When Slack was young: the early years

Steven Loeb · April 3, 2018 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/4b48

Slack started as an in-house communication tool for Tiny Speck, developer of multiplayer game Glitch

As our readers know, Vator has started a series called When they were young.

It's a look back at the modest days of startups, what traction they had in their first few years, and how they evolved. In the end, we hope to provide a glimpse into what great startups looked like in their first few years.

Stories like these are always well received because it reminds us that anyone, regardless of pedigree and environment, can rise above the noise and have great influence. They show us the value of being resilient, persistent, and committed. If we can follow their footsteps, maybe we too can have similar success.

This segment is on Slack.

— Slack's First Year —

Founders (age at the time): Stewart Butterfield (35), Eric Costello (38), Cal Henderson (27), Serguei Mourachov. All four were previous team members Flickr, including co-founder Butterfield. 

Founded: The company starts life on January 1, 2009 as Tiny Speck.

Initial company description: Tiny Speck's first product is a massively multiplayer online game called Glitch.

"It's called Glitch because in the far-distant and totally-perfect future, the world starts becoming less and less probable, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and there occurs what comes to be called the "glitch" — a grave danger of disemprobablization," the company writes on its website.

"This results in a time-traveling effort at saving the future, going back into the minds of eleven great giants walking sacred paths on a barren asteroid who sing and think and hum the world into existence and ... you know what? You'll probably just have to wait and play the game :)"

First funding, at founding: Tiny Speck is founded with seed funding of $1.5 million from Rob Solomon, Marc Andreessen, Jeff Weiner, Bradley Horowitz and Accel Partners.

Product, at founding: As Tiny Speck is developing Glitch, it also begins developing a tool to manage in-house communication for the company, using Internet Relay Chat as the foundation for how employees would communicate with each other. 

Publicity, at six months from founding: In July 2009, Butterfield publicly mentions Tiny Speck for the first time in a Tweet advertising jobs at the company.

First hire, at nine months from founding: In October 2009, Tiny Speck hires its first employee, bringing on Daniel Burka, Digg's creative director, as head designer. 

Press coverage, at 10 months from founding: In November 2009, The Globe and Mail writes a profile of Tiny Speck.

"Tiny Speck hopes to hit the chord of connection that has moved decisively into the mainstream. While still mostly shrouded in secrecy, Tiny Speck is building what's called a massive multiplayer game, and the roots of the genre go back to text-based programs in late 1970s, accessed by early computers and modems," it says.


— Slack's Second Year —

Product, at one year and one month from founding: In February 2010, Tiny Speck unveils Glitch for the first time and begins allowing users to sign up to test it. 

Traction, at one year and one month from founding: At the time of its unveiling, Glitch already has thousands of users in a testing queue.

Press coverage, at one year and one month from founding: In an interview with Gigaom in February 2010, Butterfield discusses the launch of Glitch.

"It’s something I’ve wanted to work on since I was a little kid. When I played SimCity — the original one, I guess, in the mid-80s — I remember always being curious what it would be like to play a game like that, where you got to play from the perspective of one little ant driving around the freeway rather than from the god’s eye point of view. It was the collective or emergent action of all the players that determined the way the simulation unfolded," he says. 

Burka is interviewed by Kevin Rose, his former boss at Digg, a day after the game goes live.

Second funding, at one year and two months from founding: In April 2010, Tiny Speck raises a Series A round of $5 million in 2010 from Accel Partners and Andreessen Horowitz.

Press coverage, at one year and 10 months from founding: In November 2010, Butterfield is interviewed in his Vancouver office by The Georgia Straight, where he describes how Glitch fits into the gaming ecosystem.

"They have the same germ of an idea, but that game was started in 2002 and it's just a totally different world. Technologically, there's a lot more free and open source software, computers are faster, hardware is cheaper and, most significantly, there’s a lot more people online. I think it’s almost the proverbial frog in the slowly boiling water, that we don’t notice what a big change it is that almost everyone’s on Facebook. Almost everyone spends a significant portion of their discretionary time online, whether that’s online sitting in front of a laptop on a browser window or their mobile device, or whatever. People are much more connected to each other through electronic means than they have been at any time in history. And it makes a big different with building a game like this. Just a much bigger audience and a much bigger set of possibilities on how to develop it," he says, when asked to compare Glitch to Game Neverending, company that had eventually spawned Flickr. 



— Slack's Third Year —

Product, at two years and two months from founding: In April 2011, after numerous starts and stops, Glitch enters into beta

"About a year ago we started our very first alpha tests of Glitch. We knew it was going to be a long round of testing (though maybe not this long) and it turned out we were right. Hundreds of features have been added —and nearly as many trimmed or re-thought— thousands of pictures drawn and animations made, hundreds of thousands of lines of code written, all of it powered by support, feedback, patience, (and impatience!) from our testing community. Thank you all, so much, for being an integral part of our journey," Butterfield writes in a blog post.

Third funding, at two years and two months from founding: In April 2011, Tiny Speck raises a Series B round of $10.7 million from Andreessen Horowitz and Accel Partners. Andreesseen Horowitz general partner John O’Farrell joins the Tiny Speck board.

Product, at two years and eight months from founding: In September 2011, Glitch announces its first app, called Glitch HQ, "so you can keep up-to-date with everything happening on the home page," as well as its first developer site.


Launch, at two years and eight months from founding: On September 27, 2011, Glitch launches to the public.

"Our vision for Glitch is to bring a new level of creativity, beauty and social engagement to players who expect more from their online social gaming experience – an experience that has value beyond traditional forms of entertainment," Butterfield says in a statement. "Glitch is an experiment in culture building. We provide raw materials and a stimulating environment, but it's the players who bring the infinite world alive, shaping it with their imagination."

Critic review, at two years and nine months from founding, one month from launch: In October 2011, The A.V. Club reviews Glitch, giving the game a B+ rating.

"On the other hand, few other games—particularly free, browser-based games that don’t require players to pump endless amounts of cash into the game to advance—allow players so much opportunity to move in and build a true alternate life within a digital space. Glitch players can buy houses and specialize in certain tasks. They can construct items and sell them at auction. They can make new friends and compete in mini-games. In some ways, Glitch feels like a meal made up entirely of side courses, but when all of the sides are this well-done, it almost doesn’t matter that the main meal is absent," it says. 

Unlaunch, at two years and 10 months from founding, two months from launch: In November 2011, Tiny Speck unlaunches Glitch, reverting it back to beta.

"...making radical changes to core game mechanics is something that’s a lot harder to do while the front doors are open and we have to focus on scaling to support growth, stability and providing the quality of service we aim to achieve for the live game. Going back to beta will let us make the changes that need to be made. And so we’re 'unlaunching' — and going back to beta," writes Butterfield. 

"We are more optimistic than ever that Glitch can deliver on its promise of a unique, imaginative world, full of delights and ripe for experimentation and expansion by players — and we know what we have to do to get there. We want to make something worthy of all that love: we want to make the game you deserve to play."


— Slack's Fourth Year —

Product, at three years and 10 months from founding, two years and two months from launch: In November 2012, it is announced that Glitch will be closing.

"Unfortunately, Glitch has not attracted an audience large enough to sustain itself and based on a long period of experimentation and our best estimates, it seems unlikely that it ever would. And, given the prevailing technological trends — the movement towards mobile and especially the continued decline of the Flash platform on which Glitch was built — it was unlikely to do so before its time was up. Glitch was very ambitious and pushed the limits of what could be done in a browser-based game ... and then those limits pushed back," the company writes.

"For many of us at Tiny Speck, the creation of something like Glitch was a long-held dream. There's no better word than "heartbreaking" to describe what it feels like to have to do this. And we know that for many of you who poured your creativity, energy and imagination into Glitch and the community, it will be heartbreaking as well. We are sorry to have let you down."

On Twitter, Butterfield makes it clear that, though Glitch is closing, Tiny Speck will still remain in operation.

Product, at three years and 11 months from founding, two years and three months from launch: In November 2012, Tiny Speck begins working on Slack, a version of its own in-house workplace collaboration tool.

"IRC has this one fundamental concept called a 'channel' and you send messages to the channel rather than to individuals or to groups of individuals as you do in e-mail or most messaging systems. It’s a fundamental shift because the channel can exist before you arrive and it can exist after you leave, you can look into other channels across the system. When you join the organization, whether it’s the next day or six months later or five years later, all of that stuff is archived in all these different channels. And we slowly, over the course of years, built feature after feature, solved the really irritating problems, took advantage of the obvious opportunities. So now fast forward to 2012 at the end of the year, it was apparent that the game wasn’t going to work, like it just wasn’t going to be viable, it was never going to be the kind of business that would justify the $17 million bucks or venture capital investment we had raised, but we all realized we would never work without a system like this one again and so thought that it might be something that the rest of the world would want," Butterfield says in an interview in 2017.


The tool, originally known as Linefeed, is renamed SLACK, which stands for "Searchable Log of All Communication and Knowledge." 

Product, at three years and 11 months from founding, two years and three months from launch: On December 9, 2012, Glitch permanently shuts down. 


— Slack's Fifth Year —

Traction, at four years and four months from founding, two years and seven months from launch: In May 2013, Tiny Speck begins testing Slack with companies such as Cozy and Rdio. It signs up 45 companies in all. 

Product, at four years and eight months from founding, one year and 11 months from launch: On August 14, 2013, Tiny Speck opens up Slack for a larger testing audience.

"That was essentially our beta release, but we didn’t want to call it a beta because then people would think that the service would be flaky or unreliable," Butterfield says in 2015.

Traction, at four years and eight months from founding, one year and 11 months from original launch: Within 24 hours of launch, Slack signs up 8,000 companies. It signs up 15,000 in two weeks. 

Product at four years and 10 months from founding, two years and two months from original launch: In November 2013, 11 months after Glitch is shut down, the game's assets are released into the public domain under a no-rights-reserved Creative Commons license, including more than 10,000 works of art, animations, and code.


— Slack Today —

Slack launched in February 2014 and then the company renamed itself to Slack Technologies in August 2014. In October 2014, the company raised $120 million which valued the company at $1.2 billion. The company has now raised a total of $790 million and is valued at over $5 billion.

Over 50,000 paying companies now use Slack, which has nine million weekly active users, and 43 companies from the Fortune 100.

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