The Definitive Guide to Business

5 of the smartest things Slack's co-founder has said about business

Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and chief executive officer of Slack Technologies Inc. at South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival on Tuesday, March 15, 2016.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Stewart Butterfield is the co-founder and CEO of Slack, the work-friendly group chat platform that starts trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday.

He certainly knows a thing or two about business — Slack's reference price is $26 a share, valuing it at $16 billion, and Butterfield sold his previous start-up, photo-sharing company Flickr, to Yahoo for a reported $35 million in 2005.

So what's some of his best business advice? Here are five of the smartest things Butterfield has said about business.

1. As the business grows, you have to grow

"Three years ago, I would have thought that my job is to be smarter than everyone and to make all of the really important decisions," Butterfield told Adam Bryant in December for CNBC's "The Art of Leading." "And there could be a time at a small enough organization where that's more or less true. But it's not the job when you get 100 people or 500 people or 1,000 people.

"Starting to understand what the job actually is was a big breakthrough for me because suddenly I realized how to spend my time, which is not thinking super hard about some decision that we have to make but rather setting the strategy and vision for the company."

He added: "It's about ensuring that the performance of the organization as a whole is as high as it can possibly be, and that it is coordinated, aligned, and able to respond to new information. Those are, I think, the most important things."

2. Listen carefully to customer feedback

Butterfield and his team devoured customer feedback both in Slack's early days when they used every bit as an opportunity to improve the product, and after the company scaled.

"We will take user feedback any way we can get it," Butterfield told First Round Review in 2015. "In the app, we include a command that people can use to send us feedback. We have a help button that people can use to submit support tickets. ... [W]e probably get 8,000 Zendesk help tickets and 10,000 tweets per month, and we respond to all of them,."

3. Start small and focused

When Butterfield and co-founder Cal Henderson were first creating Slack, "We had a lot of conversations about choosing the three things we'd try to be extremely, surprisingly good at," Butterfield told the First Round Review. "And ultimately we developed Slack around really valuing those three things" — search, synchronization and file-sharing.

"It can sound simple, but narrowing the field can make big challenges and big gains for your company feel manageable. Suddenly you're ahead of the game because you're the best at the things that really impact your users."

4. Be able to tell your story well

In a conversation with Reid Hoffman on the "Masters of Scale" podcast, Butterfield recalls that early on, trying to convince people to use Slack was harder than he thought it would be.

"If there was one piece of advice I wish I could phone back and give to myself was just concentrate on that storytelling part, on the convincing people," Butterfield told Hoffman. "Because if you can't do that, it doesn't matter how good the product is. It doesn't matter how good the idea was for the market, or what happens in the external factors if you don't have the people believing."

5. Don't let doubt or indecision slow you down

"For a company like Slack, with our kind of growth, it feels a little bit like parkour," Butterfield said, referring to the urban sport of running, jumping or climbing around obstacles. "You're moving very quickly, opportunistically trying to take advantage of things in your environment," he told Thought Economics.

"In parkour that might be walls or railings but for us it's changes in the market or what our customers need. The consequences are similar; if you hesitate, you're going to crash and probably hurt yourself. It's better to be slightly off in a decision but moving full speed ahead than to let doubt stop you."

Disclosure: Comcast Ventures, the venture arm of Comcast, is an investor in Slack. Comcast owns CNBC parent company NBCUniversal.

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This story originally published on Feb. 5, 2019. It was updated on June 20.