Square Biz: Why St. Louis Is The Best Location For Square’s Newest Office

Square announced it would open its fourth U.S. office in St. Louis. We sat down with co-founder Jim McKelvey to find out why–and to get his take on the impact it will have on STL.

Wesley Law

Square, the credit card payment processing system that was founded by St. Louisans Jim McKelvey and Jack Dorsey in 2009 and was originally headquartered here before ultimately relocated to the Bay Area, announced last week it will open its fourth U.S. office in St. Louis at CIC@4240 in the Cortex Innovation Community.

Square Corporate Office

A view of Square’s office in San Francisco: designers and engineers work side by side in collaborative spaces like cabanas, outdoor seating, and common areas in addition to individual spaces: phone rooms, standing desks, and seating areas lining the windows.

Why did Square choose St. Louis as its next U.S. office, the fourth in the U.S., and how will the addition impact STL’s innovation culture? We checked in with Jim McKelvey to find out.

Well, the actual picture was sort of split-screen. Jack and I had decided we wanted to start a new company together and had generally chosen mobile technology as sort of the area we were going to explore, but we had not picked a location, or an idea.

We were working on various ideas at the time. I was in St. Louis, and he was in San Francisco.

So he came out to St. Louis at the beginning, and I flew out to San Francisco, and we were kicking around ideas. We chose an idea and decided we would begin working on it, and I flew back to St. Louis to sort of wrap up my affairs.

I was in my glass studio one day, actually selling a piece of glass, when a lady tried to pay with an American Express card that I couldn’t process, and I lost the sale. That was the impetus for Square.

The idea for the whole Square product initially was the result of one merchant, which in this case was me, losing a sale because he couldn’t take a credit card.

So I immediately called Jack and said hey, this is what we need to work on, and he was excited about it, so we investigated a little more, and realized that there had basically been very little innovation in payments, really since PayPal was founded ten years before.

So there was a lot to be done there. That’s how Square got its start.

Did you immediately set up operations in San Francisco?

When we began, we hired one guy to be working in the San Francisco office. His name was Tristan O’Tierney, and Jack and I were, with Tristan, starting off on day one.

My wife Anna helped a little bit, and then we quickly started adding team members. I hired Sam Wen in St. Louis, and he basically worked for me here, and then worked with some more engineers out of San Francisco, but we had not yet chosen a location for the company.

We were debating… New York, St. Louis, and San Francisco were our three choices. We ultimately chose San Francisco because we felt like there was more ability to hire engineers in the San Francisco area than either New York, or St. Louis, but we did open a small office in St. Louis.

We had a small engineering team led by Bob Lee, who was ultimately our chief technology officer at Square for many years. Bob was a genius, and probably one of the best Java guys in the world, and Bob had recently moved back to St. Louis with his wife and two kids, and was just an awesome find.

So we essentially built an office around Bob. That office started in his house, and then we got an office on Delmar, but as we started to grow the office, we ran into real problems.

There were not enough talented engineers in the Saint Louis ecosystem that we could hire without disrupting other companies. What happened was, we’d hire somebody really good, and then I’d get an angry phone call from some CIO, or executive who was pissed off that I was raiding them or something, which is not true.

Featured image: Jim McKelvey

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