Slack’s Stewart Butterifeld on learning from failure

Stewart Butterfield

Success, says technology innovator Stewart Butterfield, is a lousy teacher.

From co-founding the photo-sharing service Flickr to launching the multiplayer online game Glitch, Butterfield is familiar with risk. Butterfield’s greatest success, the team messaging application Slack, may have nine million weekly active users, and has earned him accolades in the business world, but Butterfield remains pragmatic about his success.

“It’s definitely still luck,” he said.

“When something works, you don’t know why it works. It’s much easier to learn something from a failure.”

The University of Victoria philosophy alumnus and Peter B. Gustavson School of Business 2018 Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year winner spoke about the triumphs and challenges of the tech industry at a gala honouring him in May.

Butterfield’s successes include when he and his then-partner Caterina Fake launched Flickr in 2004, which they sold to Yahoo the following year for $35 million. In 2009, Butterfield started the gaming company Tiny Speck. In 2012, he shut down the company down after realizing its game, called Glitch, would not succeed.

“I had to stand up and tell people they didn’t have job anymore,” he told the audience.

Butterfield used Tiny Speck’s remaining funds to start a business application called Slack, an internal instant messaging tool built for Tiny Speck staff to communicate. Launched in February 2014, Slack’s customers now include Silicon Valley companies LinkedIn and Google, and the company has nine offices worldwide.

It was while studying philosophy at UVic that Butterfield first used the internet. The year was 1992 and he accessed the world wide web in the basement of Clearihue Building.

“That idea we could transcend geography—that was important,” he said.

Butterfield noted that despite advancements in technology, relationships are still central to good business. And Slack’s purpose is to make communication easier.

“As each of us becomes more productive, we’ve all become more powerful and the bottleneck is coordination between people, the alignment,” he said.

Butterfield also spoke about inclusion and equity in the tech sector. Talent is abundant in the general population, but he said wealth and power are not equitably distributed. Companies, therefore, need to do a different and better job of recruiting marginalized groups.

“We’re doing ourselves a disservice in not having the most talented pool of people we could,” he said. “At Slack we’ve done quite a bit but still have a long way to go.”

Butterfield’s honours include Time magazine naming him one of the 100 most influential people in the world, as well as Butterfield being selected as one of Businessweek’s Top 50 leaders. The Wall Street Journal chose him as the 2015 Technology Innovator of the Year.

Butterfield is the first Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year recipient who is also an alumnus of UVic. After graduating with a BA in philosophy in 1996, Butterfield went on to earn a Master of Philosophy from the University of Cambridge in 1998 before working as a web developer.