No more company email?

Flickr cofounder Stewart Butterfield has unveiled a new service called Slack that aims to eliminate the need for company email. (Slack)

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  • Jessica Guynn

SAN FRANCISCO -- Silicon Valley may be best-known for its consumer technology companies. But software is definitely not just for consumers anymore.

The latest entrant: Slack, a flashy new service that makes it easier for co-workers to communicate and collaborate from Stewart Butterfield, founder of a startup in Vancouver, Canada, called Tiny Speck.

Companies selling software to businesses are in the midst of a renaissance here. Designers who grew up on the Web have touched off a wave of innovation, rejecting clunky software in favor of stylish, simple tools that mimic the familiar templates of Facebook and Google.

In Silicon Valley parlance, it's called the "consumerization" of enterprise and Butterfield is a fan.

"People are seeing opportunities on the business side," Butterfield said. "They are displacing things that have not changed in a long time."

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The one thing Butterfield is most driven to change: the universal scourge of email.

His is not the first buzzy startup to focus on changing how people interact in the workplace. Think Facebook veterans Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein’s collaborative software company Asana, or Campfire, a real-time group chat tool for business, not to mention Jive Software or technology giants Google and Microsoft.

But Butterfield has commanded notice since creating the popular photo-sharing service Flickr, which he sold to Yahoo in 2005.

In an interview this week, Butterfield said he remembers all too well how painful it was to use software at Yahoo to schedule a vacation or check on a payroll deduction.

"It was crazy bad. It wasn't just someone did a poor job building the software -- it was as if they had built it maliciously to hurt people," Butterfield said.

But the true culprit for making his life inside corporate walls so unbearable: the relentless time suck of email.

Butterfield recalls his 7-year-old nephew asking him what he did all day long at Yahoo.

"I told him I was super well-compensated by Yahoo to read and write email all day," Butterfield said.

In fact, Butterfield said he became so proficient at email that he could type 50 words a minute on his BlackBerry. Butterfield left Yahoo in 2008.

"Email is more cognitive load and stress than any other interaction on computers," Butterfield said.

He predicts an full-scale revolt against email and says no one will use email to communicate with coworkers within 10 years. He hopes Slack will be the reason why.

The service is designed for people who spend long days in front of computers in small- and medium-sized businesses or on teams inside large organizations. It works on the desktop, iOS and Android.

Like other collaboration tools, it brings together all team members in one central place. It also brings together all of the information scattered across messages, documents, chats and files and across different servers, making it all accessible through a single search box. You can choose to sift through it all, or just search for images or PDF files from a particular person, or a phrase in a Google doc.

"In most organizations, information is lost or is hard to access," Butterfield said. "We bring all the information into one place and make it searchable."

Teams from 50 or so companies testing Slack have reported decreased reliance on email, receiving 75% less in three days, Butterfield said. The teams range in size from five to 75 people.

Butterfield got the old Flickr gang together again to form Tiny Speck. The first project was a game called Glitch that never found an audience. Glitch was shuttered in late 2012. But Butterfield said he saw promise in the messaging technology the team developed. At the time, he said the technology had "applications outside of the gaming world."

It was an interesting parallel to Flickr, which grew out of a feature that let online game players post photos.

Starting today, people can sign up at Slack.com for a free preview. Slack will eventually charge for a monthly subscription, but has not yet decided on pricing, Butterfield said.

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