Flickr founder plans to kill company e-mails with Slack

Stewart Butterfield got lucky building a successful product out of a failed game. Now, as he shelves another game, the Flickr co-founder thinks a collaboration tool -- Slack -- could be his second big hit.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
3 min read
Slack on iOS, desktop, and Android. Slack

When Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield and his team realized that their online game Game Neverending wasn't going to be a hit, they turned the game's photo-sharing tool into a stand alone product -- and got lucky.

Flickr was a hit. It quickly caught the attention of Internet giant Yahoo, which bought the site for a reported $35 million in 2005.

Fast forward 8 years and Butterfield is at it again. His new company Tiny Speck, which employs much of the same team as before, shelved its online game Glitch last year. Now, they've taken the customized communications tool the team used to build Glitch and created a new stand alone product -- Slack, a business collaboration tool.

The product is already live in private testing. About 45 companies are using it currently, but Tiny Speck is opening up its sign up list Wednesday for other companies who want to try Slack.

"In the last 15 years, the Microsoft hegemony and Office and Windows worship has broken down and as a result, we've gotten a lot of new and, in most cases, better tools," Butterfield said in an interview with CNET. "But that means information is scattered across a bunch of different tools and there's no one search tool that you can go through to search across all of this."

Stewart Butterfield Tiny Speck

Slack will eliminate the need for internal e-mail conversations and make all your conversations and shared files searchable -- better than other collaboration tools, according to Butterfield. He knows it's an already crowded space. According to Tiny Speck, customers receive 75 percent less email within three days of using Slack.

Butterfield has a straightforward manner, even talking about his respect for another business communications tool, HipChat.

"I think in 10 years from now, no one will be using any centralized systems for internal communications like this and if they use HipChat they will do pretty well," he said, adding, "But, we're better."

Slack combines group messaging, file uploads, and notifications into one tool that syncs across all platforms. This means whatever you do on your iOS, Android, and desktop app or on the Web-based version will be consistent.

New messages are highlighted, with a visual bar separating new content so users don't get lost in the conversation stream. Notifications are efficient. They only pop up on the device that you have open at the moment and if you're not on a device, Slack will send you an email notification. It also integrates with various system tools, like bug trackers or help desk requests, as well as services like Google Docs and Twitter. Slack even has support for iPhone and Gchat emoji for employees who like to add a bit of visual flair.

"We want to do what Gmail did for e-mail. All your communications just goes into one big place and you don't worry about it," Butterfield said.

The company decided not to open Slack up on large scale yet because it will take a lot of man power to help entire teams adopt a new system of communications. A typical Slack team ranges from 5 to 75 people, so Butterfield thinks the product is best for small companies and startups. Or, small teams within a big company, a situation he knows plenty about.

When Yahoo bought Flickr, Butterfield joined the company as general manager of Flickr. He stayed the contracted three years before leaving in 2008. He said the product missed the boat on social, but has the potential to play catch up because of its vast collection of public photos. After all, under Yahoo's ownership Flickr has gone from about 200,000 users to 87 million.

"I think there's a lot of opportunity and one thing that I wanted to do before I left -- but then struggled some to get resources, which was just crazy -- was build an encyclopedia of the world through photos," he said, adding that before CEO Marissa Mayer stepped in, Yahoo was not investing in the innovation of Flickr.

When building a hit product, Butterfield knows there are a lot of factors involved, including resources, timing, and a bit of luck.

"People think I'm smart because Flickr was successful," he said. "I'm lucky. Maybe I'm smart, too. But, I'm lucky."

Time will tell if he gets lucky, again, with Slack.