Symphony, a company backed by some of the world’s elite financial institutions, was created last Fall with a mission to transform the way Wall Street shares and collaborates around content — and it has set its sights set on some of the world’s most established content and communications tools.
The company’s backers include a who’s who of Wall Street financial companies: Bank of America Merrill Lynch, BNY Mellon, BlackRock, Citadel, Citi, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Jefferies, JPMorgan, Maverick, Morgan Stanley, Nomura and Wells Fargo.
Last fall, these companies contributed $66M to finance Symphony, and using that money, purchased Perzo, a company that was building a secure communications platform. After the purchase, they named Perzo founder David Gurle as Symphony CEO.
Gurle, whose background comes right out of business software central casting with stints at Microsoft Lync, Skype and Thomson Reuters, would seem uniquely qualified to build such a product. Symphony’s backers have been using a variety of secure communications applications and content tools, but that fragmentation was becoming a huge problem.
They were looking to consolidate on a single, secure platform, and they created Symphony to replace many of the established players — whether that’s Microsoft Lync or AOL (TechCrunch’s parent company) or Yahoo! instant messaging in communications or Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg in financial content. The goal from the start has been to become the de facto tool for communicating, collaborating and sharing content in a financial services setting.
“Those companies that invested in Symphony realize they can’t live in a fragmented way forever. It’s not good for business,” Gurle explained. “They put their money in to make the business successful and to make Symphony successful. You don’t see this align very often,” he said.
Where It All Began
The process of creating this company actually goes back a couple of years when Goldman Sachs began looking at architecting a new communications platform. The firm wanted to build it in a systematic way using open source components, while taking into consideration the unique regulatory requirements of financial services, Marty Chavez, CIO at Goldman Sachs told TechCrunch.
It also cast an eye toward eventually developing a two-pronged delivery approach. One would go to open source and let people build on top of the open source tool foundation Goldman Sachs created, and the other was to create a commercial company in conjunction with a consortium of financial services providers.
That Goldman invited the other financial services companies into the conversation was not that unusual. It turns out that these companies have worked together as a consortium around a variety of financial services technology problems in the past. The early iteration of the communications tool became known as LiveCurrent. Chavez says while Goldman built this and had conversations with other financial services companies about the requirements, they began looking at the range of experts who could take over the commercial piece.
Eventually they connected with Gurle who was running Perzo at the time. The two companies began working together on LiveCurrent and last fall spun out the company that is now known as Symphony.
While there were reported problems around Bloomberg using its terminals to spy on Goldman Sachs subscriber activity in May 2013, Chavez says this had absolutely nothing to do with the motivation for this project (which includes a content component). He said they were looking to solve a problem around communications and being locked in proprietary stacks. There was no hidden agenda beyond that, he said.
Putting It All Together
Symphony is a secure hosted service available across a variety of platforms and devices. It has been designed to be open, so that it can plug into existing systems within each financial institution using the tool — or it can stand alone, depending on requirements.
The communications piece provides encrypted messaging where the message owner controls the keys and therefore the data. By using this type of encryption as long as you control your computer or your mobile device, you control the content on it. “[Security] was a huge problem for [financial services companies]. They wanted to communicate, while being the owner of their data,” Gurle said.
He added, he has proven to these institutions that his products can meet these high security standards, while staying compliant with regulations unique to the financial services industry like FINRA and Sarbanes-Oxley.
Symphony addressed the community piece at the end of last year when it purchased Markit’s collaboration services. From Markit (another company launched by the consortium that launched Symphony), Symphony got a crowd-sourced, fully-vetted directory for sharing internally and externally within the financial services industry. Gurle points out that the directory access is also defined by the privacy policies of each company.
As Chavez explained, the financial services industry is governed by many different rules around who can talk to whom and when conversational restrictions must be set up to prevent conflicts of interest. When they built Symphony, they wanted to ensure that these relationship restrictions were respected automatically by the structure built into the platform.
With the communications and directory pieces in place, that left the key component in Gurle’s view, the content. To complete that bit, Symphony announced work on a content hub earlier this month, where people can share the content they want on their terms. This is in stark contrast to typical financial services information brokers such as Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters, which sell you an all-you-can-eat proprietary package, whether you want everything or not.
Gurle sees this is an important distinction, likening the traditional way to cable television where you are forced to pay for 80 channels to watch the five or 10 you like. He sees content in similar terms. For a financial services company, this content could involve a crucial piece of research or monitoring Twitter for breaking news that can have an impact on share prices.
Whatever it is, Gurle wants to free the information and use Symphony to share it in a secure way with the people in the directory who would find the content useful, whatever their role and within the communications rules governed by the institution and regulations.
Can They Pull It Off?
R Ray Wang, principal at Constellation Research describes Gurle as a visionary and believes that Symphony is creating an entirely new category of software.
“By targeting the financial services industries first, they show to every other industry from governments to retail that here’s a way to bring these systems of engagement to create digital disruption in the market,” Wang told TechCrunch.
“When the original design point is about security and compliance to some of the strictest standards set by governments on financial services, that’s no comparison to companies adding security on as an after fact,” Wang said.
He added that the core product Perzo was built for massive sharing of massive amounts of information at financial-services security scale. He believes Symphony has the potential to create private collaboration networks and eventually perhaps even public ones.
As for that content component, Wang says that could be the toughest part to pull off. “The goal is to be able to burst content with heavy context. They have the technology, but I’m not sure if they have the context yet. That takes time,” he said.
While today the product focuses primarily on the needs of financial services, Gurle says over time, the content can adapt to the many different content-centric industries such as life sciences, medicine, shipping, manufacturing, accounting, legal and energy.
For now, Gurle wants to get the financial services piece right, then he sees going after adjacent markets like legal and accounting. After that, perhaps they can begin to go after other industries, but the roadmap is in place now.
The plan is eventually to create an open source ecosystem around Symphony, but Gurle says how that will work and which components will go into open source is still very much being debated internally.
The product has been in Alpha since January with the 15 funders and a thousand daily active users, preselected from public alphas applicants. It plans to go into a wider Beta release with 10,000 users in April and to become generally available by the end of June or early July. By that point, the company will have a better sense of which pieces they will put into open source and which they will control. It could potentially operate like Pivotal, which open sourced pieces of its Big Data Suite last week, while holding other parts back for the commercial version, but how it will work with Symphony is still being decided.
The company currently has 70 employees with office Palo Alto, New York City and London and will be opening soon in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Note 2/25/15: We incorrectly stated that Bloomberg used its terminals to spy on Goldman Sachs *trading* activity. It was actually *subscriber* activity. We have updated the story to reflect this.