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How Everyone Missed Square’s Big Comeback

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What got my attention recently was a throwaway comment from an entrepreneur whose company’s technology burrows deep in the bowels of the payments industry: Square has been doing really well lately.

Square? Really? That, as anyone who follows the soap opera of Silicon Valley knows, is the other company Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey started and runs today as CEO. But Square was the weak sibling, a credit card-reader purveyor that was running out of money and went public a couple years ago at a valuation below its last private investment level. It was an embarrassment, the one no one talked about.

Today Square is looking pretty darn good, especially in relation to its cousin, Twitter. The payments company’s stock has soared this year, nearly doubling, while Twitter (TWTR) has inched up a few percentage points. Square continues to grow its humdrum business, while Twitter hasn’t been able to convert being a part of the global zeitgeist into a reliably advancing operation.

In this case, humdrum is good. Square takes a predictable cut of every transaction its ma-and-pa merchant customers make. (It lost a major relationship with Starbucks (SBUX), a cup-half-full development given the large size and poor economics of the arrangement.) It also upsells data, offers credit and soon may become a banker to those same legions of small merchants.

With its core business solid, Square has gotten creative too. It bought a food-delivery business called Caviar, for example, that competes with the likes of Door Dash and UberEats. Why? Restaurants are loyal Square payments customers, and offering them additional service is an exercise in stickiness.

Square (SQ) still loses money, though the business is approaching the breakeven point and revenues in its most recent quarter grew 26%. The figure jumps to 36% not counting the lost sales from Starbucks, which shortly will cease to be a year-over-year factor.

This investment beast has become a beauty, and the transformation happened in plain sight.