Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Stewart Butterfield, founder of Flickr.
Stewart Butterfield, founder of Flickr.

Gaming

Flickr co-founder tries his hand at another Web startup Add to ...

The last time Stewart Butterfield invented the future it was by accident.

In late 2003, his Vancouver startup was almost out of money and it had to abandon work on Game Neverending, a Web-based video game heavy on social interaction. The nine-person company stripped down what they had built and what emerged was Flickr, the photo-sharing website that now ranks among the world's most popular.

A year after Flickr launched, Yahoo Inc. bought it for $30-million (U.S.) as the hurricane of social media began to swirl. Mr. Butterfield and co-founder Caterina Fake landed on the cover of Newsweek with the headline, "Putting the 'We' in Web." Today, Flickr holds some four billion photos.

Mr. Butterfield worked at Yahoo for a few years in California, but he tired of the big-company scene and quit in the summer of 2008. He attended a meditation retreat and did some day trading - including a bad bet on shares of Lehman Bros. before the startup itch set in again.

Now he's back in Vancouver, and his new company, Tiny Speck Inc., has big plans to tap the online interactive wave he helped create.

Can Mr. Butterfield hit another grand slam? What's different this time around is the audience for social networking online is far more vast than college kids and computer geeks. And Tiny Speck has some serious Silicon Valley backing that will help his company avoid running out of cash before the job is done.

"The Internet's moving towards fulfilling the promise everyone who was online early saw in it," Mr. Butterfield, 36, said in an interview. "It always seemed everyone would eventually be on it and we're getting to that point. The idea of going on the computer at night to socialize doesn't seem deviant or creepy any more - it's what normal people do."

That includes people like Mr. Butterfield's mother, who recently signed up on Facebook, joining more than 300 million active users and adding to the site's fastest-growing demographic - people older than 35. Ms. Butterfield promptly added her son as a friend.

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.

Such games allow multiple players to develop characters in fantasy realms. The most popular of the bunch is the medieval-themed World of Warcraft. It has more than 10 million subscribers.

Tiny Speck, started by a quartet of the original Game Neverending /Flickr team, including Mr. Butterfield, wants to do for online gaming what Nintendo Co. Ltd.'s Wii did for video game consoles. The Wii's success isn't about better graphics or faster computer processing. Its appeal is about fun, social gaming for everybody, grandmothers and children, not just teenage boys and young men, the core audience of titles like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto .

"There hasn't been, yet, a great realization of play online that we have in the real world, the kind of social interaction people have playing poker or bridge or a board game or a round of golf," Mr. Butterfield said.

Inspired in part by the artistry and sensibilities of writers Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Jorge Luis Borges, Mr. Butterfield says Tiny Speck's goal is to create a "fun and really interesting world with its own rules, absurdist and strange but fully realized, if imaginary."

The game is set for release in the second half of next year and Mr. Butterfield, after the smash hit of Flickr, has serious backers.

The first is Accel Partners, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm that is ranked as the world's top financier. It backs a panoply of companies - it invested the first big venture capital in Facebook, $12.7-million in 2005 - and just this month was involved in two deals together valued at more than $1-billion, when Google Inc. bought mobile advertising company AdMob and Electronic Arts Inc. acquired social media game maker Playfish Ltd. Tiny Speck also counts the creator of the original Web phenomenon Netscape, Marc Andreessen, as an investor.

When Ludicorp Research & Development Ltd. started Game Neverending in 2002, there was no money from Accel Partners. In fact, from the start through the sale of Flickr, the company raised a total of just $900,000, though at the end a funding offer from Accel Partners was on the table. Going with Yahoo, in retrospect, was the wrong choice, in terms of how much Flickr could have been sold for - but at the time, on the advice of veteran investors, cashing in made sense.

The secret of success at Flickr was twofold: Timing and a willingness to change. The timing was the important trends that underpinned Flickr; affordable digital cameras and high-speed Internet at home became common, and people began to communicate via photos ("here's what I'm up to") and share them online.

Flickr's origins were flexible, from coming out of a video game to constant tinkering as Mr. Butterfield and his team listened to ideas and watched how people used the service.

"We had it all wrong in the beginning," Mr. Butterfield said. "We found the correct wrong things to fix."

It was only after the February, 2004, launch that one of the most important features of Flickr was added, the ability to "tag" photos by subject - which makes the ever-growing public collection easily searchable and sparks connections between users - an idea suggested to Mr. Butterfield by friend Joshua Schachter, who started Delicious, a social book-marking website.

Even as the tool was added, Mr. Butterfield figured people would use tags to organize their own photos, but it immediately became a collective device. Users created all sort of categories, such as early favourite "FUH2," pictures of people giving the finger to Hummer H2s.

Looking to 2010, Robert Scoble, the widely followed technology blogger, identifies several "battlefronts" on the Web. Two of them, real-time interaction and social networking, are at the heart of Tiny Speck's work, and the others include high-definition video, which is set to become cheaply available like digital cameras in the past decade, and anything and everything mobile.

Growing up in Victoria, Mr. Butterfield's been around computers since he was a kid. There's a picture of him as a young boy in a yellow Radio Shack Computer Camp cap on his Flickr account and he remembers writing a program in Apple Basic that drew the flags of the world, the simple ones, like France's tricolour.

At the University of Victoria, where he did his undergrad in philosophy with a focus on neuropsychology, cognitive science and linguistics - the workings of the mind - he got an account on the school's Unix server, basically geek heaven. He was also a big Phish fan and connected with other lovers of the jam band to trade tapes. "That seemed to be the principal application" of the Web, Mr. Butterfield joked.

Mr. Butterfield then completed a Master of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge in England but decided against academia and joined the dot-com mania of a decade ago at a web-design firm in Vancouver, four years before Ludicorp started.

His philosophical instincts colour his view of the web, which he first used in 1992 at UVic. He cites the futurist Paul Saffo, who has noted humanity typically overestimates the short-term value of an invention-the Internet, circa 1999-and underestimates its long-term potential.

Mr. Butterfield sees unlimited potential in connection billions of minds. "It's a profound shift," he said. "Maybe more important than anything that's happened before." He pulls back a bit, puts the web in the league of the establishment of agriculture, the domestication of animals for food, the wheel, the printing press.

"It's in the top-tier of things that ever happened."

Follow on Twitter: @davidebner

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories