The following is a conversation between Jim McKelvey, President of LaunchCode, Co-Founder of Square, and Author of The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: For many entrepreneurs, launching a single successful startup would be enough. But for Jim McKelvey, his success involves a half dozen different startups, the best known of those being Square. But another one would be LaunchCode, a non-profit organization based in St. Louis that is building a skilled workforce by creating pathways for driven people seeking careers in technology. He is also the author of The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time, and he is with us now.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Jim!
Jim: Thank you, Denver. Good to talk to you.
Denver: Let’s start with LaunchCode. And with any problem solver, you identified a need that wasn’t being addressed – the gap in the marketplace. Tell us about that gap and how significant it is.
It’s actually pretty tragic because programming is one of those skills that you can actually learn without a four-year college degree. It is not something that necessarily is taught best in school. And so, Jack doesn’t have a degree, and he’s an excellent coder. And a lot of the best programmers that I know have no formal training. And so, we have this tremendous need for talent. And for some reason, the market wasn’t responding.
And so, as an economist, I sort of asked myself, “Why does it not work in programming?” Because in every other area of life, like if we have a shortage of welders, then the price for welders goes up and people become welders. You can train welders. And it turns out that that works in everything – except programming. And the reason it doesn’t work in programming is because if you’re non-traditionally credentialed, you can’t get your first job. And without the first job, you never get onto the pathway.
So LaunchCode was this idea to basically change job placement for people who knew how to program but didn’t have the credentials. So, we provided basically a voucher. I would personally interview the early candidates, and if they were good enough, I would recommend them to my friends who ran companies. And we had a hundred companies in town that were hiring LaunchCoders. And it worked beautifully. And so, what we did after that was, we said, “Well, we need more people.” And so, we added free training.
So, the deal with LaunchCode is very simple. If you want to become a programmer — we don’t care who you are, how old you are, what you look like — come in, we will train you for free. And the training is tough, but it’s free. And when you pass the course, we’ll guarantee you get a job. And I say guarantee. I won’t guarantee you’ll get a job at the specific company you want, but I will almost guarantee you’ll get a job at a group of companies that you’ll like. Because look, the demand is so high for the skillset, and LaunchCode has been a huge…
Denver: What is that demand? What is the gap in terms of the nationwide shortage of computer programmers we have at the moment?
Jim: Well, it’s half a million if you take the White House numbers, but it’s actually higher than that because a lot of that is being sucked up by overseas contractors who would happily be replaced by domestic contractors, were we to have the supply.
So, I’d say it’s well over a million jobs open today. And these are six-figure jobs. These are great jobs. And a lot of people have the chops to do it, they just haven’t had the opportunity.
Denver: And I think your wife was the one who maybe identified that Harvard online course, that kind of became a platform for you guys to move from.
Jim: So the funny thing was my wife, who has an undergraduate degree in computer science, wanted to get a Master’s Degree. And we were living in St. Louis at the time, and she wanted to attend Harvard. And I was like, “Well, OK. If you can get into Harvard, go to Harvard.” So, she got to get into Harvard, which sort of blew my mind, but she was taking her class online.
And so, what I was doing, I was starting this placement operation. At the same time, Anna was taking this online class, and Harvard made their courseware available for free. And it was tougher than the standards I was using to place people into full-time jobs. And I said, “Oh, if you can get through the Harvard CS 50 class, then I know you’re probably good enough to hold down a full-time job and earn six figures.”
And so that’s how LaunchCode got its free training. We basically took the Harvard curriculum that they afterwards allowed us to use. But at the beginning, we were just like, “Just go do everything that Harvard does.” And that’s where we got our training ideas. It’s gotten a little more sophisticated now, but a very simple idea.
Denver: And you have also been championing a very diverse talent pool. Tell us about that diversity.
Jim: So, it’s interesting, Denver, because we have the best diversity numbers as far as… on any measure — age, race, gender, sexual orientation. The big one being age. It turns out the number one bias in programming is not race or gender, it’s age. It’s very interesting.
Denver: What’s the cutoff? It’s probably too late for me.
Jim: Not for LaunchCode. We’ve placed people in their 70s. Our oldest placement was 74, and our youngest was 15. So, we really genuinely don’t care what your age is.
But here’s the thing with LaunchCode and diversity. We don’t have any quotas. We don’t have any difference that we apply to anybody who applies. But because there are groups that have been historically underrepresented in programming– just take the whole gender thing. Like most programmers are men. Well, that’s stupid. There’s no reason genetically that a man would be better. As a matter of fact, the early programmers were all women.
But because our doors are open and because it’s free, we tend to get a more diverse group of folks who’ve been sort of kept out of the party. And they come through our doors, and we train them for free. And then they’re very popular with employers these days. But look, if I need a job done, the first thing I want as an employer is somebody who’s very good at that job. And if they happen to fit some sort of demographic checkbox that I’m trying to pad out on my hiring statistics, well, that’s a secondary thing.
But we don’t emphasize the fact that the person you are likely to get from LaunchCode might look differently than a 26-year-old white or Asian male, but he or she is going to be able to do the job very well, and we train them to standards so we don’t apologize. And yes, we actually have white and Asian males who sometimes take the job well. So, you’re going to get a candidate who’s qualified. And if they look a little different, well, either thanks or sorry, but that’s not what we’re trying to do. But because we don’t emphasize it, we’re able to place.
As soon as you start saying that you’re helping people, that you’re a diverse—if you pick whatever thing you want to put in front of the quality of their work… you’ll kill the placements. You will turn off employers because the first thing an employer wants to do is have somebody who’s good at the job, and everything else is secondary.
Denver: It seems the standards have almost been compromised in the employer’s mind when they think that that is your ultimate mission. Would that be?
Jim: If I tell you I’m going to place nothing but people over 40, you think, “Well, no. I don’t want people over 40. I want people who are the best.” So you don’t ever want to lead with diversity or any sort of demographic.
You want to basically say, “Look, everybody in our system is talented.” And this is where LaunchCode’s free model is super helpful. Because you don’t pay for your education at LaunchCode, we are free to treat you as roughly as we need to to make sure you meet the criterion. This is different than traditional education. Because in the traditional education environment, the student is the customer. So, if I’m paying your school $20,000 or $50,000 tuition, then you kind of owe me something.
And if I’m not really up to the task, let’s say, I don’t really meet the standards that you’d like to have, you’re not going to turn me away. You’re going to maybe give me some remedial training, or worse yet, you’re going to give me that piece of paper, but it’s going to devalue that piece of paper in the eyes of the employer. And what happens even with nonprofit colleges is the value of the education gets devalued over time because they have to keep their customers happy, the customers being the students.
Our students are not our customers. Our students are people who we are giving a free world-class education to, and a lot of them can’t handle it. And if you can’t handle it at LaunchCode, we say, “Sorry, we’re going to give your seat to the next person who can handle it because we have this massive stream of people who want to come in because it’s a great education for free.” So, the line is long.
The whole point is if you emphasize trying to help a person, he or she will never get a job. If you emphasize trying to help the company, then we can get a lot of worthy and deserving people those jobs because they have to meet that standard.
Denver: An interesting perspective on that, I guess, is that your customers are the corporations where you’re placing these people, and you need to meet what they want. So that is essentially your North Star in terms of what you do and how you go about doing it.
Jim: And it’s very interesting because the reason everybody’s so passionate about LaunchCode is the impact it’s having on individuals. It’s literally life-changing for a lot of the people that we work with, and that’s why we do it. But we don’t cater to those people. We cater to the people who employ those people for the benefit of those people.
The whole point is if you emphasize trying to help a person, he or she will never get a job. If you emphasize trying to help the company, then we can get a lot of worthy and deserving people those jobs because they have to meet that standard.
Denver: And I looked at your annual report, Jim, and your impact is really sensational in terms of those who get apprenticeships and go on to get permanent jobs. Give us a little idea in terms of the trajectory of people and how they have fared who’ve gone into the apprenticeship and then in the workplace.
Jim: So we like to keep our numbers hovering at 90%, which is that 9 times out of 10, we get a person a job and they stay at that job. That’s both for the sake of the person, but it’s also for the sake of the employer. Because one of the problems that employers have is that programmers tend to jump ship. And the reason for that is there are very few people that will hire you if you’re new. So, if you’re a new candidate, you’ll typically work for a company that you don’t want to work for until you’ve built up that experience and the resume to jump ship. So, we don’t want that.
So, what we do at LaunchCode instead is we have over a hundred employers in each Metro area, and we give the candidate a choice of the company they want to work for at the beginning, so the retention is way higher. Because if you said to me, “Jim, you got to go work for a bank.”– I’d probably cry. I do not want– I mean, I’m on the Fed. I’m practically a banker these days.
Denver: I know you are. We’ll cut that part out. No, we won’t.
Jim: The Fed knows this. I voted on interest rates in flip-flops and a t-shirt. I don’t do it on camera, but look, I’m not the sort of guy you want to have working at a bank. But if it was to feed my family, I’d suck it up and take that job until I had enough experience to quit and get someplace that I really wanted to be.
And so, by giving the choice to the candidate, again, it’s better for the candidate, it’s also better for the company. This is LaunchCode’s innovation stack. Like these are the 10 things we do differently from all other training programs. And you say, “Well, one, two things. How is it that important?” But it turns out if you stack up 10 of these things, you end up with a program that has really meaningfully different, higher levels of impact. And that’s ultimately what we’re going for.
LaunchCode has an innovation stack. We are doing a dozen things that nobody else is doing, and we’re doing them for good reasons because ultimately, we want to have successful people working at companies. That’s the goal.
Denver: Is there another thing or two in the stack that immediately come to mind because those are fascinating things. And I’ve got to tell you, if you were to give me my choice of where I wanted to work, even if I didn’t like it, I would stick in there a lot longer because I made the choice. There is something about having that agency to have made the choice that’s going to have me stick it out a little bit longer. So, there’s a lot of psychology in that which I just think is so impactful.
Jim: Well, we stumbled across this stuff. And I would say, the major things at LaunchCode is free, open to all. Does not emphasize race, gender or any sort of demographic in our placement. Has a varying level of a graduation standard.
That’s a big one because in the programming world, the goalposts are always moving. So, what happens is for traditional college, it takes about three years to get courseware developed. That’s the cycle time. Well, in the programming world, the language standards change every six months. So, you are literally six times slower than the market if you’re a traditional educator.
LaunchCode changes its curriculum almost continuously, but in order to keep up with the market. So that’s really important. People don’t emphasize that. There’s a bunch of stuff, but the point is LaunchCode has an innovation stack. We are doing a dozen things that nobody else is doing, and we’re doing them for good reasons because ultimately, we want to have successful people working at companies. That’s the goal.
Denver: Well, you’re achieving it. That leads us right into that book you just wrote, The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time. And I guess from what I just heard you say, an innovation stack is not just an innovation. It’s a series or a continuum of innovations that together set you apart. Would that be an accurate description?
Jim: Yes. It’s this thing that I sort of discovered because I couldn’t answer the question as to why Square survived an attack by Amazon.
Denver: No one ever had.
Jim: Nobody has.
Denver: But you! You know what I mean? You’re the exception.
Jim: We are the single company that as a startup survived an Amazon attack. And let me tell you what Amazon does. They copy your product, and they undercut your price. And then they add the Amazon brand to their offering, and they watch you die. Or more often they just buy you or buy your corpse, I guess, is what they do.
The thing that happened to Square when we were still a startup, as we were about four years into the company, was that Amazon attacked us using this perfect strategy that had always worked, and we fought them for a year, and then Amazon quit.
And Amazon actually was pretty cool when they quit because they actually mailed a Square reader to all their soon-to-be former customers. Which I mean, look, it was great. But the thing that did for me was to put this giant question in my head, which was like, “Why did we survive? Because we didn’t really do anything differently. It wasn’t like we came up with this battle plan for Amazon… We executed it perfectly or any of that stuff. Like, we literally did nothing different. We just kept running our business, and then Amazon disappeared. And then the question was, “Well, what the hell happened?”
And so, for the next two years, I spent a lot of time researching other companies that when they were a startup… and you would expect them to be very vulnerable, somehow survived an attack by a government or a competitor, or just something that you would think would kill this company, and somehow this company survived.
And it turns out that there are literally hundreds of examples of these companies throughout history. And they all had this thing in common called an innovation stack. I mean, I had to coin the term, but they had this thing. They had this path.
And I was like, “Wait a second. What we just did in the last 10 years out in Silicon Valley was done a hundred years ago in San Francisco by the thing that became the biggest bank in the world, or the biggest airline in the country, or the frozen food industry. Like you look at the core of these super, super successful, basically world-dominating companies, and they all had this exact same pattern.
And when I saw the pattern, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m probably just deluding myself,” because it’s easy to have confirmation bias if you do your own research, and you think you figure something out. So, I was like, I need to talk to somebody who’s lived through this. And most of the historical examples I’ve found, the founders were long since dead.
But Herb Kelleher, the legendary founder of Southwest Airlines was alive, and he graciously agreed to give me a day of his time. And I flew down, and I sat with Herb. And I said, “Herb, I think what you did at Southwest was the same thing that happened to us at Square. What do you think?”
And I just listened to the man talk for a couple of hours. And at the end, he was in general agreement with me. He basically said– at the end, he was like, “So how are you going to share this with the world? What’s your plan for not just taking this as some sort of interesting tidbit of knowledge, but how are you going to get this message out?”
And I was like, “Oh, I just got a homework assignment from one of my business idols.” But that’s how the book came through.
Denver: Well, wasn’t Herb basically the one to talk you out of making this a comic book? I mean, weren’t you going to go down that road? And then Herb said, “No, no, no, no, no, Jim. That’s not the best idea.”
Jim: Well, actually, I did. My first effort was to make it a graphic novel. And I actually did it. I wrote the whole book. Well, not the whole book, but I had the whole book mapped out as a comic because I think business books are really boring.
I mean, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you’ve read them, they’re just boilerplate crap, and they’re no fun.
Denver: If I can just share an observation with you on that, I read a lot of business books because I have a lot of people on the show. And I get them all on a Kindle.
And when I go to Kindle, I look at popular highlights. And if you ever look at the popular highlights, that’s the things that people have highlighted a lot in Kindle, on a business book. You never get past page 30 or page 35. Everybody has checked out by then.
So, to underscore your point, and I don’t think that the author lost his mojo on page 36. I think people said, “This is so boring. I got it.” And they watch Netflix or they buy another book.
Jim: Well, I didn’t want to do one of those. So, I did a comic book. And it took me a year and a half, and I was so excited to show it to Herb. And when I told him that I had a chapter for him and I told him how I wanted to do it, and he said, basically, “Just leave me out.” He’s like, “I can’t believe you’re doing this as a comic.” He’s like, “This is a serious subject.”
The funny thing is Herb has a great sense of humor. He was a joyful, funny, boisterous guy. And he was great! And the fact that he didn’t want to participate in the comic book sort of surprised me and really sort of upset me, but I was not going to leave Herb Kelleher out of the book. So, I rewrote the whole book. I actually saved one of the chapters that is a comic, and I put it on my website. So, you can download the comic version of chapter nine, if you want, from jimmckelvey.com.
But I trashed the whole rest of the comic book because, and this is the important thing. This is super important, and I’m totally indebted to Herb for this. The comic book is the wrong format for the message that I was trying to give because the comic book is a hero story. Who is the protagonist in a comic? Well, it’s somebody who has superpowers with x-ray vision or, at the very least it’s Batman, who’s a super-rich guy with really cool stuff like a Batmobile and stuff.
That superhero persona is the exact opposite of what I found to be the thing that united all these entrepreneurs. Like, all the people that I was studying were not heroic. They were normal people who had one or two things that were different about them. And it wasn’t any sort of personality trait.
It was that they found themselves in a situation where for whatever reason, they couldn’t do what everyone else was doing. They couldn’t copy. And because they couldn’t copy, they were forced to innovate. And most of them didn’t like it. Most of them wanted to do what everybody else was doing, but they were prevented from it. And that’s not a hero story. That’s a story that I can relate to as just a normal guy.
And so, writing the book as a comic would have made this very subtle message – that this is not you. This is a story about people who are better than you or stronger than you, or younger than you, or richer, whatever superlative you don’t have that disqualifies you from having to take a risk and actually do the unpleasant task of developing new stuff. That’s the message of the comic book, and that’s the wrong message.
So, Herb really inspired me to rewrite the book, and the book is better now. The book basically speaks to every person, and it talks about normal folks. And hopefully, this is my hope, is that if you read it, you’ll sit there and go, “Oh, wait a second. None of these people are that different than I am. They just happen to have a little bit different situation, and they happen to have this thing called an innovation stack which anyone can have.” I lay it out in the book how it happens because we’ve got so many problems in the world. I don’t want our talents sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the superhero to show up. I want normal people to go, “Oh, I guess I could do that.”
Denver: We’re all changemakers. Every single one of us. It really does underscore though the importance of the vessel, and sometimes people don’t think about that. They think the message is the message, but know the vessel, and in your particular case, the book, and not the comic book, really becomes such an important decision you had to make.
You feature a couple of companies in the book: Square because you know the inside story of that; Southwest, you’ve mentioned. Ikea. But the one you referenced a moment ago was the one that really caught my attention. And that was the Bank of Italy, at least at the time. Tell us what got you back to that. And of course, they went on to be the largest bank in the world. Tell us a little bit about that story.
Jim: It’s a fantastic story. So, what I was looking for when I was choosing my examples, and I literally had probably a hundred different examples that I could have chosen from different industries throughout time.
I wanted the most parallel to Square because I wanted to find the analogy of a situation that I had personally lived through, exemplified in history. And I found literally a hundred years before Square, like five blocks from where Square’s headquarters was, there was another company that started in San Francisco that built what became the largest bank in the world.
And it was built by a guy, A.P. Giannini, who never had any formal education past eighth grade. So, he drops out of school before high school. Became a produce vendor. Very successful. But basically, he sold lettuce and almonds. And he started a bank because he was pissed off. Like, he was angry. It was a spite bank. I don’t know if you…
Denver: I watch “ Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Jim: It was a spite bank. He opened a spite bank because people weren’t lending to immigrants at the time. And just as we have problems today with minorities and people of color having trouble getting access to financial systems, Giannini’s version of that was immigrants. They wouldn’t loan to you unless you were this New York, blue blood and whatever. He built a bank that was totally in the face of all the traditions and what you know of banking today. But when I say the word bank, the image that appears in your mind is what Giannini built.
Banks before Giannini would only lend to their friends and very elite people. It was only businesses with certain credentials. There were no installment loans. There were not tellers who would speak your language. There were all sorts of things. You couldn’t go into a bank branch and talk to somebody. It was this totally closed, secretive institution.
Giannini changed that. And in changing that, he built the biggest bank in the world. And I thought, “Well, that’s a great story to tell. Because well, first of all, it was a financial institution. It was basically the same thing we did at Square. And I saw the parallels. I was like, “Oh, this is too good.
Denver: The lessons are just fresh. Wasn’t he the first bank to admit women?
Jim: Yes, the very first bank for women. First bank for home loans, first bank for car loans, first bank for installment loans. I mean, first, first, first, first.
If you abuse the customer in ways that you can get away with short-term, long-term, you’re killing this magical entity. Whereas if you behave in a way that always maintains the customer’s trust, the long-term math says you’ll actually prosper longer over time.
Denver: You have some wonderful insights throughout the book that apply to any enterprise, including some nonprofits. So, let me ask you about a couple, if I may, starting with trust. You say that trust is more precious than love. Speak about that.
Jim: Well, trust is an interesting thing. If you have ever had your trust betrayed, or maybe if you’ve been on the other side of that equation and betrayed someone’s trust, you will know that you don’t get it back. Even if you want to give it back, even if you want to trust this person again, you can’t do that. It is a one-way valve. And once broken is irreparable.
As a result, I say it’s more precious than love because customers can love you, and then they can hate you. And then they can love you again. Or people can do that. People are capable of that. But trust is one of those things you get once.
And it’s one of those things that I find companies often will squander their trust for some short-term game. And I think it’s tragic because especially if you have an innovation stack, if you’re one of these special entities that has this thing that protects you and allows you to make ridiculous amounts of money, you could make even more money if you wanted to, but to do so would betray the trust of the customer.
And I studied companies that had done it both ways. And the results over time is that if you abuse the customer in ways that you can get away with short-term, long-term, you’re killing this magical entity. Whereas if you behave in a way that always maintains the customer’s trust, the long-term math says you’ll actually prosper longer over time.
Denver: And it’s probably even Square, if you will, during a crisis, when you step up even bigger and don’t exploit the situation, but bend over backwards to serve the customer, then that trust just becomes in bold letters.
Jim: We did it last year. We had a lot of small merchants who were getting crushed, and Square stepped up with a bunch of free software to help them.
Now, are we eventually going to charge for it? Oh yeah! But in a crisis when we, when you absolutely need what we have, and we could stick you for whatever price we want, cost is zero. And that’s not because we’re trying to bait and switch. It’s because these people are suffering, and the last thing you want to do when somebody is in trouble is exploit an advantage.
Denver: And people will remember that forever. You know what I mean? They remember those things because everything is in stark relief in a crisis. So, you really remember who was there for you.
Another insight when innovating is to stay away from experts, and that was really interesting. Get away from the experts! Why do you ban the experts from the room?
Jim: It may not be for the reason people think. I don’t dislike experts. I love experts. But think about what being an expert means. To be an expert, you have to have experience with the thing that you’re the expert in. Well, how do you get that experience? You get that experience because the thing exists already.
And then I’m talking about in The Innovation Stack this world where something doesn’t yet exist, which means by definition, in my world, there are no experts. There cannot be an expert because it hasn’t been done yet. And the analogy I always use is aviation. You would be an idiot to fly a plane today without training. You can go out and get training.
The Wright brothers could not get training because no human had flown. They get in the plane. They turn the engine on, and they make their best guess, and probably they’re going to crash. And most likely, they will not succeed. But they can’t be experts, or at best, they will become the world’s first expert. But they won’t be able to call somebody else up and say, “Hey, how’d you handle a power on stall? What the hell is that?”
Expertise is absolutely appropriate and vital in the world of copying where we live most of our lives. But the world that I’m trying to get people to understand is the world of innovation where you don’t get to copy. You don’t have this thing that you can look at and say, “Oh, well. We’ll just do what they did. I’ll have what she’s having.” No, we don’t get to copy in the world of innovation. And because of that, there are no experts.
And so be wary if you’re building an organization that’s at its core, innovative, hiring experts who are experts in something that’s irrelevant to you, but may seem at the time to be well, the best we got, and that’ll suck you into doing something that’s probably contextually inappropriate for an innovative company.
Denver: They’re hammers and everything they see is a nail, and they’re going to do what everybody else has done. And that’s not going to take you where you need to go with innovation.
When I think of an entrepreneur, I think, and this is probably the wrong way. We talked about not the hero, but also kind of that solitary figure… Einstein or something like that. But everything that you’ve done, Jim, you have done in a collaborative way. You’ve co-created a vision. I am finally beginning to see some of that in the nonprofit space, particularly since the pandemic where people are coming together.
What makes for a good, healthy, and successful collaboration in your mind?
Jim: Well, in my case, it’s people who have skills that I lack. I have a fairly narrow skillset, and it’s deficient in great areas, one of which being management, just flat-out day-to-day management. I’m not good. So, I tend to always supplement my deficiencies with the partners that I choose. And it’s different in every case, but in every case, what we find is that there are some things that I handle and some things that he or she will handle, and that balance is wonderful.
Plus it takes a lot of stress off because if you’re a smart, motivated, hard-working person, there are things you can do that you don’t like to do. The problem with doing something you don’t like to do for too often is it’s very draining.
So, like I say, we can use the bank example. I could go to work for a bank. I know how to go to work. I could probably even appear to be a good employee for a while, but every moment I spend at that bank is very draining for me because I’m having to put forth effort.
I usually say it as, “Don’t swear in front of your grandma.” I swear probably more than I should, but I never swear in front of my grandparents. That was the rule. I would never ever– I had this behavior around my grandparents because they’re my grandparents.
Denver: You don’t have to explain that one.
Jim: But it’s this thing that it takes energy to maintain that. It’s keeping your abs contracted in case someone’s going to punch you.
So, that’s the problem I see with doing things even that you’re capable of doing… but you shouldn’t be doing. I always try to make that partnership, this complete protein, so that we’ve got all the parts that we need, and the person who’s good at accounting works with the person who’s lousy at accounting.
Denver: That’s interesting. I wonder if some of that collaboration may have come also from glass blowing because I know that that is a passion of yours. You made a living doing it, and it’s really hard to make a piece of glass by yourself. Isn’t it?
Jim: Yes. Most of the pieces that I make are impossible to make with one pair of hands. And so, I’ve been working on teams and very dependent on the skills of my teammates for 30 years.
And it’s one of these things if you are a glass artist, you end up almost by definition becoming a good team player. Because if you can’t, you’re limited physically to very small, very boring work. Whereas if you can employ a team of people, then they can be working one piece of glass, and you’re working on another piece of glass and then we can join the two things together and at its highest level, you get this wonderful state of, I guess they call it “flow” now.
But there’s this fantastic moment when the other person is working so well with you that you start working better. And what I noticed for myself is that there was this one piece that I was making, and there was like one move that was really difficult. And it was a move that I made solo. So, it’s only me at the bench, me with the piece. I would make this move. And the thing that I noticed was that on the days I was working with a guy named John, I was about 80% on this move. And if I was working with anybody who was not John, I was 50%.
And I was sitting there going, “What the hell?” Because first of all, understand, John is on the other side of the studio. He’s 10 feet away when I’m doing this move. So, he is not physically involved in anything. He’s not talking to me. The other assistants aren’t talking to me.
Why am I incapable of doing this thing competently with somebody else standing away, who is irrelevant? And the answer is if it’s anybody but John, I’m a little bit worried about them. If it’s anybody but John, I am thinking, at least in part of my brain, “Is she doing the right thing? Is she getting the next thing set up?” I’m doing part of their job in my head.
And that part of my brain is what I need to concentrate, like I can’t actually focus on the job that I got to do because I’m worried about somebody else. And so that was a really interesting lesson: The partners you choose can have fantastic impacts on your solo work.
There’s a temporal component to this. It’s not just being first, or being the best, or being right. It’s also: When do you do it? When is the moment for that new feature? When is the time?
Denver: It really comes down, maybe I’m misconstruing this, but it comes down to trust. If there’s somebody that you count on and you trust so you don’t have that peripheral vision looking across the room saying, Are they doing it right? Because you trust your teammate there. Therefore, you can really focus.
Another lesson that you got out of glass blowing, I wonder how this applies to business, is timing. You became a student of timing. Talk a little bit about that.
Jim: Ah, timing. So, I learned that from a man named Lino Tagliapietra, who is regarded as the best glassblower in the world. And I took one of his classes. I asked him to teach me how to do a move. And what I was expecting was that he would teach me the way he taught the other students how to do things, which is that he would demonstrate it.
Interestingly enough, the move that I was asking him to do was so simple. He said, “Well, you just do it.” And he watched me do it. And at the point where I was about to join these two pieces of glass together, one was hot, one was cold. He said, “Wait.” It’s just for a couple of seconds. And then he said, “Now.”
And I joined the two pieces at the moment that he said to do it, and it went perfectly. And this is this fascinating thing to me because I’d been doing the move right for 15 years. I’d literally been doing the operation correctly in a technical sense, but I’ve been doing it the wrong moment. And in glass, if the glass is too hot, it won’t maintain its shape: you can make the shape, but it’s too gooey and it’ll run out. If you’re conversely too cold with the glass, then you can’t make the shape to begin with.
And the timing aspect was this sort of “aha!” moment where I sat there and I said, “Oh, wait a second. I spend all my energy in the world trying to learn how to do things the right way, as opposed to when to do the right things.”
Denver: Who teaches that?
Jim: I had to put that in the book because I was looking at these stories of these very, very successful entrepreneurs and these world-changing businesses and all this innovation.
And I was like, there’s a temporal component to this. It’s not just being first, or being the best, or being right. It’s also: When do you do it? When is the moment for that new feature? When is the time? And we’re never taught when in school.
Denver: Never. Right.
Jim: We’re taught how in school.
Denver: Have you been able to transfer that to the business world in terms that may not be really conscious of exactly when you do something? I mean, how do you think about that? That’s a good one. No one talks about that.
Jim: I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert, but the word you used is “conscious,” and that’s all I hope to be.
I asked myself the question: Are we doing this at a time that makes sense? And sometimes, the answer is no. Sometimes the answer is, “Wait a second.” The world is not ready for this thing.
Look, you’re not going to be an expert in timing. And I go through the math of this in the book. The problem with time is you don’t get to repeat the experiments. If you want to learn how to do something, you can try again and again and again and again and again.
If you want to learn when to do something, I think the best you can do is sort of study and be aware of temporal influences, but you don’t get to try again at the same time with the same conditions. But simply being aware of it. Simply asking the questions has saved me countless times from getting into even deeper trouble.
Denver: And you also talked about the similarities between art and being an entrepreneur. And I guess that single word that comes to my mind is “audacity.”
Talk about audacity, because they both take it, don’t they?
Jim: So, I was trying to think of the thing that kept the entrepreneur going. And by entrepreneur, I meant the ancient definition of the word, which meant a business person who is doing something weird. Not somebody who starts a business, that’s the current definition.
But the ancient definition of entrepreneur meant somebody who was doing something differently and was likely to fail. And so, audacity is the thing that keeps you going if you’re doing something crazy. Like, “I have this crazy goal, and I’m going to keep going.”
And I found that in most endeavors, audacity is not respected. As a matter of fact, it’s something that you want to deemphasize because it’s risky, and it endangers things that are working just fine. Don’t screw it up. But it turns out, in the art world, audacity, doing something new, doing something that is shocking has a value that is more pronounced.
And so, I was lucky that I had a lot of art training because I was more comfortable with audacity. In other words, when people would look at my work and say, “Well, that’s crazy, or that’s shocking, or that’s wrong,” I was better able to handle that criticism, whether it be in the art world or in the business world. So, it’s a nice skillset. And look, a lot of the artists’ skillsets are exactly the opposite of what you want in the business world. But in my case, they ended up translating over very nicely in this world of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Denver: We seem to talk about perseverance all the time and not enough about audacity. So, I’m glad you brought that out.
From a very early age, Jim, you said that you gave up on being cool. Now, that’s not an easy thing for a kid to do. I don’t know if I ever gave up on being cool. Although I do know that I never became cool. Did not having to worry about being cool influence you in any way?
Jim: So, I won’t take the credit for not worrying about it, but I will take the credit for giving up. At some point, repeated failure and of course, in the case of trying to be cool, the fact that you’re trying means by definition, you’re not.
Denver: Absolutely, that’s perfect!
Jim: So, the act of trying disqualifies you immediately. So, it’s this weird thing. But look, I was always a little bit behind the time fashion-wise, style-wise. My musical tastes are horrible. Even entrepreneurship, which is now cool… I was doing it 25 years ago, before it was cool. Back then, everyone wanted to work on Wall Street or flip real estate.
I was always the weirdo. And at some point, I think I just lost my pain sensation. It just didn’t bother me to not be accepted. And it wasn’t that I liked that. It was that I was just worn out from caring. So, I don’t care as much as I used to. And having that beaten out of me by repeated failures at an early age has given me this very thick callus to keep going now that I’m a little older.
And think of that change as this thing: You don’t get the choice of whether it’s going to happen, but you do have this choice as to what side of that line you’re going to spend all your life on.
Denver: That really is an interesting insight. I looked at that, but I said, if you don’t care what other people think of you in a very superficial way, it kind of frees you up to do some audacious things. So, I can see how there’s a continuum there.
Let me close with this, Jim. Chaos is fairly familiar to you because you’ve built organizations that were the first of its kind. And as the world is becoming more chaotic and faster, and disruptions are now the norm, what advice would you have for those who are experiencing a whole new level of chaos for the very first time?
Jim: Well, my advice would be to understand that there’s this invisible line in the world between what we know how to do and what we don’t. And that’s the line that I talk about in the book. And you never have to cross this line. You never have to. You can live your entire life, be very successful. You can be rich and powerful and famous and cool and never have to do anything that has not previously been done.
And when you step across that line, things get really weird really fast, and then you’ll feel uncomfortable. All this sort of bad stuff happens. But the good thing that happens across that line is new stuff happens. The new things happen.
And the reason I wrote the book and the reason I am hoping that people will read it, or at least hand it to somebody who needs to read it, is that I don’t want people… when they encountered that line in their life, and you’re not going to find this thing daily. You’re not going to find it weekly. It’ll show up two or three times in your life, maybe more.
But there will be very few times in your life when you have to say: Do I want to do something that no human has ever done before? But if you find yourself in that place, and as you say, with your question, more of us are finding ourselves in that place because of the way the world is changing, the speed at which change is happening.
I want you to understand that you do have a choice, that you can walk across, and that you don’t have to be a superhero to do it. That you, as a flawed, uncool, geeky person with back pain and mismatched socks can do what these supposed heroes have done in the past. And that there is actually a formula for it.
It’s not a checklist, but there actually are these patterns that strangely have worked throughout the ages. And that people keep rediscovering. And the reason we don’t talk about it these days, frankly, is because we lost the word in English to describe a business person who was doing something that wasn’t copying. The word entrepreneur used to mean that. It doesn’t mean that anymore. So, we can’t even have the conversation.
So, what I would say is, look, the world is really scary. Chaos is, I mean, we just lived through a pandemic. Some people are still living through it. I mean, it’s not over but look at all the change that it’s brought. And think of that change as this thing: You don’t get the choice of whether it’s going to happen. But you do have this choice as to what side of that line you’re going to spend all your life on.
And even the people who are the most innovative spend most of their lives copying. But occasionally, they step across that line, and I want more people doing that because that’s where we get the solutions to all this stuff that’s going to hit us in the face in the future.
Denver: As you say, get outside the city walls. The title of the book again is The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time. It is a fabulous read.
And tell us about the LaunchCode website, the kind of information visitors will find on it, and how they can help support this work if they should be so inclined to do so.
Jim: So, launchcode.org. The best thing you can do to support it is come and get trained and get a job. If you’re in a position where you’d like to give us some money so then we can train more people because it is not free to train them. It’s just, we don’t charge them for it. Not free for us. And we raise some of the money by charging our corporate customers, but we’re also trying to grow faster than that.
So, we’re a charity, and we take money, and I give them money every year and other people do, so that’s one way you can support. If you happen to be in a LaunchCode city, please consider coming in and volunteering. A lot of people who are good programmers themselves love coming in and mentoring.
Because, I’ll tell you something, this rumor that programmers are somehow antisocial or autistic and they’re like, we don’t like hugs, that only applies to a very small percentage of the programming population. Most of us are in this sort of solitary position where it’s tough to explain to other people what you do and how cool you are.
Denver: Fantastic, and I think after the last year, year and a half, we could all use a hug.
I want to thank you very much, Jim, for being here today. It was a real delight to talk to you.
Jim: Thank you so much. This was super fun.
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