It's hard to talk about Stewart Butterfield without getting into his unorthodox path to the heights of tech.
The Canadian entrepreneur spent his early childhood without electricity, taught himself to code, and studied philosophy at Cambridge before falling into a tech career that’s now pitting him against Microsoft and Google.
Butterfield’s biggest business success, Slack, is a corporate communications tool that arouses the kind of devotion that brings to mind Blackberry’s early days—and is aimed at reducing some of the 269 billion emails sent around the world each day. In person, Butterfield is soft-spoken and thoughtful, as one would expect from a guy who once contemplated a career as a philosophy prof. He joined us at RBCDisruptors earlier this week, where we had a chance to talk to him about effective communications, the merits of Silicon Valley and why corporate values are important. Here’s some of what we learned.
An Accidental Success Story
Stewart Butterfield didn’t start out to create either of his startups, Flickr and Slack. They were by-products of his efforts to create web-based, multiplayer games. The gaming ventures went nowhere. But in trying to build shared fantasy worlds, he came up with the photo-sharing software that became Flickr, and later the chat tool that morphed into Slack.
While he knew he was onto something with Slack, Butterfield didn’t initially think the tool would work for large organizations. Slack has 9 million users and counts IBM and Oracle among its biggest customers. While the path may not have been planned, building Slack into the company it is now—a challenger to the mighty Microsoft—was no accident, Butterfield says. “It’s a lot of work.”
An Antidote for Email
Butterfield’s luck with startups shouldn’t obscure his big ambitions. He wants to fundamentally change the way people collaborate, whether they work at IBM or as wedding planners. His solution is Slack, an alternative to the ubiquitous office email that Butterfield says is a “terrible choice” for intra-company communications. To illustrate, Butterfield describes a new hire signing onto corporate email and staring at an empty inbox. If that employee joins an organization using Slack, she or he has access to all the work that’s been done on a given project, right on Day One.
With the average 1,000-person company sending out an estimated 40,000 emails each day, it isn’t surprising that Slack has a community of evangelists.
Slack’s greatest advantage, Butterfield says, is that it provides a high degree of transparency across an organization, and quickly. That gives individuals and teams the clarity and alignment they need to perform their jobs.
The Valley Still Wins
Butterfield said more than once during the event that he’s a “patriotic Canadian,” and he believes Canada has all the talent it needs in terms of engineers, designers and marketers to staff Canadian startups.
So if given the choice, why would he start his next company in Silicon Valley? Butterfield’s answer was one we’ve heard before from entrepreneurs: It’s still the place with the deepest bench strength for recruiting specialized executive tech talent.
Corporate Values Matter. Like Playfulness
Butterfield took a page from Netflix’s playbook in assigning Slack some core values. But he wanted to make sure those values set Slack apart, reminding employees both how they should act and how Slack views them. He suggested any company should think carefully about its corporate values and ensure they tell employees and customers what makes it unique.
In case you’re wondering, Slack’s values include courtesy, playfulness and craftsmanship. Courtesy, for Butterfield, means empathizing with the client and always being open to understanding his or her needs. By emphasizing playfulness, he wants his employees to “look at the world sideways” in order to find creative solutions to problems. Craftsmanship is more than a call to avoid shoddy work—it’s Slack’s way of telling employees their individual work has meaning and value.
China’s Off Limits. Everywhere Else is Fair Game
When it comes to the massive and lucrative Chinese market, many tech companies want in. Slack isn’t one of them: Butterfield said the company isn’t prepared to give Beijing access to the company’s messaging data. But he is targeting the 600 million or so knowledge workers around the world that aren’t in China. He’s doing that by making Slack available in other languages and ensuring it supports specific industries and regulatory environments.
John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and sits on the boards of Queen’s University, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the Literary Review of Canada. His latest book, "Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future", explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.
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