Stewart Butterfield: Email is (not) dead
In 2013, founder and Chief executive Stewart Butterfield created Slack, a messaging apps designed for teams. Over the past years, Slack's team messaging software has gone viral among business users. Valued at 3,8$ billion, the group messaging platform counts 2,7 million daily active users today, 80,000 paid users, including employee teams at Samsung, eBay, Pinterest, the New York Times, the Economist and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA.
With his twenty years in tech, Stewart Butterfield has helped shape the Internet as we know it today. He was previously best known as a co-founder of photo sharing service Flickr, founded in 2004. Flickr was first called Game Neverending, a massive multiplayer online game, which turned into a famous photo-sharing-app acquired by Yahoo for $25 million a year later. Then, Butterfield spent years toiling on a browser-based online game called Glitch, conceptually similar to Game Neverending. But he shuttered it in 2012. Glitch finally became a commercial communication tool called Slack. In just a few years, Stewart Butterfield twice turned video game failure into successful startups. His projects are what we call “pivots”, a trendy term to design when a startup knows a financial failure, shifts to a new strategy and suddenly blooms. Historically, Flickr was one of the original pivots. Butterfiled explains this phenomenon to Business Insider: “Slack, very much like Flickr, came by because, me and a group of people who were also on the original Flickr team started a company, a massive multiplayer online game (MMO) called Glitch. Except this time, it was 2009, and it was very easy for us to raise money thanks to the success of Flickr. But Glitch still failed and after 3 and a half years and 45 people working on it, we realized that we had 50 emails on our company wide email list because we created a tool of communication that was great. And this is something that we wouldn’t have been able to work without again, and so we decided to make a good product for other people, then started building Slack.”
During the last 10 years, Butterfiled’s early game-playing roots played a very important role in the launch of his two main creations. The American entrepreneur’s early experiments were clearly based on the game. His path to success wasn’t so straightforward. “Slack is directly based on our experience of using IRC in the years before we developed Slack. IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat, a protocole that actually predates the web, from the late 1980s. The last people to send messages to protocol channels, like a group of people, a project, or team, instead of an individual. But it also has limitations due to its age. So we built a whole bunch of extensions. We eliminated email and other forms of messaging and it became a very powerful tool.”
August 2013 saw the debut of Slack, a tool that helps teams communicate. Both powerful and playful, the software helps groups of co-workers exchange instant messages and swap electronic files. Described as “a fun place to hang out” and where office workers can work, communicate and learn from one another, Slack has become a “near-addition to the modern office” according to the Wall Street Journal.
« Everyone can have [email]. It can cross organizational boundaries. No one owns it. It’s not some particular company’s platform. Like raw SMS, email will probably be around for many decades to come.”
As a good tool for team communication, Slack is set on revolutionizing the way teams work and minimizing the need for email. Launched as an “email killer”, Slack delivers a blow to the tools of traditional communication. It proved to be a unique platform of collaboration in enterprise, with an easy way of creating a domain, spaces for discussions and channels (chans). Each room of conversation can be either private (limited to a group of guests chosen by the admin) or public to the whole company. Simplicity and power seem to be the key.
« Everyone can have [email]. It can cross organizational boundaries. No one owns it. It’s not some particular company’s platform. Like raw SMS, email will probably be around for many decades to come.” said Butterfield in an interview with Business Insider. “We obviously use Slack for everything internally here at Slack HQ. And many of our customers do as well — but we set up this conversation over email, and I expect that people will set up conversations like this over email 5 years from now, probably 10 years from now. However, Slack does replace the internal use of email.” Even if, for some, Slack is killing emails within a company, external email will never go away. Yet, often described as a “workplace revolution”, when you think about internal use, switching to Slack from email “gives you a lot more transparency”, admits Butterfield.
Since its creation, Slack has known a viral takeoff and an exponential growth. With 6K users in December 2013, 350K a year later, 2 million in December 2015, and 2,7 million in April 2016 the company became the fastest-growing business software applications of all times. The scale of revenue growth is unprecedented, so impressive that Butterfield received an “Innovator” award from the Wall Street Journal Magazine in November 2015, in front of celebrities like Brad Pitt, Karlie Kloss and Robert DeNiro. With 2.7 million daily active users today, Slack has raised nearly 540$ million.
As every successful leading and established company, Slack knows the competition. Other capable apps for inter-office communication, called Hipchat and Yammer, struggle to become the leading collaboration platform. Acquired by Microsoft for $1,2 billion in cash, Yammer joined the Microsoft Office Division in June 2012. Yet with similar approaches, Hipchat, Yammer and Slack differentiate on some functionalities, making the latest the favorite office-oriented chat application among businesses.
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