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Jim McKelvey Has Altered the Way Money Changes Hands. Now What?

He flies his plane, plays the piano, blows glass, and works on the next big thing.

Photographs by Kevin A. Roberts

(page 1 of 4)

To understand Jim McKelvey, the founder of two local businesses, as well as a third, based in San Francisco, that could alter the world and make him a greater fortune, it might help to start with the third movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. But first I need to tell you about McKelvey’s don’t-do list.

Some years back, McKelvey, who is 45 now, was having problems with his digital publishing company, Mira. Founded in 1990, it started off selling PC software and then, as the Internet took off, struggled to make a transition; to what, McKelvey wasn’t sure. At the same time, McKelvey was blowing glass and selling his art-glass pieces. The money he could make from the glass was like an emergency line of credit for his company, but he was having trouble juggling his pursuits. Then, at a conference, he met business guru Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. Collins “asked me if I had a to-do list, and I said, ‘Oh yes, I do,’ and I showed it to him,” McKelvey told me recently.

“Do you have a don’t-do list?” Collins asked him.

“What’s that?” McKelvey said.

“Make a list of the things you shouldn’t do,” Collins told him.

McKelvey put news on that list. “It was depressing me,” he said. “The 24-hour news cycle is just horrible.”

Then he found himself at home one day watching an episode of Frasier that he’d already seen. “I’d liked the episode, but I didn’t like it the second time, and I thought, ‘This is stupid. I shouldn’t be doing this.’ So I got rid of the TV… And I ended up going nuts because I couldn’t read that much, and I needed something to do at night.”

We were talking in his office at Mira, near South Grand Boulevard. It was sparsely furnished, with boxes scattered around, giving it the temporary feeling of a campaign headquarters. Over the past two years McKelvey has helped build Square, a new, San Francisco–based company that lets anyone with an iPhone, iPad, or Android mobile device and a bank account accept credit-card payments. I’d been asking him about the risks Square assumes and he was looking for papers to illustrate a point when he pulled out some sheet music, the score for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

“Do you play the piano?” I asked.

“A little bit,” he said.

One day in 2003, McKelvey said, he heard the sonata’s third movement on classical station KFUO-FM and was dumbstruck by its difficulty. “My God,” he thought, “how could anyone learn to play like that?

So McKelvey went to the music department at Washington University, where his father was an engineering professor and where he’d gotten his undergraduate degrees in computer science and economics, and obtained the sonata’s score. “If you look at the notes,” he said, the third movement is “playable; it’s just fast. Each of those notes is played at a fantastic rate of speed. And I thought, how much would I have to practice to be able to move my hands that quickly?”

At the time, he hadn’t played the piano since he was in eighth grade. He’d never played it well. But he got a piano and he began to play, and for the next three years, he played the third movement of the Moonlight Sonata—just that sonata, and just that stormy third movement—obsessively.

“I’d go in to Washington U., practice on the pianos there,” he said. “I’d practice at home. And then, anywhere I was on the road, I would get a piano. Down in the basement where the Houston airport is connected to a hotel, I’d go to the hotel on a layover. I just started looking in ballrooms. They always have a piano somewhere, and you just pull the cover off. They’re usually not locked, and if they are, the locks aren’t that hard to open. I’d just sit down and start playing the piece.”

He had some trouble with hotel employees at first, he said. “They stopped bothering me because the song was getting better.”

When he got to the point where he could play the third movement reasonably well, he says, he got distracted. He’d been taking flying lessons, a 40th-birthday gift from his younger brother, and in 2007 he bought a used Mooney prop plane with proceeds from the glass faucets he crafts. Now he pilots himself in the Mooney sometimes when he travels for work. And he still doesn’t know how to play anything else on the piano.

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