Jim McKelvey, Square co-founder Talking on Art and Entrepreneurship

by | Mar 20, 2017

Last October I attended South Summit, Spain’s largest startups, and investors conference. Normally tech conferences have similar speakers from similar industries but this time South Summit invited Jim McKelvey, and I was thrilled. Not because McKelvey is a great entrepreneur, founder of Square, the mobile payment company he co-founded with Jack Dorsey from Twitter, I was thrilled because McKelvey is a glass artist – a successful one.

McKelvey, based in St. Louis, USA, where he was born and raised, is the founder of Square, LaunchCode, the non-profit coding academy, Cultivation Capital, the Venture Capital, and many others. McKelvey is what I’m always after in The Artian. He is an excellent representation of a renaissance person: engineer, entrepreneur, artist, and activist. From reading interviews and listening to his talks McKelvey raise him as a truly unique thinker, a man whose interests and talents are boundless.

So I took the time and waited, nearly an hour, until I was able to reach McKelvey during the breaks in the conference. I wanted to ask him how art contributed to his success as an entrepreneur. He was, I will assume, a bit surprised when I asked to talk to him about art rather than technology at a tech conference, but he was immediately open, welcoming, and ready to talk.


McKelvey is among a small group of successful entrepreneurs that have these strong relationships with the art. Paul Graham co-founder of Y-Combinator is a painter; Brian Chesky co-founder of Airbnb is a designer who used to create art; Marissa Mayers’ mom is an art teacher, and she grew up learning about art. So I was wondering is it art that contributes to his success as an entrepreneur.

“I think differently when I’m in my studio, as opposed to my offices”, he replied. “Glass is a very unforgiving material, so if I’m distracted or tense my glasswork suffers. I sometimes learn a lot about how I’m feeling just by how my hands are moving. I honestly don’t see a lot of entrepreneurs who are actual artists; they are usually too busy. I do notice a lot of creativity – art & music being paramount.”

“Creativity is what moves humanity forward. If we fail to invent, then progress stops. I believe that art helps us push humanity to think differently”

McKelvey is a “doer” and creator. He starts – hobbies (he was taking flight lessons at the time we spoke), projects, and companies. One of these projects based in St. Louis is the Third Degree Glass Factory, an artisan glass gallery, and studio that opens to everyone who is interested in glassmaking. For his activities with the factory, he won the Arts Innovator Award, and in an interview, after winning the prize he talked about how the practice of art was super important in his life because what he learned in the studio has analogies in his real life. I wondered what the biggest studio lesson he sees analogous to entrepreneurial life lessons is.

“Teamwork,” he said. “Great glass cannot be made by a single pair of hands, and the important things happen so fast that there is no time to communicate everything. You need to have a great team where everyone anticipates the next move”.

A Renaissance Man

The idea for Square came to McKelvey while he was trying to process a payment. “I was trying to sell a piece of glass. It was over the phone, to a lady in Panama… She calls me; she’s going to spend three grand on this thing, and she wants to pay for it with an American Express card. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t take American Express. Don’t you have a Visa card?’ And she says, ‘No,’ and then she goes through this thing about ‘Maybe my husband has one and ‘He’ll be back in a week.’ And I’m sitting here going, ‘God!’ because I’m about to lose the sale”. He told in a previous interview.

This experience together with the wonder of how come we can do almost everything with our iPhone but not process payment led him to co-found Square with Jack Dorsey. Dorsey said about him in one interview that “He’s the definition of a Renaissance man. He can do anything he puts his mind to, and it’s not limited to science or engineering, or arts. He can do anything.”

McKelvey believes that “creativity is what moves humanity forward. If we fail to invent, then progress stops. I believe that art helps us push humanity to think differently”.

In one of my main talks – Renaissance of Renaissance thinking – I always speak about this balance I believe people should maintain between right and left brain thinking. I was wondering what McKelvey thinks about the lack of balance among people. “I think the pressures to specialize in one discipline keep people from trying new things. Many folks I know who are great artists could also be great technologists. My co-founder at Third Degree, Doug Auer, is a great example”.

For the business professional who is looking to have art in her life, he recommends going for the whole experience. “If you want to do art for yourself, do it, “ he said, “But if you really want the complete experience, you need to sell (and preferably live off the proceeds of selling) your work.” And if you don’t know how to get involved with art, he invites you to take a glassblowing class at Third Degree.


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