As a child, Stewart Butterfield had to endure such degrading conditions as living without electricity. Today, the billion dollar tech guru is nothing but grateful for those time and the effect it had on him.
Stewart Butterfield spent the first five years of his life living on a commune in remote Canada after his father fled the US to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. The young Butterfield and his parents lived in a log cabin in a forest in British Columbia, and for three years they had no running water or electricity.
“My parents were definitely hippies,” says Butterfield, whose mother and father had named him Dharma. “They wanted to live off the land, but it turns out there was a lot of work involved, so we moved back to the city.”
After the family relocated to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Butterfield saw his first computer when he was seven, and taught himself to programme from that very young age.
Fast-forward to today and 46-year-old Butterfield – who founded both photo-sharing website Flickr, and business messaging service Slack – has an estimated personal fortune of $650m.
But perhaps in part due to his unusual upbringing he says he tries to live frugally. “In truth, I feel guilty spending too much money,” he says. “As a Canadian that world seems very strange and alien to me.”
Butterfield says that his seven-year-old self was fascinated by the first wave of personal computers. “I was around seven in 1980, it must have been an Apple II or III that my parents bought,” he says. “I taught myself to code using computer magazines.”
Butterfield – who changed his first name to Stewart when he was 12 – learned to make basic computer games. However, he lost interest in computers while at high school, and ended up going on to study philosophy at the University of Victoria. From there he did a masters in the subject at Cambridge University in the UK.
In 1997, he was about to try to become a professor of philosophy when the internet “really started to take off. People who knew how to make websites were moving to San Francisco, and I had a bunch of friends who were making twice as much, or three times as much, as what professors were making,” he says. “It was new and exciting.”
So, he decided to give up academia and rekindle his love of computers. After working as a web designer for several years, he launched an online game in 2002 with future Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, Butterfield’s then-wife.
The game – called Game Neverending – failed to take off, and the pair were running out of cash. Frantically looking for a plan B, they hit upon the idea of Flickr, going on to build the photo-sharing platform in just three months. Launched in 2004, Flickr was one of the first websites to allow people to upload, share, tag and comment on photos.
Just a year, later the founders sold the firm to internet giant Yahoo, for $25m – although Butterfield has since said this was a “wrong decision” as waiting longer could have meant a much bigger deal. Nevertheless, he moved on to bigger things with Slack.
It was 2009 and he and some partners had set up another online game, and again it failed. It did, however, spark a brainwave. “As we were working on the game, we developed a system for internal communication that we really loved,” says Butterfield. “We didn’t think about it, it was very much in the background. But after a few years we thought maybe other people would like it too.”
It formed the basis for Slack, a service that today boasts eight million daily users, three million of whom pay for the more advanced features, and more than 70,000 corporate clients.
Slack enables employees to communicate and collaborate with each other in groups at work, and it has grown rapidly. IBM, Samsung, 21st Century Fox and Marks & Spencer are just a few big names to have signed up. Following a number of investment rounds, Slack is now valued at $5.1bn.
Regarding the future, Butterfield says that, unlike Flickr, he has no intention of leaving Slack.
“So many things had to go right to get to this position – amazing luck was involved – and I am not so smart that I can just make it happen again,” he says. “So if I ever wanted to see how far I could take it, this would definitely be the time to do that.”
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