Stewart Butterfield Wants Slack to Be Bottom Layer of All Business Communications

Stewart Butterfield didn’t set out to create a business communication tool. In fact, the software that later became Slack, wasn’t even intended as a stand-alone project.

Slack “grew out of software that we used to communicate while we were developing a game,” says Butterfield, the CEO and cofounder of Slack.

In order to communicate with a spread-out team, Butterfield and his colleagues used IRC, one of the oldest chat protocols in existence.

“We built a lot of tools over that,” Butterfield says, particularly the ability to bring other information into the conversation.

While the game wasn’t a success, the team walked away saying “we would never work without a system like the one that we developed,” he says. “That was Slack.”

Since then, Slack has won hundreds of thousands of users, raised $180 million in venture capital and been valued at $1.12 billion.

Butterfield is a finalist for Entrepreneur of the Year in the Canadian Startup Awards. But Slack’s rapid growth caught Butterfield by surprise.

“We underestimated how quickly it would spread outside of the primary use case,” he says.

While Slack was originally aimed at small teams, particularly in high tech, its user base has grown well beyond that. It’s something Butterfield wants to take advantage of, as Slack starts to increasingly target larger customers and improve features that allow of communication between multiple Slack teams.

“We want to be the bottom later of business communication that everything plugs into,” he says. “We want to get to the point where we have tens of millions of users.”

But that means more work for Butterfield and his team. Targeting a larger enterprise market means that the “expectation around user experience and design are different.”

While customers have their own expectations, their might not be as high as Butterfield’s own expectations. The entrepreneur famously called his product a “piece of shit.”

“Part of me hopes I’ll always feel that way,” he says. “We have a lot to do to make it not shitty.”

Despite that, Butterfield says Slack is “in an incredible position.” He says the app “came out at exactly the right time” and, along with his team, he’s “made the right choices.”

Part of that is the fact that Slack’s “four co-founders have worked together for over 10 years,” he says. Within that core group there’s a “nucleus of trust.”

But the team around that nucleus is growing quickly, at the beginning of 2014, Slack was a team of 10 people. It ended the year with a staff of 85.

“It’s really hard to do that,” he says.

Like Butterfield and his co-founders, he says the team is a little older.

“There are more engineers over 40 than the average tech startup,” he says. It’s a “little bit more mature and experienced.”

But with their strong product, “we haven’t had a hard time recruiting,” he says. “It’s a matter of being selective.”

But with Slack’s surging popularity, imitators are bound to follow.

“We’re not going to let what competitors do affect what we do,” he says. Though, at least for now, “I don’t really feel like we have any competitors.”

While Slack has set out to redefine business communications Butterfield doesn’t necessarily see legacy providers as competitors.

“There are many more software companies we’d like to partner with than we’d like to compete with,” Butterfield says.

Photo: Kris Krug