Why this tech CEO is turning to musicians to build his team

Written by Sam Dewey
Published on Nov. 16, 2016
Why this tech CEO is turning to musicians to build his team

“Hire someone who believes in your mission.”

That might sound like a buzzy phrase thrown around in today’s HR circles, but aligning a company’s mission and an applicant’s values is important for the long-term success of both employee and employer. For many companies, that’s easier said than done.

So what does Chicago-based Reverb.com hire for? Rockstars, of course. 

“Math, finance, and understanding business, as well as the technical skills to be able to solve algorithms and build tech, all correlate really nicely with musicianship,” said CEO David Kalt. “But it’s also what our audience is about. The ability to empathize with them, to be one with the customer and connect with them on a common ground, is really important.”

Finding harmony in tech and music

Founded in 2013, the online marketplace helps musicians buy and sell music equipment, with digital shelves stocked with 500,000 listings, ranging from vintage guitars to studio gear, drums, DJ equipment, big band instruments and more. Kalt — who's led several other local businesses including OptionsXpress and Chicago Music Exchange — said hiring for musicians is fundamentally a smart strategic move on Reverb’s part.

“At Reverb, we empower people to express themselves — and that’s what a musician does,” Kalt said. “When you give people the power of expression, you're giving them the power to make decisions, or influence the brand, or influence the experience of the customer. When you do that, your product has personality, and when your product has personality, it resonates.”

That mindset, Kalt said, is evident across departments, from customer engagement to the tech team. Of 120 employees, a whopping 85 percent consider themselves musicians. By the company’s latest count, employees play an average of 3.1 instruments each and have been involved with about 380 bands over the years.

“It’s not just limited to customer service or sales. It’s part of the marketing culture, it’s part of the dev culture. Everybody here should have one step closer to the customer, and our customers are musicians. So that makes hiring musicians a no-brainer,” he said.

On a technical level, the skills that come with musicianship often accompany the type of skills needed to build and scale a technology, said Kalt. In music, composers work within intricate systems. There are various sections adhering to individualized chord progressions, organized as introductions and choruses and bridges. Musicians also need to put stock in math, timing, and the relationship between small, moving parts of a larger whole.

Understanding and manipulating those same types of relationships are just as important in programming, Kalt said, drawing analogies to working with databases or basic constructs like if/then and while/else loops.

“It’s very similar to thinking about coding. You’re taking complex problems, breaking them down into smaller pieces and solving them in a very modular way — very much like a chorus or a harmony.”

Kalt’s targeted hiring strategy seems to be working. According to the company, projected sales for 2016 are flirting with a solid $250 million, and the site itself boasts eight million visitors a month.

A culture centered on music

To be sure, expertise in music is not an absolute prerequisite for working at Reverb. Quite to the contrary, Kalt said you can’t build a thriving business using a narrow litmus test to hire talent.

Looking at the caliber of work the Reverb team is doing — which includes building market-leading experiences on mobile and web, robust search capabilities, and secure payment and processing technology — it’s clear the company doesn’t discriminate against the tone deaf.

In fact, Kalt said he and his hiring team take a healthy mixture of other characteristics and values into account, including curiosity, drive, determination and smarts.

“I hire people that have curiosity and want to challenge themselves to learn not what they know but what they don’t know. Wherever it comes from, you can see that fire in their eyes,” Kalt said.

Still, the emphasis Reverb places on a passion for music rings loud and clear. Take a quick tour of the office and you'll find the company's particularly niche business model has cultivated an in-office working environment that’s anything but standard. Musical instruments adorn the walls and desks and floors, and workers are known to break out into impromptu jam sessions from time to time, on top of scheduled time on Fridays that's set aside to play together. Sessions like those are celebrated and encouraged — so long as they’re not too disruptive. 

For their part, Reverb’s musicians don’t seem to mind.

"As a musician and a coder, it's incredible to work at a place where music and tech converge. I'm coding one minute and then shooting a bass demo video the next," said Jeremy Kay, a developer with over a decade of experience as a touring and recording bass player. "But even if you're not a musician, Reverb is an incredibly inspiring place to work. The people you're surrounded by are smart, motivated and extremely passionate about the community we're building."


Images via Reverb.

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