Jack Dorsey: The shy genius behind billion-dollar companies Twitter and Square


Dorsey’s innovations, Twitter and Square, both reflect his obsession with communication and the exchange of value. SALT profiles him

St Louis, Missouri, USA, 1984. Jack Dorsey is eight years old. He has a stutter and prefers not to speak at all. He enjoys tennis, drawing, and computer club, and the walls of his bedroom are covered in maps.

Jack populates the streets of his favourite map – which depicts New York City – with yellow dots in an attempt to humanize the complex representation of an even more complex, living, breathing place. On his home computer, he designs his own maps, and teaches himself about graphics and programming so that he can introduce a new version of his dots – ones that move around the streets. The dots require data – locations to originate, how fast to move, where to go – which Dorsey retrieves from the radio frequencies of emergency vehicles, plotting their trajectories on the IBM PC Jr. and watching them speed around.

Silicon Valley, California, USA, 2006. Jack Dorsey is 30 years old. He works for Odeo, a young technology company specializing in internet startups. He likes Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, neat tequila, and craniosacral massage therapy, which he practises as a certified masseur.

At 8.50pm on Tuesday March 21, Dorsey publishes the first post on his new micro-blogging website. The idea is to create a platform where physically separate individuals can share information about themselves and read about each other. It allows them to display information about where their friends are and what they are doing. Dorsey’s post reads “just setting up my twttr”.

Today, an average of 6,000 tweets are sent every second, which adds up to 500 million a day and 200 billion a year. For a man who describes himself as “extraordinarily reserved and shy”, Dorsey is responsible for a vast amount of international communication on one of the world’s most visited websites.

‘A lot of what you see in Twitter today was invented by our users – the “at” symbol before the username, the hashtag, the retweet, the word ‘tweet’ to talk about the update, to talk about the 140 characters,’ Jack Dorsey

The first step in the trajectory from data-obsessed child to world-renowned billionaire was triggered by Dorsey’s mother, Marcia, overhearing a customer in her coffee shop talking about his need for a new programmer. She told the stranger that her son liked computers, and 15-year-old Jack soon began an internship at Mira Digital Publishing.

 Steady focus

Owner Jim McKelvey, whose company archived documents onto CD-ROMs, told Vanity Fair about his first meeting with Dorsey. “I was sitting at a terminal entering all this data, and this kid walks up behind me, with his arms straight at his sides. He was like “Hi, I’m Jack.” I said, “Yeah, I’ll be with you in a minute,” and I turned around and completely forgot about him until I had to get up to pee. Jack was in exactly the same position. He’d been motionless for 45 minutes.”

‘Communications and the exchange of value – they are two foundational and essential things to our civilization. When you simplify those – when you get down to the essence – you fix so many things,’ Jack Dorsey

Dorsey has maintained that steady focus. He is credited as co-founder of Twitter alongside software engineer Biz Stone and internet entrepreneur Evan Williams. To journalist Charlie Rose, he explained that they built the company “as a utility to stay in touch with each other – to just simply update where we were and what we were doing and what was meaningful to us. And the world has taken it and made it their own. The truly great companies have multiple founding moments throughout their history and are constantly reinventing themselves with the people they bring in with the ideas they have around the table. A lot of what you see in Twitter today was invented by our users – the “at” symbol before the username, the hashtag, the retweet, the word ‘tweet’ to talk about the update, to talk about the 140 characters. None of that came from the original three founders – that came from our users and we made it easier.”

Dorsey is the second biggest shareholder in his own company, but is no longer an official employee, choosing to focus instead on new business ventures. Whilst he remains co-founder and chairman of Twitter, he is also CEO of Square, his newer mobile payments company. Co-founded with Jim McKelvey, his boss from the internship he had at the age of 15, Square supplies methods for anyone to accept credit card payments by attaching a small device onto tablet computers, or mobile phones, that cards are able to be scanned through.

Rapid growth

Square receive a percentage of the transaction amount that they claim is much smaller than the average fee. The device itself is free and can work offline and commits to no monthly charges or commitments. The company has been growing at an extraordinary rate; they received all of their funding within six months of pitching, a process Dorsey admits was helped by both his previous success and his ability to demonstrate the device on the potential investor’s phones. By Square’s third birthday, when the product was only 18 months old, it overtook Twitter to place fifth on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list.

Dorsey has a reputation for being calm, quiet, and imperturbable, but his passion shines through when he talks about the links between his two billion-dollar companies. “Communications and the exchange of value – they are two foundational and essential things to our civilization. When you simplify those and get down to the essence you fix so many things. With Twitter it’s been the public conversation, it’s been transparency, it’s been health – people are talking about more proactive and preventative measurements instead of just solving a solution. One of the major issues with the health industry today is getting doctors paid and getting nurses paid, and we have doctors on Square who are doing house calls or are at their offices and they’re just accepting credits cards directly from their patients, which turns out to be much cheaper.”

Square is gaining customers and gathering speed. Last month they added a function to their app Cash that allows the user to text or email money for free. Twitter is now as old as its conceiver was when he began programming. Dorsey remains committed to services that connect, make life easier, and tackle the conflicts in our modern world. He is now considering running for Mayor of New York City, whose streets he has studied since childhood.

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PHOTO CREDIT: by JD Lasica from flickr