Passion, Profits and Purpose: Entrepreneur David Kalt Talks Success and his Detroit Roots

March 5, 2020

Reverb.com founder and serial entrepreneur David Kalt visits Cranbrook to talk about his business wins and how his alma mater influenced his path

By Carmen Nesbitt

Featured photo via reverb.com

As the founder and former CEO of Reverb.com, the world’s leading online marketplace for new and used musical instruments, David Kalt knows a thing or two about being a successful entrepreneur.

In 2019, he sold Reverb to Etsy for $275 million, and it’s not the only thriving business he’s bred. Kalt’s other mega-successful ventures include ClientBASE, the first CRM software made for the travel industry; optionsXpress, an online trading platform that he sold to Charles Schwab in 2011 for more than $1 billion; and the Chicago Music Exchange, a guitar shop he purchased (and later sold) simply because he loves music and guitars.

But for Kalt, entrepreneurship is about more than profits. It’s about having a vision and a purpose — two things he attributes to his upbringing in metro Detroit and his education at Cranbrook.

Last month, Kalt, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Glencoe, returned to speak at his alma mater, where he was honored as part of Cranbrook’s annual Sirchio Distinguished Speaker Series.  (He attended the school between 1984 and 1985, his last two years of high school.) SEEN caught up with him before the presentation.

What brought you to Cranbrook so late in your education?

I had two or three close friends from my community in Farmington Hills that went here, and I was very jealous and envious of their experience. I was in a public school and I just wasn’t feeling challenged. My friends kept telling me I should apply. So, I convinced my parents and transitioned in junior year to come here.

Can you tell us more about how Cranbrook influenced your career path and success?

Cranbrook’s liberal arts education focused on a love for learning, curiosity and how to teach yourself things without needing a curriculum or a classroom. It taught me that learning is a lifelong pursuit, which I’ve applied throughout my career. I’m not a particularly great musician. I’m passionate about music and I’ve built careers around music, more music as a metaphor for entrepreneurship.

When did you develop your passion for music?

I definitely fell in love with the guitar while at Cranbrook. My mind was opened to the idea of arts and creating, and that inspired me to pick up a guitar.

Is that why you developed Reverb?

My career has been the intersection of music, finance and coding. I stepped down as CEO of  optionsXpress in 2008. That’s when I pivoted into a career in music. I bought the Chicago Music Exchange with no intention of where it would end up. I didn’t discover Reverb until I saw how painful it was for musicians to buy and sell on eBay and [through] dealers. I said, “There’s got to be a better way,” and that’s what led to Reverb.

What’s next for you?

I’m intentionally going to do nothing for a year. Travel. Explore things. Force myself to go learn new things that I don’t like. I might do something in the health and wellness space. I’m very into Pilates right now. I want to find the pain. I like to build solutions around where people are experiencing pain.

Last question: Has being from Detroit given you an edge in your career?

I’m always proud to say I built three companies in the Midwest. I really adhere to Midwestern values: hard work and execution. To me, ideas are really cheap — it’s all about execution. What I love about Detroit and Midwestern values is the grittiness. I’m scrappy and I’m gritty because I’m from Detroit.

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