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.