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Summary

From the cofounder of Square, an inspiring and entertaining account of what it means to be a true entrepreneur and what it takes to build a resilient, world-changing company

In 2009, a St. Louis glassblowing artist and recovering computer scientist named Jim McKelvey lost a sale because he couldn't accept American Express cards. Frustrated by the high costs and difficulty of accepting credit card payments, McKelvey joined his friend Jack Dorsey (the cofounder of Twitter) to launch Square, a startup that would enable small merchants to accept credit card payments on their mobile phones. With no expertise or experience in the world of payments, they approached the problem of credit cards with a new perspective, questioning the industry's assumptions, experimenting and innovating their way through early challenges, and achieving widespread adoption from merchants small and large.

But just as Square was taking off, Amazon launched a similar product, marketed it aggressively, and undercut Square on price. For most ordinary startups, this would have spelled the end. Instead, less than a year later, Amazon was in retreat and soon discontinued its service. How did Square beat the most dangerous company on the planet? Was it just luck? These questions motivated McKelvey to study what Square had done differently from all the other companies Amazon had killed. He eventually found the key: a strategy he calls the Innovation Stack.

McKelvey's fascinating and humorous stories of Square's early days are blended with historical examples of other world-changing companies built on the Innovation Stack to reveal a pattern of ground-breaking, competition-proof entrepreneurship that is rare but repeatable.

The Innovation Stack is a thrilling business narrative that's much bigger than the story of Square. It is an irreverent first-person look inside the world of entrepreneurship, and a call to action for all of us to find the entrepreneur within ourselves and identify and fix unsolved problems - one crazy idea at a time.

©2020 Jim McKelvey (P)2020 Penguin Audio

Critic reviews

"McKelvey tells the remarkable story of how with Square, he started a business that would transform an industry, along the way unlocking a whole new model for innovation. An inspiring call to action for entrepreneurs who want to tackle problems that affect our everyday lives, with perseverance and some crazy ideas." (Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution, cofounder of AOL, and author of The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur's Vision of the Future)

"The Innovation Stack is a deeply useful book about the characteristics of successful companies and how and why to build one, complete with inspiring case studies that literally span centuries. But it’s also much more than that: a witty, humane exploration of living in the complicated, inequitable world we all share and are working to make it less so." (Eric Ries, entrepreneur and best-selling author of The Lean Startup)

"Who can say they went up against Amazon - and won? Jim McKelvey can, and this book tells how." (Peter Thiel, entrepreneur, investor, and author of Zero to One)

"Growing up in the Show Me State - aka Missouri - made me skeptical of everything...especially Jim McKelvey. I’d say more but I’m out of charact" (Jack Dorsey, cofounder and CEO of Twitter and Square)

What listeners say about The Innovation Stack

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inspirational

the best book I have read this year. most books might teach you something new. this book taught many new things both in work life and in personal life. the examples shown in the book and the stories made it feel like as if I am reading a thrilling novel. feel motivated and ambitious to help others after reading this

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  • AC
  • 27-05-21

The best audiobook on innovation so far

Wow .. what and interesting, inspiring and informative read. I thought it would be about Square and how it grew but it's so much more. Narration by the author is better than the pros. this should be the first thing that entrepreneurs or innovators listen to

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Innovation Made Easy

Jim does an excellent job at laying out the idea of the Innovation Stack. A lot of authors use anecdotes to validate their theories but Jim uses them to tell stories. This made his book truly gripping as well as insightful!

I'd recommend this book to anyone who has a problem but doesn't know how to solve it or who wants to understand how big problems get solved.

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Absolutely wonderful!

Interesting, funny, serious, silly, profound all in one. Loved it and cannot wait to recommend to my friends.

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stunningly clever and intelligent

This book is a really exciting and clever book. It is so well and cleverly written. Devoured it in a day and would recommend thoroughly.

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oh how this guy loves himself

Not a bad business book but he tries to turn his one marketing line into some great new concept. He repeats it over and over again and seems to think that nobody has ever looked at a business that way before.
You get the concept in a minute and the rest is all "look at me".
If you already have 50 business books. Why not but this isnt anything new.

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Brilliant book!

Loved the book, witty, informative and also gives a much more human overview of being an ‘entrepreneur’. Recommend!

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Excellent insights

A contrarian and enlightening take on entrepreneurship.
This book will articulate many of the hunches you've had about your business journey and give you the confidence to double down on methods that others criticise.

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Hugely impactful (and funny) business book

This is one of the most impactful business audiobooks I have listed to, and my current collection is around 300. I write reviews only when I come across an outlier that manages to adjust my worldview. The Innovation Stack did that and somehow managed to make me laugh out loud at the same time. As a serial entrepreneur that is always looking for an edge, the best praise I can give this book is that I really hope that as few people as possible read this! But inline with the positive (but not sugary) message of the book, bold innovation isn't necessarily a zero sum game, so I'll see you outside the city wall.

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Amazing to read about true innovation

This book has changed my understanding of innovation and entrepreneurs. It has explained true sense of innovation and how to innovate in this continuous disrupting world.

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  • C. Armstrong
  • 01-12-20

Nothing novel or innovative

Highly disappointing. I was recommended this book, but I’m having a hard time understanding where the overly positive reviews come from? Much of it sounds like a Square sales pitch, with the author’s frequent and cringey use of the phrase ‘squaring up.’

Maybe a decent intro for those who don’t read many business/marketing/startup/strategy books (i.e. engineers and tech geeks) — as most of what’s written here is just re-hashing of old ideas from much better books out there.

First off, the concept of an ‘innovation stack’ is nothing new or novel itself — it’s just the author’s way of re-branding what’s commonly known as a ‘value chain’ in business school circles / technical strategic writings. This entire book seems to be repackaged concepts from well known strategy writers like Christensen, Porter, Drucker, Ries, and Thiel — without any credit given to any of them (including verbatim case studies like Southwest Airlines and IKEA).

The concept of stacking itself I find to be quite silly — coming apparently from the world of software engineering and co-opted by gullible supplement users — who pop Adderall and nootropics as part of their performance ‘stack,’ which is believed to give them an expensive-yet-unsustainable edge in the form of a magic bullet.

Second, the author recommends copying as a sound strategy on the path to innovation (some of the poorest advice I’ve ever heard, results in a race to the bottom, me-too products, and zero-sum market dynamics a la airline industry). Copying may create cute spinoffs or ‘reboots’ rather than novel products/services (as the author obviously copied the above mentioned business writers/books with his startup-hoodie-millennial-techie reboot), but does come even close to resembling anything in the way of true or disruptive innovation.

Third, the he presents himself as a brave, rebellious contrarian entrepreneur — when in fact, his father was the dean of a large engineering university. I don’t think I need to go into detail on the upward trajectory or business/career fast-track advantages that gives one early on.

Finally, the *real* reason behind what makes Square so successful is its unbeatable hardware/software (atoms/bits) combination, as explained brilliantly in Makers by Chris Anderson. Either McKelvely is naive, or he’s keeping his cards close to his chest (probably the latter, knowing the trustworthiness of his co-founder Jack Dorsey).

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  • JamalJ
  • 18-07-20

The one business book you should read this year

I don't usually read business books any more because they mostly suck and follow a theme of look-how-awesome-I-am-so the-lesson-is...be-like-me!-You-can-fall-down-and-prostrate-yourself-at-my-shrine-now kind of books. NOT INTERESTING nor uplifting / helpful in anyway. And I barely if ever have written a review of a book. Business and self-help books deserve at most a reading of their *summary* in my mind because it's usually around one idea, often not very novel, and because the author needed to have a book under their name, they hired some interns to research a bunch of moderately interesting but useless stories to puff it out into a book. So my muscle memory made me assume that this would be no different. The main reason I decided to read this book in the first place was because of peer pressure and a desire to contact the author for other reasons.

Boy was I wrong. Anyway, safe to say, The Innovation Stack is the best read I've had in a long time. The main idea is profound, useful, and encouraging for anyone doing a startup or any kind of venture, business or not, for that matter. So I'm totally going to steal these ideas to build my own ideas and might occasionally give the author some credit.

The historical tidbits and stories are interesting as well if you don't know your banking history or furniture business history. McKelvey makes these way more interesting than it sounds; in fact, I probably shouldn't even mention them since it might make you not want to read his book by the mere mention of them. The writing is really good as well - funny, punchy, and down to earth. No McKinsey talk.

In any case, whatever you do, even if you *hate* audible books and think they are an abomination of *real* books because people in the 2020's have the attention span of gnats and can't sit down and read books any more, well get over it. The Audible edition is a JEWEL because it's performed by the author himself - and he does a marvelous marvelous job. Friggin get this book. Better yet get the Audible edition. I'm forcing all of the founders I've invested in to read this so you should too. And no, I did not get paid to write this (kinda wish I did though, could use the money) and had to pay for my book at full retail. Ugh.

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  • EJ
  • 14-06-20

Incredible insights

I’d never heard of Jim McKelvey ntil I saw him interviewed on a C-SPAN book program my wife was watching. I’d heard of Square - and of course Jack Dorsey - but not McKelvey. But I liked what he said and bought the book immediately.

And I absolutely LOVED it! I own a small company that solved a “perfect problem” back in 2009, but I’ve never really understood how our continued innovation stack has functioned; now I do.

The real world examples of Square, Bank of Italy (America), IKEA and Southwest were incredibly insightful and really brought the whole idea of an innovation stack to life.

If you are an entrepreneur- or want to be - this should be required reading. Great book that I’ve already recommended to our entire leadership team.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 22-10-20

Love this book

The way the innovation stack is described in this book it will blow your mind!!!

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  • Wade H. Millward
  • 15-10-20

Excellent

Jim does a fantastic job teaching a plethora of principles and lessons through various stories. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and have many takeaways from it

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  • David Hults
  • 18-09-20

St. Louis Entrepreneur Succeeds Again!

I loved it! This guidance for entrepreneurs is spot on, no b.s., and so helpful! Jim McKelvey not only has bright ideas, he has figured out how to give instruction based on his efforts and research. He shows you how, what, and when to copy or innovate. Jimis a guiding light in our field and our city, inside and outside the wall.

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  • leigh radziwon
  • 22-04-21

LOVEDDD this book!!! Listening a 2nd time now!

I can’t believe anybody would have anything negative to say about this book. It is chock-full of incredibly honest and useful information and a great sense of humor. I can’t recommend this enough. I will probably listen to it multiple times

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 20-04-21

Best Listen this Year!

I benefited immensely from listening to this audio book. Jim broke entrepreneurship down into a formula that can be repeated by anyone regardless of their background. He was clear, captivating, and motivating. I will definitely be listening to this one several times over.

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  • Kristi
  • 27-03-20

More than Square

Jim is for real. He isn't going to douse you with platitudes and formulas and guarantee success with if you follow a magical path lined with marshmallows.

In fact, he highlights the rarity of what entrepreneurship actually is. He takes our buzz word away and replaces with a heavy dose of reality.

What I found helpful as a small business owner is that he identified and storified patterns in the creation process. He also says it's scary. While I'm not an entrepreneur, I'm sure glad that someone is as freaked out as I am.

Finally, his narration is authentic and borders on conversational. I enjoyed the listen and the content.

If you like Malcolm Gladwell, Maria Popova, or books that weave history in to "the why", you'll enjoy The Innovation Stack.

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  • Kindle Customer
  • 16-06-21

awesome book - don't hesitate

always blows me away when people who don't earn their living as writers blow away professional writers - great story and lessons - you will not regret using a credit on this puppy