SLACK ATTACK

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HOW STE­WART BUT­TER­FIELD UN­LEASHED A BIL­LION-DOLLAR BID TO MAKE WORK FUN

IF YOU’RE THE KIND OF PER­SON who bitches in­ces­santly about your cor­po­rate job, Ste­wart But­ter­field has no sym­pa­thy for you. But he does have a rem­edy. His San Fran­cisco–based start-up, Slack, has built a bil­lion-dollar brand by al­le­vi­at­ing the pain of work­place cul­ture. A soft­ware ap­pli­ca­tion that al­lows teams to col­lab­o­rate through group mes­sag­ing, file shar­ing, and per­son-to-per­son chat, Slack re­places the most soul-dead­en­ing rit­u­als of the in­for­ma­tion econ­omy: the re­ply-all e-mail thread, the daily sta­tus meet­ing, and the con­fer­ence call. (It also sup­ports cus­tom emo­jis.) But­ter­field, 41, knows from soul-dead­en­ing. He sold his last com­pany, the photo-shar­ing ser­vice Flickr, to Ya­hoo, work­ing there for three bru­tal years while the Web be­he­moth bled the life from his cre­ation—and then quit­ting with a now leg­endary e-mail. It’s no ac­ci­dent that us­ing Slack can feel more like play than work: Like Flickr, it grew out of a doomed video-game launch. For­tu­nately, as ev­ery gamer knows, you can al­ways respawn and try again. Here’s how he pulled it off. —Jeff Ber­covici

FOR THE FIRST five years of my life, I grew up in a log cabin in coastal Bri­tish Columbia in a very small town, like 300 peo­ple, mostly hip­pies. No run­ning wa­ter, no elec­tric­ity. When I was 12, I changed my name from Dharma to Ste­wart. At that age, you just want to be nor­mal.

FLICKR AND SLACK both started out as games, but they were more about try­ing to build a cer­tain kind of con­text for so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. There are a lot of peo­ple in Sil­i­con Val­ley who say that your ex­e­cu­tion mat­ters a lot more than your idea. The fact that both the ini­tial game ideas failed but some­thing else worked is nice ev­i­dence for that po­si­tion.

THERE’S A LOT that’s wrong with the way we work—bad habits that de­velop around con­trol of in­for­ma­tion, peo­ple hoard­ing in­for­ma­tion as a means of pre­serv­ing their own power. When you’re us­ing Slack, ev­ery­one can see what’s go­ing on be­cause the de­fault mode is public.

FROM THE OUT­SIDE, Ya­hoo was ex­tremely suc­cess­ful. It was mak­ing money; it was still big­ger than Google. But when I got there, I learned what a dis­as­ter of a com­pany looks like from the in­side. There were a lot of vice pres­i­dents, and it was ba­si­cally a turf battle be­tween them. Most of the en­ergy went into pol­i­tick­ing and in­fight­ing. As we scale Slack now, I’m very con­scious of avoid­ing those things.

I’M NOT LIVING like Je­sus Christ, but once you get to the point where it doesn’t mat­ter fi­nan­cially what you or­der when you go out to din­ner, I don’t think get­ting richer makes a huge dif­fer­ence in your level of hap­pi­ness.

I WENT TO GRAD SCHOOL to be­come a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor. A friend of mine fin­ished his PH.D. in phi­los­o­phy and ended up get­ting a ter­ri­ble job in Ken­tucky, not where he wanted to live. That was my fu­ture. This was 1998, the early days of the dot-com stuff. I had a lot of friends who knew how to make Web pages. They were mov­ing to San Fran­cisco, mak­ing twice as much money and hav­ing lots of fun. So I dropped out.

I TEND TO BE a lot more hon­est and trans­par­ent with em­ploy­ees than most bosses are. But I’ve had peo­ple tell me, even those who love work­ing with me, that I’m ter­ri­fy­ing, which is hard for me to imag­ine.

WE LAUNCHED SLACK at ex­actly the right mo­ment. If we had started this prod­uct three years ago, it would not have taken off like this. I can’t tell you ex­actly why that’s true. In 10 years I’ll be able to. Th­ese things are not ob­vi­ous at the mo­ment, but they’re ob­vi­ous in ret­ro­spect.

YOU SEE PEO­PLE in all walks of life who are great, and then you see peo­ple who don’t care and are in­con­sid­er­ate. To all the peo­ple who hap­pily do a good job, I am grate­ful, and to all the peo­ple who do a ter­ri­ble job of sim­ple things, I hate you. If you don’t care about what you’re do­ing, find some­thing else to do.

WITH HIS AD­DIC­TIVE COM­MU­NI­CA­TION APP, SLACK, STE­WART BUT­TER­FIELD BUILT A BIL­LION-DOLLAR BUSI­NESS IN TWO SHORT YEARS. MORE IM­PRES­SIVE, HE MAN­AGED TO MAKE WORK FEEL LIKE FUN.

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