Stewart Butterfield, Cofounder and CEO of Slack | Summary and Q&A

January 21, 2020
Stanford Graduate School of Business
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Stewart Butterfield, Cofounder and CEO of Slack


Stewart Butterfield's journey from creating video games to founding Slack, a messaging app focused on facilitating communication in the workplace.

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Key Insights

  • 🎮 Butterfield's interest in facilitating human interaction through computing technology has been a common thread in his career, from video games to photography to workplace communication.
  • 🖐️ Early adoption and differentiation from competitors played a crucial role in Slack's success.
  • 😥 Providing convenience and addressing pain points can help convince users to adopt new technologies.
  • 🤩 Diversity and inclusion were key values at Slack, and early efforts to hire diverse talent led to a more balanced and innovative workforce.


[MUSIC] >> Hello. >> Stewart, it's a pleasure to have you here today. >> Thank you. >> How are you doing? >> I'm well. >> Cool. So typically we would start these with a question, asking the students how many of you use Slack. But since it's the official communication platform for the GSP, we're going to have to do something a little different. How ... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: How did Stewart Butterfield's upbringing shape his interest in technology?

Butterfield's early exposure to computers and the Internet sparked his fascination with technology, prompting him to teach himself programming at a young age.

Q: Why did Butterfield study philosophy instead of computer science?

Butterfield wanted to pursue a degree in cognitive science, but his university did not offer it. He chose philosophy as it required fewer courses and still allowed him to study the fundamentals of inquiry.

Q: How did Butterfield convince people to use Slack when it was a new and unfamiliar concept?

Initially, it was challenging to convince people to try Slack. However, by emphasizing convenience and addressing pain points in communication, and by gradually introducing features, Slack gained traction and retained users.

Q: How did Butterfield handle the competition from Microsoft's Teams app?

Butterfield recognized the limitations of Teams, such as a smaller user limit and lack of federation between workspaces. He also highlighted the different values and strengths of Slack, such as its focus on user experience and integrations with other tools.


In this video, Stewart Butterfield discusses his background and the creation of companies such as Flickr and Slack. He shares insights on his experiences with starting and shutting down video game companies, as well as the challenges and successes of launching Slack. He also addresses competition from Microsoft's Teams app and the impact it has had on Slack's growth.

Questions & Answers

Q: What were the three statements presented to the audience during the game of two truths and a lie?

The three statements were: 1) Stewart Butterfield was born with the name Stewart Butterfield, 2) He has two philosophy degrees, and 3) Flickr, his first successful startup, was conceived while battling with food poisoning.

Q: Which statement was a lie?

The lie was that Stewart Butterfield was born with the name Stewart Butterfield. In reality, he was born Dharma Jeremy Butterfield.

Q: How did Stewart Butterfield come up with the name Stewart for himself?

As a child, he wanted to be normal and thought Stewart was a normal name. However, he later realized that the name had negative associations in movies and TV shows, except for the character Stuart Little. If he could pick any name today, he would choose Dharma Jeremy Butterfield.

Q: What were the most lasting influences from Stewart Butterfield's parents' parenting?

Stewart Butterfield notes that it is difficult to separate the influence of his parents from what life would have been without them. However, he mentions that his mom's incredible supportiveness, even during difficult moments like a car accident, taught him important lessons. Additionally, his dad's work as a real estate developer, where each project required creating a new business entity, influenced Stewart's perception of the world and business.

Q: Why did Stewart Butterfield teach himself to program at the age of seven?

Stewart Butterfield found computers fascinating, especially the ability to control what appeared on the screen. In 1979 or 1980, he got an Apple II computer and a magazine called Bite that contained programs he could type out in Apple BASIC. This early experience sparked his interest in programming and the possibilities of computing technology.

Q: How did Stewart Butterfield's interest in technology lead him to study philosophy?

Stewart Butterfield wanted to study cognitive science, but his university did not offer it as a degree. Instead, he chose philosophy because it had fewer requirements compared to other fields like psychology. Although he initially found philosophy fascinating due to its historical significance and unanswerable questions, he also pursued interests in neuro psychology as an undergraduate.

Q: Who was the most influential philosopher to Stewart Butterfield?

Stewart Butterfield mentions a range of philosophers he liked, including Aristotle, Spinoza, Klein, and Donald Davidson. However, Decker was particularly influential as it led him to go to Cambridge for his studies.

Q: Why did Stewart Butterfield decide to shift from web designing to starting a video game company and launching Game Neverending?

Stewart Butterfield was drawn to video games because they offered a playful and interactive environment for social interactions. Game Neverending was not a traditional game but focused on social attraction, whimsical humor, and creating a community. While it didn't gain commercial success, it laid the foundation for Flickr.

Q: How did Stewart Butterfield feel when he had to shut down Game Neverending?

Stewart Butterfield felt horrible about shutting down Game Neverending but also acknowledged that it wasn't commercially viable at that time. His focus shifted to Flickr, where the team found a new direction and built a successful platform.

Q: What lessons from Stewart Butterfield's time at Flickr have influenced his leadership at Slack?

Stewart Butterfield mentions the challenges of working in a large organization and the importance of persistence in getting things done. He also notes the difficulties in an environment where the company has stopped growing and the internal dynamics become more zero-sum. These experiences shaped his leadership style and taught him the importance of perseverance.

Q: How did Stewart Butterfield convince companies to use Slack when it was a new and innovative idea?

Stewart Butterfield mentions that initially it was challenging to convince companies to try Slack. It required numerous demonstrations and visits to their offices to show the value and benefits of the product. It also involved finding ways to explain and position Slack effectively, particularly as a new concept.

Q: How did Stewart Butterfield feel when Microsoft launched their Teams app?

Stewart Butterfield initially felt good about Microsoft launching Teams because it validated the idea of team collaboration platforms. However, he acknowledges that Microsoft's resources and integrated tools pose a significant challenge to Slack. He also highlights the importance of Microsoft's leverage with products like Exchange and Outlook that can draw customers to Teams.

Q: How does Stewart Butterfield feel about Microsoft's Teams app in 2020?

While acknowledging the improvements and challenges presented by Teams, Stewart Butterfield also points out the limitations that make it difficult for larger organizations to switch to Teams. He believes that Slack has a significant user base and that there is still a large market of people whose working lives are highly ingrained in email and may eventually migrate to team collaboration platforms like Slack.


Stewart Butterfield's journey from starting video game companies to creating Flickr and Slack highlights the challenges and successes of entrepreneurship. He emphasizes the importance of persistence, adaptability, and effective communication in building successful businesses. The competition from Microsoft's Teams app poses new challenges for Slack, but there is still considerable growth potential in the team collaboration space.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Stewart Butterfield's first successful startup was Flickr, a photo-sharing platform, which was preceded by a failed video game company called Tiny Speck.

  • Butterfield's vision for Game Neverending, the video game developed by Tiny Speck, was to create a whimsical world that fostered social interaction.

  • After shutting down Game Neverending, Butterfield and his team saw an opportunity to improve workplace communication, leading to the development of Slack.

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