Founder Stories: When It Comes To Open-Source Technologies, Reverb’s Tony Tam Has A Word For It

Have you ever watched a TED talk and thought, “That should be a company!” Well, that’s happened a few times, I’m sure, and one of them is right here in Silicon Valley. Years ago, wordsmith Erin McKean delivered a TED talk on her vision around the lexicography and meaning of words. This particular talk struck a chord with an investor named Roger McNamee, who in turn encouraged the team to build a company around this. Hence, Reverb Technologies was born.

Reverb’s CEO, Tony Tam, joined me for a discussion about the formation and work at the company. I’ve worked with Tam over the years and know him well, as a disclaimer — I’m also an advisor to Reverb. In this chat, Tam recounts how the company’s unusual formation led Reverb down the path it charges down today, as a content-discovery engine and destination, focused on personalization and serendipity. Beginning with a technology, Tam explains how he and his team had to embark on the challenge of turning that technology into a product — which became Wordnik — that focused on the roots of words and what they mean.

Additionally, Tam discusses more technical aspects of Reverb’s core, such as the difference between being a CEO (at Reverb) versus CTO (in his previous companies), how they built and open-source Swagger (a framework to distribute computing across servers), and how open-sourcing their technologies helped generate serendipity for the company itself in terms of reaching over 10,000 developers and recruiting — just like one may experience serendipity in real life.

For founders out there building deeply technical systems, Tam’s approach to enabling technologies, frameworks, open-source, and recruiting could be quite instructive. Especially key is his note on the importance of serendipity, particularly in technical recruiting, as so much of today’s talent is fragmented across companies.

Editor’s Note: Michael Abbott is a general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, previously Twitter’s VP of Engineering, and a founder himself. Mike also writes a blog called uncapitalized. You can follow him on Twitter @mabb0tt.