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The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time

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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.

288 pages, Hardcover

Published March 10, 2020

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Jim McKelvey

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 135 reviews
Profile Image for Ahn Mur.
126 reviews
July 13, 2020
This was pitched to me as a less pretentious Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. (Though to be fair, I did actually also enjoy Zero to One. And these two books are actually still very different.) In Zero to One, Peter Thiel emphasizes that startups need to have (among other things) an engineering advantage. This was pretty critical and at the time I wish Thiel had dug into that more. Then The Innovation Stack came along.
Here was an in-depth look at what it means for one company to figure out a superior solution. And it turns out that can mean more than engineering. It's helpful to have this new term (innovation stack) and a frame of reference for discussing this idea. It helps explain why some companies were tremendously successful (ex. Southwest Airlines) while other, seemingly similar companies (Delta, etc.), were not.

Also, while we're comparing Zero to One to the The Innovation Stack, I have to admit that while Thiel was a bit alienating, McKelvey was refreshingly humble.
I was impressed that a book called The Innovation Stack told me to copy as much as possible. I was impressed that McKelvey emphasized that he himself is still a student of good timing. There is practical advice here, as well as a realistic admission that luck is very helpful.
Profile Image for Michael Payne.
63 reviews67 followers
June 21, 2020
Square was not an accident, but a well-constructed onramp to a larger market that had been excluded by the major financial services companies.

When Amazon saw Square's success they tried to do what Amazon famously does: enter markets and crush all players. Square's response was: they did not respond. They kept doing what Square did and they stayed ahead. Ultimately, Amazon folded and sent its past payment customers a Square reader as a parting gift.

This book is a roadmap for any would-be entrepreneur on many great lessons learned from Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, Jim's time at Square, and his insights from studying IKEA, among other examples.

For any audacious enough to take on the major airlines, payment processors, Amazon, or furniture companies this is indeed a goodread.
Profile Image for Sri Shivananda.
32 reviews286 followers
November 4, 2021
I loved this book. Jim does an excellent job of describing key characteristics that make up entrepreneur, particularly the one of "audacity". He then goes on to explain the concept of the "innovation stack" as a series of interconnected philosophies, beliefs, ideas, capabilities, and products that make for innovation in unique and effective ways. Through the examples of Square, Ikea, Bank of Italy (the parent of Bank of America), and Southwest airlines he shares various innovation stacks and how those companies became iconic by differentiating themselves from every other in the industry. Great concepts across the book!
94 reviews6 followers
April 30, 2021
This book tells a start-up fairytale. The big bad monster is Amazon ("the scariest monster on the planet" which was "going to eat our brains"). The heroes are a plucky massage therapist (otherwise known as Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter) and a glassblower (aka the author of the book, serial entrepreneur Jim McKelvey). Amazon had attempted to make a Square copycat, but on Halloween 2015, a miracle happened: "Not only did Amazon discontinue its competing product, it also mailed the product’s existing customers a little white Square card reader in a smiling cardboard box." For the next few years, McKelvey set off on a quest to understand how Square had defeated Amazon.

I think his explanation is pretty interesting. He thinks that there exist "perfect problems", in which the goal is not to just improve a market or conquer market but to vastly expand a market.
The most interesting part of any market is its end. Why does the market stop at this point? There are lots of customers who would presumably purchase products if they could afford to, but they don’t. And there are presumably lots of companies that would love to sell products to these consumers if they could do so profitably. But at some point, the market just ends. This is also the point where entrepreneurship begins.

When a company aims to expand a market, it must invent/innovate by somehow making a product cheaper and more accessible. According to McKelvey, this attempt typically sets off a chain reaction of innovation that he calls an "innovation stack", where in order to solve one problem you have to first solve a bunch of related problems, or after you solve a problem another problem naturally arises that you must then solve. This network of interlocking solutions is the "innovation stack." I don't agree with McKelvey's cringey statement that "much of history is simply a chronicling of ancient Innovation Stacks", and I'm not especially convinced that "innovation stacks" are the all-powerful Amazon-destroying weapons that he thinks they are. But, I really like the related premise that "perfect problems" are problems where an entrepreneur greatly expands a market by introducing innovations that make the market accessible to more people. I think that that is innovation/business at their best, and McKelvey's optimistic spin on this idea is inspirational. It's a nice reminder that start-ups and entrepreneurship don't have to be about playing the game and milking the system for all its worth. In certain situations, new innovations really do improve society.

McKelvey gives 4 examples of innovation stacks, and they are all very convincing.

The first is Square. Part of the inspiration for Square was that credit card companies did not serve small merchants. The goal of Square was not just to take market share away from Visa but to enable small merchants who couldn't process card payments to do so. Identifying this "perfect problem" was pretty genius, and the way they solved it was also genius. For example, they built a credit card reader that cost 97 cents to build, whereas "the cheapest portable credit card reader on the market... cost $950." Part of this was achieved by plugging their reader into the iPhone's audio jack. McKelvey actually lists 14 interlocking innovations: Simplicity. Free sign-up. Cheap hardware. No contracts. No live support. Beautiful software. Beautiful hardware. Fast settlement. Net settlement. Low price. No advertising. Online sign-up. New fraud modeling. Balance sheet accountability. Some of these are questionable ("beautiful hardware"), but overall they are all linked together, and once Square had perfected these innovations they formed a formidable barrier to any copycats, even Amazon. For example, the cheap hardware enabled free sign up (the Square reader is so cheap they can give it away for free). Simplicity enables no live support. No live support and cheap hardware among other things mean lower costs. Lower costs and free sign up means no advertising, which means even lower costs. They also mean huge momentum and fast growth. The high number of users meant they collected a ton of data, which they could use for automated fraud modeling, which meant they could have looser contracts. Etc etc. They really built a genius virtuous cycle, and the best part is that their innovations are allowing millions of small merchants to accept card payments for the first time.

McKelvey covers 3 other companies (this is kind of a spoiler... he loves to take his time revealing the identity of each company). They are Bank of America, Ikea, and Southwest Airlines.

Bank of America's innovation stack: Focus on 'the little fellow'. Banking for women. Low rates. Direct sales force. Advertising. Low minimums. Simplified underwriting. Multilingual tellers. Open floorplans. Expanded hours. Home mortgages. Auto loans. Installment credit. Rapid expansion. Branch banking. Distributed ownership.

Ikea's innovation stack: Catalog showrooms. Overseas manufacturing. Efficient factories. Knocked-down furniture. Self-assembled furniture. Custom design. Interchangeable parts. Global supply chain. Warehouse showrooms. Winding paths. Food and child care. Low prices.

Southwest's innovation stack: Maximized aircraft utilization. Ten-minute turnaround. Standardized fleet. Batch boarding. Open seating. Single class. Fringe airports. Direct routes. No food. Friendly staff. No stupid rules. Independent sales. Low prices.

Bank of America was meant, I think, as a foil to Square. It was like the Square of 100 years ago, even founded in SF. Ikea was meant to show that innovation stacks can be built even in industries like furniture. Southwest was meant to show that innovation stacks can even work in cut-throat, unprofitable industries like airlines. Overall I think they're amazing, very convincing examples of innovation stacks at work, and they have all really changed how we live.

The one thing that annoyed me consistently throughout the book was that McKelvey is clearly a hypeman and not a reliable researcher/educator. He'll say one thing on one page and then completely contradict himself a few pages later. Or he'll paint himself and his colleagues in the most sympathetic way possible (saying how remarkable it is that a "massage therapist" defeated Amazon is totally disingenuous). Or sometimes he'll just be in complete denial that he and Jack lived a fairytale in the typical way that successful people refuse to believe that most of their success is due to luck.

For example, he says, "If you try to enter a market at the top or middle, there are very powerful companies already in that space that will thwart you. But down at the bottom of a market lies an unguarded economic border." But THEN he says that the concept behind Square was ILLEGAL because of REGULATIONS made by the credit card companies, and that it took them a solid year to convince the companies to get rid of those regulations! And that if they hadn't succeeded, Square would have died. Southwest had an even worse experience apparently: "Southwest had to deal with federal regulation and over thirty administrative and judicial hearings, while also withstanding a barrage of other attacks that were actively: Excluding Southwest from the airline credit card system. Blocking access to refueling hydrants. Boycotting vendors who worked with Southwest. Limiting Southwest’s routes through federal legislation." So... where exactly is that "unguarded economic border"?... If anything, I've drawn a completely different lesson from these examples: if you really have a "perfect problem" that will improve society, don't let regulations stop you. Others have overcome huge regulatory barriers in the past. If you can prove that what you're doing is really going to improve lives, then the regulatory system just might accommodate you.

McKelvey also spouts a bunch of other bs about stuff like why, "statistically", innovation stacks are powerful, and how entrepreneurs are "rebels" and "pirates" and stuff like that. He's also in complete denial when he talks about how, when you are an entrepreneur, connections don't matter. You know, like, having Jack Dorsey on the team helped them get a few lunch dates here and there with important executives... including Steve Jobs (which ended up not happening because Steve Jobs was too sick)... which may have been why they were allowed to bypass the iPhone's app store with its 30% surcharge on all transactions by using the audio jack instead of the USB port... but you know... connections schmonnections, entrepreneurs are ReBeLs!!!1!!1!!!!!1111

But overall, I think this was an inspiring book because McKelvey zeroes in on the way that an entrepreneur can make the most positive difference in society. The key is to be extremely optimistic - believe in the potential of employees and possible customers - so that you can identify a "perfect problem" - a market that the incumbents have deemed not valuable enough to serve - and do anything it takes - change regulations, create new management techniques, develop new products - to expand the market and serve new customers.
Profile Image for Christopher.
Author 2 books47 followers
December 2, 2020
Highly disappointing. I was recommended this book, but I’m having a hard time understanding where the overly positive reviews here and on Audible 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 doesn’t even come close to resembling anything along the lines of breakthrough 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 (perhaps this was the strongest layer of Square’s ‘stack’?)

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).
Profile Image for Nathan Holm.
57 reviews1 follower
May 8, 2020
This book is a thought provoking read on entrepreneurship and mental models for navigating the entrepreneurial journey.

Some key takeaways for me:

- solving a big problem is the sum of solving a series of small problems that you did not know exist until you set out to solve a problem that has not been solved before.

- what is obvious to me is not obvious to others ...so don’t fear pursuing that what others don’t see. It is in pursuing those things that we find innovation and maybe our authentic selves

- conversely most people ignore most of what they encounter therefore it is hard for new things to gain traction...find ways to break through this by innovating in unserved markets and solving real problems for them

- remember measurements are based on what is measurable ...therefore appetite for something that does not exist will not appear in any measurements I.e. until low cost airfares existed the measurements showed there was no interest in air travel beyond the wealthy and business travelers

-it is easier to teach a new idea to someone than change their beliefs/actions around an existing idea (Combine anchoring bias with conservatism bias)

- great opportunity is found when we don’t focus on disrupting and taking customers from established businesses but rather we focus on bringing new people into a market. Focus on Market expansion innovation not disruption

- Humility and audacity are allies that combine to drive innovation and entrepreneurs; whereas hubris and overconfidence are conspirators who confine us to the world of already solved problems

-entrepreneurial success requires learning to embrace and move forward be uncomfortable and feeling unprepared
Profile Image for Ying Ying.
270 reviews109 followers
February 6, 2022
This is the best book on entrepreneurship I have read to-date.

Some of my key take-aways are:

Entrepreneurship is not starting a small business (like most other businesses that already exist); it involves taking risks and creating new markets, most often for an underserved or not-served population.

Innovation comes when copying does not solve the problem you have targeted. Innovators are not trying to disrupt industries or markets - disruption is a side effect.

The real motivation for entrepreneurship is usually not money or fame; these tend to be weak motivators. The real and strong force behind is to solve a perfect problem you truly care about.

What you need to succeed is not so much qualification or money. Those are of little help if you want to create beyond the normal established industries / ways of operating. What you need instead is plenty of audacity and grit. The grounds for entrepreneurship are relatively equal for everyone.

Having an interlocked series of innovations makes it harder for established behemoths to attack; increasing the start-up's chances of survival. The series of innovations come as a result of solving successive interrelated problems.
174 reviews3 followers
April 23, 2020
A great book about innovation and entrepreneurship. The main ideas are that most people are successful businessmen by copying other already done solutions, true entrepreneur have to find truly new approaches to solve problems. This approach requires jumping into the unknown which is uncomfortable. While finding innovative solutions to new problems, existing tools and similar resources won't work well so by innovating, it is required to solve a series of new problems. The author calls the set of all these solutions the innovation stack and he argues that this is moat the such business have and do well even when competitors eventually try to compete.
Profile Image for Dmitry.
666 reviews64 followers
July 24, 2020
(The English review is placed beneath Russian one)

Честно сказать, я не понимаю, откуда весь этот шум по поводу этой книги. Ибо данная книга представляет собой типичную историю бизнес-успеха или историю успешного стартапа. В своей книге автор рассказывает, как он строил свой бизнес, что следует делать предпринимателю в первую очередь, чтобы добиться успеха в построении сильного бренда или успешной фирмы, а также множество личных историй (личного в книге будет много). Таких книг выпускается каждый год довольно много и они редко чем отличаются друг от друга. Не стала исключением и эта книга.
В чём главное сообщение автора? Согласно мнению автора, чтобы построить успешный бренд мы должны или мы можем просто скопировать какую-то бизнес-идею или чей-то успешный бизнес-процесс и уже дальше развить его в отношении никем не обслуживаемого сегмента. Т.е. автор считает, что все эти поиски чего-то уникального в бизнесе, не являются гарантией того, что ваш бизнес будет успешным. Наоборот, считает автор, можно взять успешную идею и отточить её до совершенства. Главным тут является последующее улучшение скопированной бизнес-модели. Ибо, как пишет автор, после того как вы начали развиваться, вы создаёте свои уникальные бизнес-процессы, уникальные бизнес-связи и уникальную бизнес-культуру, из которого что-то может быть скопировано конкурентами, но из-за комплексности, у конкурентов не получится полностью скопировать способ ведения бизнеса, т.е. не получится скопировать все нюансы, все детали без которых такой бизнес не будет работать успешно. Далее, пишет автор, ваша цена должна быть минимальна для максимально качественного товара.
В отношении конкурентов или в отношении самых главных и опасных конкурентов, автор предлагает ничего не предпринимать. Вот так и пишет: в ответ на действия компании Amazon мы ничего не предприняли. В принципе, всё зависит от ситуации. Я точно не уверен в правильности подобной политики, но возможно в такой ситуации правильным решением было как раз не предпринимать никаких действий, а сконцентрироваться на собственном бизнесе, включая клиентов. В принципе, подобный взгляд на бизнес довольно нов и свеж. И данный раздел было интересно читать.
Что касается других тем книги, то это рассказ автора как они развивали «Square», что является типичной историей бизнеса. А так же автор очень много посвятил собственным размышлениям в духе книг по самопомощи, по самоусовершенствованию, поиска вдохновения и пр. Все эти истории непонятных и не интересных мне людей, о которых автор рассказывал, т.е. о людях, чья история жизни вдохновляла автора, мне были абсолютно не интересны. Так же как не очень-то интересным был рассказ о становлении самой «Square». Как я уже написал, обычное описание успеха фирмы. Поэтому положительная оценка базируется исключительно на тех советах, что даёт автор по построение ��ильного бренда, по созданию успешной фирмы.

Honestly, I don't understand what all the fuss about this book. This book is a typical business success story or the story of a successful startup. The author tells in his book how he built his business, what an entrepreneur should do first of all to succeed in building a strong brand or a successful company, as well as many personal stories (there will be a lot of them in the book). Such books are published every year quite a lot, and they rarely differ from each other. And this book has not become an exception.
What is the key message of the author? According to the author, to build a successful brand, we can merely copy some business idea or someone's successful business process and then develop it further towards the underserved segment. In other words, the author believes that all these searches for something unique in business are not a guarantee that your business will be successful. On the contrary, the author believes that you can take a successful idea and sharpen it to perfection, i.e., to improve the original conception. The main thing here is the subsequent improvement of the copied business model. Because after you start to develop your own business, you create your unique business processes, business connections, and business culture, from which something can be copied by competitors, of course. But because of the complexity of the business, competitors will not be able to replicate the whole way of doing business, that is, they will not be able to copy all the nuances, all the details without which the company will not work successfully. Further, writes the author, your price should be minimal for the highest quality product.
Concerning competitors or the most significant and dangerous competitors, the author proposes not to do anything. That's how he writes it: we've done nothing in response to Amazon's actions. In principle, everything depends on the situation. I'm not sure if this policy is right, but maybe in this situation, the right thing to do is not to take any action but to concentrate on our own business, including customers. In general, such a view of business is new and fresh. And this section was interesting to read.
As for other topics of the book, it is the author's story of how they developed "Square," which is a typical business story. Also, the author has devoted a lot of his own reflections in the spirit of books on self-help, self-improvement, search for inspiration, and so on. All these stories of unknown and uninteresting to me people whom the author was telling, i.e., people whose life story inspired the author, were boring to me. Just as the story about the development of "Square" itself. Like I wrote, the typical description of the success of the firm. Therefore, the positive rating is based solely on the advice given by the author regarding building a strong brand and creating a successful firm.
Profile Image for Siddharth Sawjiani.
10 reviews8 followers
December 20, 2020
I absolutely loved the simplicity of this book. Normally stories about successful companies have a set of events they did right which only makes sense for that particular industry and you can only appreciate the genius making those moves. The Innovation Stack tries to outline some of the reasons that allowed companies across three industries to survive. While I'm sure there might be more factors at play for their successes I found the insights to be a refreshing take across industries. There's no single solution that works for a company but Innovation Stack teaches on how to keep building moats for your business that differentiates your business and eventually makes it difficult for a new entrant to beat you. You build some features out of necessity, some out of customer insight and some out of sheer luck!
Profile Image for Antony Raj.
9 reviews
May 20, 2020
Interesting journey of an entrepreneur and a story of what it takes to be an idea and an entrepreneurship.
The author guides us through how to survive if a giant like Amazon copies your idea and sustain the business.
Profile Image for Joe.
73 reviews
June 4, 2020
I did not care for this book mainly because I don't think it really said anything in its 260 pages. The authors big insight is something he calls "The Innovation Stack". However this idea was essentially an enumeration of company decisions mixed with hindsight.

About a third of the book is a history of Square, and more of the book is filled with general, vague business advice.

There were a few valuable quotes in here, but this is not a book I would recommend to others.
Profile Image for Vaidas.
82 reviews1 follower
December 5, 2021
The main idea of this book is that innovations stack up and therefore is not some singular and idea. These stacks of innovation help protect entrepreneur from competition.
I like the idea, but this does not warrant an entire book :)
Profile Image for Daniel Clausen.
Author 9 books454 followers
January 8, 2021
Books about entrepreneurship tend to be sugar and empty calories. Some make you feel really good about changing the world through audacity and insight without giving you many tools. Other business books (not necessarily entrepreneurship) tend to be more prescriptive, with diagrams and checklists, but in their ambition to be as useful as a consultant, tend to be dry and pedantic.

This book does what I think books about strategy and entrepreneurship ought to do: tell stories. The author tells his own story about starting his company Square, but also tells the stories of other entrepreneurs.

Through these stories he teases out his major themes. Because these themes have staying power. Because they haven’t been formalized into checklists, it is also easier to take them for what they are, insights contingent on the situation.

What are these themes:

1 – Entrepreneurs are crazy people. Don’t let the dilution of the word fool you. These people are much rarer than they seem and their relative scarcity may be explained by the fact that many die off or suffer ignominious failures. To be an entrepreneur means to be crazy about how you want to change the world.

2 – Copying is okay. In fact, copying (not entrepreneurship) is the norm because it is such a universally successful strategy. Copy what you can, and innovate with everything you can’t.

3 – Entrepreneurship usually comes a result of trying to survive.

4 – Solutions breed problems which breed more solutions.

5 – From this comes the “innovation stack” a series of interlinked solutions to problems that can make an enterprise unique.

What’s interesting about this book is that it is basically a book about science. Entrepreneurship is natural science. A truly unique insight, like a truly unique idea or theory, requires lots of trial and error. Other books on entrepreneurship and strategy have basically said the same thing.

A word about the prose: the book was written in a wandering, unwieldy, honest sort of way. Part thought diary, part exploration, part thematic exploration, it was perfect for this book because I think the style probably mirrored the personality of the author. The strange tangents the book often took seemed like the honest habits of a serial entrepreneur. Thus, every sentence feels genuine.

This book was a pleasant surprise and joins books such as “Zero to One” and “Anything You Want.”

Perhaps the last question I need to answer: If this book is good, if I enjoyed every moment, then why do I not rank it in my much vaunted “top books” category on Goodreads. The answer to that question is that there is already one book about entrepreneurship there “Zero to One” and that the themes in that book strike me as more elemental and iconic. If you want to read the most definitive book on the subject, that is probably it. (“Blue Ocean Strategy” might also qualify, but I haven’t read that book yet. There are a lot of these books out there.)

If you were to read a second book…well, I’m not supposed to say it, but I will...If you’re looking for a second book then I would recommend my own “Underground Novel: An Alternative Guide to Life After Graduation” (because it is a faithful entry in the genre while also making fun of it.) If you’re looking for a third, then I would recommend either this one, anything by Richard Branson, or “Anything You Want.”

All that being said, this book earns its five stars and toast of congratulations.
Profile Image for Kamil Kuryś.
48 reviews3 followers
March 23, 2022
I really enjoyed this book. What I enjoyed the most was:
1. A looot of examples of working against/around seemingly unsolvable problems
2. Examples from different industries - despite being a book about a tech company, describes very well the implications of the innovative mindset on achieving large scale success in companies from other areas.
3. References to herd behaviors - when they are our allies (mimicking what others do for example in sailing) and enemies (when we innovate and don't have the positive feedback from doing what others are)

The book was also very well structured and a very pleasurable read, therefore a worthy 5 stars.
3 reviews
October 26, 2021
Brief and concise summary about entrepreneurship and how to create something that has never been done. I wish there where more practical advice instead of a whole innovation stack explanation about each company described in this book, but I understand that Jim wants to make the Innovation stack the main subject and wants us to focus on how to solve any problem we face so we can step outside the wall and create something so unique that can't be copied (even by Amazon).
I enjoyed this book and it was an easy reading.
6 reviews
February 11, 2021
Really enjoyable clearly loads of research and effort put in to make it an enjoyable book without too much jargon or technical details.
Profile Image for Kieran.
8 reviews2 followers
February 9, 2022
Concise, to the point. Rare to see a book written by a founder of a newish company (Square). Some unique ideas in here and McKelvey doesn't bash about. It was also interesting learning about the history of Ikea and Southwest Airlines.
Profile Image for Minh.
50 reviews8 followers
June 1, 2020
This is the kind of books which business schools should recommend students to read. The humility, genuineness and the easy-to-digest approach on entrepreneurship and business were both refreshing and inspiring
Profile Image for Renuka Gavrani.
15 reviews1 follower
March 24, 2022
"It's impossible prove something is impossible"


What comes in your mind when you hear the word "entrepreneur"? Or what do you think is most important to create an unicorn?

Nowadays everyone is calling themselves entrepreneur just because it sounds cool? Well, an entrepreneur is the one who is solving the real problem, an entrepreneur doesn't go with the Trend, they create the trend.

Coming back to how you can start a startup and make it successful?

We often think building a start-up means coming up with a perfect solution to a problem that can make us a millionaire, right?

But here is a twist!

Building a start-up is a series of innovations that an entrepreneur has to do at every step. In fact, the innovation of one problem creates another problem and just like that innovation stack is build

The Innovation Stack is a rare yet one of the most powerful books on Entrepreneurship that is written by the experience of @jimmckelvey1 the co-founder of Square (the other founder is Jack Dorsey, the founder of twitter)

When Jim couldn't accept the payment due to unavailability of credit cards, he came up with the idea of Square that changed the history of credit card companies.

The book starts with how Jim and Jack built Square and how well they made Amazon come down to its knees.

Yes, a giant monster, Amazon tried to copy the entire idea of Square and tried to compete then but alas! Amazon failed before a small startup.

But how?

Well, that's what the book is about!

The author has shared how you can beat Competitors by doing nothing for them but focusing on your customers and building your innovation stack.

The book is divided into three sections:

1. The first section is about how Jim started Square

2. The second section has the case studies of 3 world class companies that proves the theory of Jim correct. The case studies are so much to read that you will enjoy the ride

3. The final section is more about how you can beat your competitors and begin as an entrepreneur


I think at least once you must read this book if you have any plans of starting your bizz💫

Rating: 5/5⚡
Profile Image for Michal.
20 reviews
January 22, 2021
The main issue I had with the book is the author's obsession with footnotes - there were simply too many which disrupted the flow of reading.

I was interested in the story of Square and various decisions, but the most important bits of the story of the company were skipped, perhaps because the author is still under NDA.

The author spent quite some time on Bank of America, IKEA and Southwest Airlines - I will admit that I didn't know the stories and I enjoyed them. But I would have enjoyed them even better if I actually read the books the author quotes when he talks about them - I was interested in Square and their journey, which I wasn't really given.

There are a lot of vague and feel-good bits of advice, but nothing ground breaking.
Profile Image for Scott Wozniak.
Author 12 books69 followers
February 16, 2021
This book was better than I expected, and I thought it would be good. First, he is a very witty writer, but a great sense of humor, memorable metaphors and smooth storytelling. Second, he managed to write a book about what it means to truly create new things in the world, not just operate well. Oh, and he shows how multiple innovations together can be an unbeatable competitive differentiation.

If you are a creative, a leader, or a writer, this is a book that you will probably enjoy a lot.
Profile Image for Teja.
13 reviews2 followers
May 10, 2021
This book could have been a 3000 words long article. Lot of it is filled with unnecessary self Indulgence by the Author, never understood how most of those back stories are related to innovation stack as a concept.

I would recommend reading first 100 pages if you are interested about how Jack Dorsey and Jim concieved the idea and built square and then read through one of the many summaries of the book online.
Profile Image for Greg Albrecht.
49 reviews74 followers
September 19, 2021
Repetitive content. Not recommended if one has read a couple of business books on startups/entrepreneurship.

Irritating style. Paternalistic and self-centric. The author jumps back and forth from an autobiography to a self-help book, which confused me.

I rate it 3/5, because I agree with the majority of ideas described in the book. It's readable If one survives the style and is not familiar with other books on the topic.
Profile Image for Juarez  Poletto Jr..
131 reviews5 followers
March 21, 2020
Not revolutionary, but had a couple of good ideas. Jim's approach to Innovation makes a lot of sense, explaining how a series of different approaches add up generating a truly new product or service. It also shed some light on the creation of Square, which is interesting, but not the ultimate book about the startup.
Profile Image for Madhav Mahajan.
19 reviews
September 4, 2021
Great book with clean definition/explanation of key words like entrepreneur, disruption, pricing, etc.
And what it's take to innovate a new product, how it feels and the overall journey.

The line I liked most - "Copy when you can, innovate when you must."
Profile Image for Manoj Aggarwal.
11 reviews
October 16, 2021
I learnt a lot from this book
This book expanded my lattice of mental models on how to think about business.

Some insights
I really enjoyed this book. The central point about this book is innovation to expand the size of the market by bringing in hitherto non users into users. This is what Southwest did when it lowered the price of airline fares for point to point travel or square did with its Credit card dongle. Some of the the key insights is that the
- there are several markets which seem mature. The key is to look at the boundary of the markets and in there one can find a pool of customers the are being excluded (e.g merchants being excluded from processing credit card payments). This is akin to Clay Christenson's
- Thinking about the key elements of your businesses and how it differs from the status quo (in the case of square it was i)Simplicity ii) Free Sign up iii) Cheap (free) Hardware iv) No Contracts v) No Live support vi) Easy to use /beautiful software vii) Beautiful Hardware - ie not only cheap hardware but also hardware that customers would have a point of view viii) Fast Settlement. ix) Fast settlement and net settlement x) Low Price xi) No Advertising - this reminded me of Seth Godin's concept of the Purple cow - if you have a distinctive offering that customers love the funnel turns sideways and the becomes a megaphone, due to strong word of mouth, xii) New Fraud Modeling xiii) Balance sheet accountability - I am not sure if I agree with this. but this is a call the founders made ie to take the finance risk on their balance sheet vs share with their merchants
- the innovation stack is the sum total of problems a company solves to serve their customers over- it is not some premeditated /deliberate actions (ie the way businesses are glorified by HBR or books like from Good to Great)
- When: The author talks about when to start and simplifies the decision to Now or later. Most often best time is now. Quote from one of the case studies, A.P Giannnini "it makes me sick and tired to hear what I can't do. If I know I'm right, and can justify myself, I go ahead, I take a chance." Sometimes it is okay to wait if a critical element to the businesss succeeding is missing. One can work on the other elements of the business while waiting though
- It is difficult for competitors to just copy an incumbent as the innovation elements are integrated. Competitors can rarely pick and choose just a couple and hope to be successful. Also they have to not only copy the elements, but also get them right.
- The customers (that were underserved) are early adaptors as much as they are early adopters - they adapt to the new ways of doing things
Profile Image for Travelin.
427 reviews47 followers
July 13, 2022
I had never "read" a full business book, but for some reason I started with this one and it was very honest and quite dumb. McKelvey probably spent decades gearing up to become a wealthy entrepreneur, but as far as I can tell, he sort of lucked into it.

He and Jack Dorsey of Twitter fame developed a box to swipe credit cards from your phone, countervening a large number of "laws" developed by one or more of the major credit card companies. A single presentation to one of the majors somehow enabled their firm to keep developing anyway.

But McKelvey seemed to live in almost incessant fear and says as much. He seems most terrified of "major" behemoths such as Amazon, who could have killed him or something. McKelvey must have become quite wealthy when his company went public. I am unsure why he wrote this book. It appears to be a way to allay his (still existing) anxieties in hindsight, but his rationale for why Amazon started to develop a competing product and then just bailed just seems ridiculous.

I don't believe that an "Innovation Stack" (dumb name) will protect new companies from competitors and neither, it seems, does McKelvey. According to McKelvey himself, a company in Switzerland quickly copied their techniques for the European market.

McKelvey must also know that stacks and stacks of legacy technology will not insulate you from a fast-moving upstart. A fast-moving upstart is not what Amazon is. Amazon could have bailed on their competing product for any number of reasons, including laziness, the wrong market, or the fact that the margins were too small if they were also going to offer customer service.

In some way McKelvey could be as heroic as he depicts himself, simplifying and cheapening the credit card paying process for small businesses.

But his company deliberately created a form factor which was hard to master, kept instead for its industrial design novelty, then refused to offer customer service. I don't know McKelvey's relationship with the company now, but it appears to offer some form of customer service by now, or at least the minimal necessary for people to complain about it online.

Finally, the book went through an astonishing number of co-writers and rewrites. The jokey callbacks, etc. are made worse by McKelvey's breathless, exhausting sales pitch delivery. Someone should admit that much of the success probably comes down to salesmanship. Another book by a man who raised millions for much smaller finance-related companies says as much, but in a far more detailed, far more pessismistic and cautious way...
Profile Image for Natarajan Mahalingam.
59 reviews3 followers
June 12, 2021
If there could be a trilogy of books on entrepreneurship, similar to the Lord of the Rings, I would place Zero to One, The Lean Startup, and The Innovation Stack in that list. Where Zero to One starts about the process of getting into the startup culture and The Lean Startup on the processes to manage your entrepreneurial idea, The Innovation Stack focuses on understanding the reasons or rationale for the success of the startup

Across 18 exciting chapters, Jim McKelvey takes us along on his journey, along with Jack Dorsey on creation of Square - the writing is both explosive and internalizing at the same time. The author's humility and vulnerability shine throughout the pages - there's no great joy at defeating Amazon in the payment's game, nor any chest beating - simply, a subtle thought on how Square could've possible defeated the behemoth that Amazon is

While trying to understand the potential reasons Square's innovation stack caused Amazon to exit the market, the author's research into 4 similar paradigm-changing personalities are described in great detail. The journey of Christopher Columbus, A.P. Giannini of Bank of America, Herb Kelleher of Southwest airlines, IKEA's Kamprad are detailed in an interesting manner by the author

The author concludes the last of the chapters under "Innovation physics" heading, dwelling on some of the often-quoted success factors for a startup and the culture thereof. Even when talking about the theory, the author's down-to-earth attitude and unassuming character traits come to the fore - which makes it easier to read (an otherwise unbelievable story of how a startup SQUARED UP against the biggest behemoth on earth currently!)

For anyone interested in the innovation/startup culture, The Innovation Stack is a must-read and I hope you love reading the book as much as I did. A huge thanks to Jim McKelvey for the book - one that I am sure I will read many times again!
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