Square’s Jim McKelvey Wants You to Get Real About Innovation

Business and entrepreneurship are two very different animals, Jim McKelvey says. A hundred years ago people drew a clear distinction between them: Unlike other businesspeople, entrepreneurs were people who created something entirely new. The Wright Brothers were entrepreneurs, for example, while a guy who started a welding company was not.

The terms have shifted in meaning since that time, of course. But by any definition, McKelvey qualifies as a true entrepreneur. He’s the co-founder of Square, a company that revolutionized mobile payments when he launched it with Jack Dorsey in 2009. During an Inc. Real Talk interview on December 2, McKelvey discussed what innovation really is–and warned aspiring business owners that developing a brand-new idea is not always all it’s cracked up to be. Consider the difference between a traveler and an explorer, he said.

“If I travel, I expect the city that I go to, to have drinkable water, hotels, food that I can feed my family,” McKelvey told Inc. reporter Cameron Albert-Deitch. “That’s different from venturing into some unexplored jungle.”

The vast majority of businesses, he added, are able to make money by copying or incrementally improving solutions that someone else has already come up with. That’s not a bad thing–there’s a lot of money to be made with that approach. In fact, McKelvey noted, innovation is so difficult to achieve that it should actually be your last resort when starting a business.

“Innovation itself, I think, is this overhyped thing,” he said. “The problem is innovation is really unpleasant. …But if you understand this, you will approach it in a way that is more honest, and I believe more effective.”

For his book The Innovation Stack (Portfolio, 2020), McKelvey researched companies such as Southwest Airlines and Ikea that managed to find massive success by innovating. Their stories have particular resonance for anyone looking to start up amid 2020’s cataclysmic business climate.  

“Every one I studied had some sort of disaster, like a pandemic, or a recession,” he said. That’s in part because during crises, people are more receptive to businesses that might help them than they might be when things are going well.

“It is so difficult to get a new idea accepted that if you are an innovator, if you have a new idea, now is a great time,” he said.

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