Photo above: Jack Dorsey by Art Streiber
Richard Coad [MDB CCO]
The word "innovation" has become the "word de jour." Corporate CEOs say there isn't enough of it. Visionaries say that our country will be hopelessly behind without it. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about it.
Of course, since it seems to be the current bandwagon, bureaucrats are calling for it, even though they don't know how to get it, teach it, find it, and fundamentally fear it.
The great science fiction writer Frank Herbert, author of the Dune series, had an interesting observation about this.
He said, “Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top of the heap look inept. Who enjoys appearing inept?”
Perhaps one way to better understand innovation is to look at a truly great innovator.
Jack Dorsey is one of the biggest innovators of our time. He has a low profile which probably has something to do with his personality. He describes himself as extraordinarily reserved and shy. Ironically, he's the man who created Twitter. Some people say he's more of a nerd than Steve Jobs because he's a programmer. Many believe he's the intellectual successor to Jobs.
Dorsey started thinking about software programming thirty years ago growing up in St. Louis. He had a speech impediment and spent a lot of time at home playing with computers. He taught himself computer programs before he was a teenager. He was fascinated by trains and maps and spent hours in the train yards. Trains were the beginning of his lifelong obsession to learn how things work in the real world, and translating that to the virtual world. He was intrigued by the messages he heard coming out of the St. Louis emergency dispatch center. At home, he listened to it all on a police scanner. And he was struck by the fact that everyone talked in short bursts of sound, a system of communication that later inspired him to invent Twitter.
"They were always talking about what they're doing, where they're going and where they currently are. And that is where the idea for Twitter came from. Now we all had these cell phones. We had text messaging. And suddenly I could update where I was. What I'm doing. Where I'm going. How I feel. And then it would go out to the entire world."
As a teenager, he created software that tracked the movement of emergency vehicles on a map. Then he tried to get a job with a large dispatch company in New York but there was no contact information on their website. He found a way into their website through a security hole. He wrote them an email and said, "You have a security hole. Here's how to fix it. I write dispatch software." They hired him a week later. "It was a dream come true for a kid."
When he created Twitter seven years ago, he had no idea how big it would become. Today, Twitter now has over half a billion profiles. More than 175 million tweets are sent from Twitter each day. Young revolutionaries used Twitter to communicate the strategy that galvanized the Arab Spring. It was used to force a congressman to resign. Twitter is now a huge marketing tool for Hollywood and big business. The President tweets. The Pope tweets.
When asked what he is most proud of about Twitter, Dorsey said, "...how quickly people came to it and used it in so many different ways. Twitter enabled a person to take a five dollar cell phone and communicate openly with anyone in the world."
He created the code for Twitter with messages that, unlike emails, can be read by anyone in the world. "Twitter is instant and now people can see the entire world and what they're thinking and how they're doing and what they care about and where they're going."
Jack Dorsey does a lot of quiet thinking. Many of his decisions in forming Twitter were not communicated to employees until after they had been made. Not communicating openly about his thinking created some problems for him in his own company. Like Steve Jobs, he was eventually forced out. Two and a half years later they invited him back to help run the company. By then he'd dreamed up a new company. Square.
Dorsey believes Square can also change the world. It's helping transform the way people pay for things.
While Twitter is about messages, Square is about money. It permits anyone with a smart phone to become a merchant. The concept came out of a brainstorming session with a friend named Jim McKelvey, a software ace and an artist. McKelvey ran an art fair and one time he couldn't sell a piece of art because he couldn't accept a credit card. He lost two thousand dollars. That upset him.
Dorsey says, "We spent the week trying to figure out why no one had done this before. We only knew that this was a way to accept credit cards on your phone."
The software is simple and fast, two qualities that are most important to Dorsey. To take a payment, you swipe a customer's credit card through a white square that plugs into an earphone jack. The customer signs a receipt electronically. Department stores don't use it yet but millions of small businesses do. People use it at restaurants and on Craig's List. Both Romney and Obama used it to raise campaign funds. Square grew from zero to 12 billion transactions in three years.
Dorsey is always looking for new but relevant ways to approach things.
To help keep the people at Square motivated, it's not surprising that he did something unconventional. Instead of a company picnic or softball game, he took the company to a walking trail in San Francisco called Lands End. It's near the Golden Gate Bridge and he wanted them to think about the bridge.
"Because we see this bridge as the perfect intersection between art and engineering," says Dorsey. "It has pure utility in that people commute on it every single day."
His point is that when people look at the bridge, they don't think about commuters or how the bridge functions. They admire its simplicity and beauty. He thinks good software should work the same way. It's all part of his larger philosophy.
"Both Twitter and Square aren't just companies," says Dorsey. "They're movements. I want to dedicate my life to my work and I want to have a massive positive impact on the world."
Dorsey already has his eye on the next idea. He wants to be mayor of New York City. Not an obvious idea. But then, none of Jack Dorsey's ideas are.