickr days--Cal Henderson, Eric Costello, and Serguei Mourachov--and their combined resumes suggest that they have a pretty good idea how to build a Web-centric company.
Butterfield is without a doubt Web 2.0 royalty, having, along with his then-wife, Caterina Fake, helmed Flickr, one of the earliest and most popular services built around user-generated content. They sold the company to Yahoo in 2005 for a reported $35 million, and, like everyone else from the Flickr team who came over in the acquisition--and who stayed put--vested fully after three years.
He was born in 1973 in Lund, British Columbia, a former Norwegian fishing village that "became a hippie refuge in the '60s." The hamlet was popular, he recalled, with educated Americans dodging the Vietnam-era draft, such as his father.
Butterfield went to college at the University of Victoria and subsequently crossed the pond for a master's in philosophy from Cambridge University. His said he had hoped to take philosophy all the way and get a Ph.D. But a friend who'd already followed that path explained his likely future: terrible job security and low pay. "All my other friends were working in dot-coms and making three times as much," Butterfield said.
A little Web consulting later, he landed at the biggest Web development shop in Vancouver, B.C., Communicate.com, and eventually rose to a directorship. But he hated the job so much, he walked away from what he thought was $10 million worth of stock. That was in February 2000, just months before the dot-com bubble burst.
From there, he helped another friend found a small company called GradFinder--think Classmates.com for grad students--and they quickly sold it. Butterfield was not part of the team hired by the buyer.
Soon, though, he was the co-founder, along with Fake, of Ludicorp, a company centered on the development of an online social game called Game Neverending. In its short lifespan, the product gained a passionate following, and is still talked about reverently today.
Still, in order to make it a real business, Butterfield, Fake and his team needed cash, and this was 2002, when the aftermath of September 11, the dot-com bust and the collapse of Enron and Worldcom made most venture capitalists hide their wallets. So Ludicorp decided to put most of its energy into developing the social photo-sharing service they'd built into the game, called Flickr, thinking they could "sell it to someone for $1 million and use that to fund Game Neverending."
The rest is history, of course. Flickr became a phenomenon, and it was almost immediately clear that the team needed to put Game Neverending out to pasture.
But the game lives on, in some ways. For example, one of its most passionate players was an Englishman named Cal Henderson. Having impressed the folks at Ludicorp with that passion, he was hired, and when Flickr became the main project, he graduated to head of engineering there. Among his many accomplishments, he designed and wrote Flickr's APIs, which influenced a generation of developments on the Web, including OAuth.
Henderson, now 29, and responsible for everything front and back end at Tiny Speck, was born in Cambridge, the son of two teachers, and got a degree in software engineering, a crucial step towards fulfilling the dream he'd had since he was five years old of being a programmer. In addition to his off-the-charts geek cred for his Flickr accomplishments, he's also a regular conference speaker and literally wrote the book on building scalable Web sites. He also co-created B3ta, a popular clearinghouse for humorous content of all kinds.
Today, Henderson lives in a bright San Francisco loft on the same alley where Second Life publisher Linden Lab got its start. He eats and sleeps the Internet, spends much of his free time playing World of Warcraft and considers himself "a full-on nerd."
The third Tiny Speck partner, and the man who built the Glitch game client, is Eric Costello, a 39-year-old resident of Queens, New York, with an English literature degree and a long history on the Web. A very early blogger, he was also one of the very first people to develop in what became known as Ajax. He's also one of the world's leading authorities on cascading style sheets, and, like Henderson with scalable Web sites, wrote the book on the topic.
At Flickr, Costello was responsible for a wide variety of tasks, including building the photo-sharing site's Flash client.
Also an early Flickr team member, and now Tiny Speck's "Crazy Russian," as well as the one who built the Glitch game server, Serguei Mourachov grew up near Moscow and got a master's in physical-chemistry. He's currently in his early 40s and while he's spent years working on the Web, he once researched the manufacture of artificial diamonds.
In the '90s, he left Russia and ended up living in Brazil for five years. Eventually, he landed in Canada and in the late '90s, was one of the first people working on Java. "When we first started working on Game Neverending," recalled Butterfield, "I tried to hire him, but he was working on his own start-up which did some super esoteric tools for serializing Java process during execution. That's why Flickr was created."
Today, Tiny Speck is up to eight full-timers, including the four founders. Among the early hires was former Digg creative director Daniel Burka, who is now Tiny Speck's director of design. Also on the team, though as a contractor, is the illustrator Vicki Wong, known as Meomi, who designed the mascot for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
And over the next few months, Butterfield said, the company hopes to hire as many as five more staffers, including a vice president of operations and a community manager.