From phi­los­o­phy class to mil­lion­aires’ club

Ste­wart But­ter­field of Flickr says en­trepreneur­s come in all stripes


The bunny flashed across the screen be­hind Ste­wart But­ter­field for only a sec­ond, but the im­pact seemed fit­ting. But­ter­field was be­ing in­ter­viewed for a brief bi­o­graph­i­cal video that was broad­cast at the Uni­ver­sity of Vic­to­ria’s Legacy Awards where the co- founder of Flickr. com was hon­oured as a dis­tin­guished alum­nus Mon­day night.

In that in­stant, he had the at­ten­tion drawn away from him. And that seems to suit him just fine.

But­ter­field, now 35, graced the cover of Newsweek two years ago for a fea­ture on Web 2.0, and was named to Time mag­a­zine’s 2006 list of the world’s most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple largely due to Flickr, which al­lows users to post pho­tos on­line and share them with the world.

But he is the first per­son to de­flect praise to the team that made Flickr a suc­cess and him­self a dot- com mil­lion­aire af­ter sell­ing the com­pany to Ya­hoo for a re­ported $ 30 mil­lion in 2005 — a fig­ure he points out is “ gen­er­ally re­ported as be­ing higher than it was.”

“ I still don’t know how to han­dle it, to be hon­est,” he said of the ac­co­lades and lau­rels that have come his way. “ It cer­tainly in­tro­duces a lot of pres­sure for what­ever’s next.

“ To a cer­tain ex­tent it’s nice for me, I get a lot of the credit, but it was re­ally a phe­nom­e­nal team that made Flickr. It’s a whole group of peo­ple and we should be shar­ing in the credit, but it’s al­ways the boss who gets it.”

The lat­est feather in his cap, the legacy award from UVic, was a spe­cial hon­our, he ad­mit­ted. And he en­joyed his first trip back to cam­pus this week 12 years af­ter he grad­u­ated with a BA in phi­los­o­phy.

“ It is a great hon­our and a very nice night. It was a much big­ger event than I thought it was go­ing to be,” he said of the sold- out awards din­ner at the Vic­to­ria Con­fer­ence Cen­tre.

But­ter­field also spoke to stu­dents dur­ing his trip home to Vic­to­ria with a lec­ture de­signed to as­suage the fears of any hu­man­i­ties stu­dent won­der­ing what the world has in store for them.

“ The ti­tle of the talk was some­what tongue- in- cheek: ‘ How to make a for­tune in ap­plied phi­los­o­phy and other uses of your hu­man­i­ties de­gree’,” he quipped. “ But the mes­sage was that en­trepreneur­ism is a good av­enue for ex­er­cis­ing the kinds of things you learn with a hu­man­i­ties de­gree.”

But­ter­field said the mes­sage he wanted to leave the stu­dents with was to be am­bi­tious and open to all kinds of op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“ I think if you have a good back­ground in what it is to be hu­man, an un­der­stand­ing of life, cul­ture and so­ci­ety, it gives you a good per­spec­tive on start­ing a busi­ness, in­stead of an ed­u­ca­tion purely in busi­ness,” he said. “ You can al­ways pick up how to read a bal­ance sheet and how to fig­ure out profit and loss, but it’s harder to pick up the other stuff on the fly.”

Th­ese days, But­ter­field is tak­ing it easy. He left Ya­hoo in July of this year with the idea of tak­ing the rest of this year off be­fore jump­ing back into some kind of busi­ness.

“ I’m not very good at find­ing the bal­ance,” he said, not­ing it’s usu­ally all or noth­ing with him. “ When I’m work­ing, it’s seven days a week, 15 hours a day, and I did that for more than six years. I needed a break.”

Since leav­ing, he has been trav­el­ling, re­lax­ing and try­ing to make good on a cou­ple of goals — read­ing a lot of the books he’s al­ways meant to, and get­ting into bet­ter shape. “ I read a cou­ple of the books and got into a lit­tle bit bet­ter shape, but I didn’t re­ally pull it off as well as I could,” he said with a laugh.

Next up is a trip through Asia in De­cem­ber be­fore re­turn­ing to the busi­ness world in some ca­pac­ity.

“ I thought very se­ri­ously about start­ing a bank. It sounds crazy, I know, but it’s ac­tu­ally a pretty good time to start a bank,” he said, not­ing that air­lines like South­west and WestJet started at a low time for the tra­di­tional air­line in­dus­try. “ But I will prob­a­bly go back to the web and soft­ware. That’s what I do, and I have a lot of great peo­ple to work with.”


Uni­ver­sity of Vic­to­ria alum­nus Ste­wart But­ter­field tells stu­dents at a UVic lec­ture in Vic­to­ria on Mon­day how he turned a phi­los­o­phy de­gree into a com­pany called Flickr, which he sold to Ya­hoo for $ 30 mil­lion.

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