Why did the eccentric glassblower billionaire spend $ 20 million on a “crazy plan” to save the media

Jim McKelvey is a former glassblower who has become a serial entrepreneur and billionaire. Among his projects is the Square payment system, which he created with his former intern, Jack Dorsey. His new idea is to help people tired of fake news and clickbait choose for themselves which articles to read and which ads to see.

Why did the eccentric glassblower billionaire spend $ 20 million on a “crazy plan” to save the media

Jim McKelvey is a former glassblower who has become a serial entrepreneur and billionaire. Among his projects is the Square payment system, which he created with his former intern, Jack Dorsey. His new idea is to help people tired of fake news and clickbait choose for themselves which articles to read and which ads to see.


Jim McKelvey is one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs, but you can hardly guess this while talking to him. “It always seems to me that I'm not qualified enough,” says the 54-year-old billionaire, who founded six companies. Among them - the payment system Square with a market capitalization of $ 33 billion, which McKelvey created together with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. In the bustling Le Pain Quotidien Café in downtown Manhattan, an entrepreneur explains how his lack of experience and expertise has led to his success. “When I start to do something that I have never done before, I often realize that I am incompetent,” the billionaire notes.

However, sometimes it is people who do not have sufficient competence who are best able to find solutions to new problems. One of such decisions was the Square payment system, the idea of ​​creating which saved McKelvey’s first business and brought him a fortune of $ 1.5 billion. For more than 30 years, McKelvey has been involved in glass-blowing craft and even still sells his works, including designer glass mixers for sinks. In 2002, McKelvey and his friend opened a glass factory in St. Louis. To do this, they had to re-equip the building with an area of ​​750 square meters. m, in which in the 1930s there were a car dealership and a service station. A couple of years after the start of production, McKelvey was disappointed: potential customers could not pay for the purchase with an American Express card, which affected sales. The fact is that at that time, entrepreneurs had to pay too high a fee for accepting cards. McKelvey called his friend and founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, who was an intern with him as a teenager. In 2009, they launched the Square payment system, which allows you to accept payments from bank cards using your smartphone or tablet. Now 2 million entrepreneurs are using this payment system. In 2010, McKelvey resigned as CEO of Square due to the birth of his son, but he is still on the board of directors of the company.

Today, creative vision and lack of experience help McKelvey develop his business in a completely different field - the media. According to the entrepreneur, at some point he realized that he was tired of fake news, clickbait headlines and ubiquitous online advertising. Therefore, he thought about how to help readers regain control of their network “I”. In 2016, St. Louis McKelvey launched Invisibly, a business model built on micropayments for access to online content. He invested in its development of $ 11 million from his own funds and attracted another $ 20 million from investors, including the Peter Thiel Venture Fund Founders Fund. Using Invisibly tools, users themselves (and not advertisers and publishers) could get the opportunity to choose what kind of advertising they will see on the Internet, which articles to read, and what information about themselves to disclose. “We will tell you how to buy and sell your attention, what information about you is on the Internet and how it is monetized,” explains McKelvey.

Most sites make money in two ways: through subscription (like The New York Times and the Washington Post) or through advertising (like Forbes.com). McKelvey, in turn, wants to provide readers with free e-wallets that will be automatically replenished every time users watch Invisibly ads. In his opinion, then they could spend the accumulated virtual money on access to online content. According to the hypothesis of a billionaire, each article will cost a certain amount set by the algorithm taking into account quality and demand. If readers share their personal data, the cost of articles will decrease. At the same time, advertisers will have the opportunity to select ads that are relevant to the interests of specific users.

Now this idea can still be called something of a pipe dream of an eccentric billionaire. “I don't know if my plan will work,” McKelvey admits. “We have a couple of private investors who are risk tolerant. They know that our project may fail. We have already spent $ 20 million, but we do not even have a fully finished product. I just want to live in a world where you can earn more money with quality content, ”he says.

In February, Invisibly began beta testing its site. So far, users can only find out how much money would be credited to their e-wallets account for viewing a particular online advertisement. The more they earn, the more online content they can read on the websites of newspapers and magazines that have joined the McKelvey project. Theoretically, any user can also add their own money to an electronic wallet in order to avoid advertising in principle. Invisibly representatives note that the company conducts beta testing in collaboration with more than 30% of publishers in the USA, including the Associated Press, Scripps and McClatchy.

Jim McKelvey is content with the role of founder of Invisibly. The billionaire invited his long-time friend Matthew Porter to the post of CEO, who previously held a similar position in Contegix, a site management service provider. According to Porter, in the midst of last summer, McKelvey came to his home in St. Louis late in the evening and refused to leave until he agreed to join the team. He currently manages the company's offices in St. Louis, New York and Palo Alto.

“Jim is a damn smart person. I admire how intense he can work when he is passionately passionate about something. He not only sees the whole picture, but also pays attention to details, ”says Porter.

This has been the case throughout McKelvey’s career as a serial entrepreneur. In addition to Square, he founded several companies that are engaged in software, printing and roofing. According to the billionaire, one of his early companies for the first time in history recorded exhibition literature on CDs. He also created a nonprofit organization to help solve the shortage of programmers in the United States.

All these companies, it would seem, have nothing in common with each other, but they are connected by one thing: with their help, McKelvey is trying to solve a specific problem. Moreover, in most cases we are talking about new industries, about which he knows little. Realizing this, the billionaire decided to write his new book, entitled “The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time”, which will go on sale next week.

“Perhaps I already filled the bumps. However, I am still confused and scared. It still seems to me that I don't know what I'm doing. I still feel everything that I felt when I started working on creating Square, ”McKelvey emphasizes. “Over the past three years I have been writing a book. It helped me understand what I should feel uneasy now ... But now I understand it a little better, but this is still little progress, ”the billionaire adds.