February 9, 2011

hip to be square

jack dorsey, founder and chairman of twitter and founder and CEO of square, spoke at stanford today and told us to "expect the unexpected and, whenever possible, be the unexpected."

jack demos the square hardware
he started his talk with a story about his dad opening up a pizza restaurant, meeting his mom (the restaurant's first hire), and then having to quit because he promised he'd never get involved with any of the employees. jack was born 10 months later. as a kid, he was obsessed with maps and the urban environment. his first coding experiments involved mapping vehicle paths from his parents' CB radio and police scanners. he talked about plotting out each dot and watching it move across the map -- as a fellow lover of maps and an infographic nut, i really connected with his passion for visualizing a city living and breathing.

he got his first job by hacking into apache's email systems and then emailing the CEO and chairman to inform them of their system's vulnerability to hackers. his first blackberry inspired the early twinkles of twitter in his eye, and the first proto-tweet was about him standing with the bison in golden gate park. he waited with much anticipation for his friends' and family's response. "turns out, no one cared what i was doing," he joked. "so i stored that idea away for later."

after years of working in dispatch, he sought consumer-facing technology experience and went to join evan williams and biz stone at podcasting service odeo. "none of us really cared about podcasts," he explained, so they thought about other ideas. he talked about how exciting SMS was -- its usefulness across devices and service providers, its elegant limit to 160 characters -- "it was rough around the edges, and i love that." they developed twitter with SMS as an inspiration, and the rest is history.

jack encouraged the audience to be the pulse of what's happening right now. "there's no better time for a new idea than in a depression," he explained, as he told the founding story for his latest venture, the mobile payment platform square. a former colleague who worked as a glass blowing artist called jack to tell him he'd lost a sale because the buyer only had a credit card and he didn't have a reader. it only took them a month to develop the software and hardware, a white square that plugs into the audio jack of a smart phone. "i made my first $600 by demoing the product. i'd swipe their cards to transfer $5 -- or $50 if it was a VC."

what's innovative about his vision for square is that payment is this ubiquitous exchange of information, but no one has ever really designed it. he talked about the receipt as a wasted opportunity to be a publishing medium rather than a burden. his vision is to build a POS system that's "gorgeous, easy, and gives google analytics-quality data to real world merchants." although the square hardware is beautiful and potentially game-changing (we all got a free one after the talk), it sounds to me like it's just an entry point -- a starting place for jack's vision of a world where a pain-in-the-ass, antiquated system is redesigned to bring valuable information to all parties. frankly, the real value in square isn't the square itself, but the POS software, the data analytics, and the platform whose API could totally disrupt the way we make payments. he even admitted that it's not their only goal to make credit card payments easier, but that with the advent of near field communication, the whole experience of communicating identity is up for redesign.

when asked about square's plans for growth, he talked about how he enjoys building utilities that go from individual users to larger users. "twitter's a great example," he said, explaining the individual usage. "i like to tweet about what i'm eating. that's not meaningful to 99.9999% of users. but it's very meaningful to my mom." he cited the apple store as the gold standard in the retail space, bringing point-of-purchase to the point-of-decision.

in his tips for success, he emphasized the importance of storytelling, empathy, and developing user narratives. "when i realized i was writing out these user experience stories like a play, i actually started to read plays." he also described his job as CEO of square as an editorial role. "there are a thousand things we could be doing each day, and it's my job to identify the 1 or 2 that are most important." his last piece of advice was about how to be a successful employee, particularly at a place like square. money quote: "you have to make every detail perfect. and then you have to limit the number of details."

exercising his storytelling skills, he closed by telling us that the new owners of his dad's pizza place recently sent him a tweet to tell him they're using square for all their transactions. happy ending.

wanna watch it for yourself? here's the link.


Tucker Bradford said...

I love the idea of square and (though i have had it for several months now) can't wait for an excuse to use it. :) thanks for distilling his talk!

maria lambert said...

Thanks for the detailed summary of the event! The square sounds like it could be a game-changer.

Sanford Dickert said...

Excellent summary. Thanks.

gurusy said...

400 units we give away free at the buyers market of American crafts last week. And several people are happily using them. I am still using my nurit pos because it is faster and prints a paper receipt but there are times I will use my square.