David Gurle was the quintessential intrapreneur, having spent most of his career creating communication tools for major corporations. But in 2012, he took his self-professed “obsession” with improving communication and struck out on his own.
Gurle founded Symphony, a Palo Alto-based company that provides a secure instant messaging platform for traders at investment banks. Within a month of launching, Gurle had an offer from Goldman Sachs (along with 15 other major banks) to buy part of his company for $66 million. Google and five more financial institutions followed, pouring an additional $104 million into the venture. Today, the company has 116,000 paying users and reportedly has a $750 million valuation.
The journey from intrapreneur to entrepreneur worked out smoother than most, primarily because Gurle’s business was directly aligned with his past experience. The 50-year-old Frenchman and licensed pilot had developed an internal communications platform called Lync when he worked at Microsoft in the early 2000s. He later spent time creating communications tools for the financial services world at Thomson Reuters, and then decamped for Skype, where he created Skype for Business. He wound up working for Microsoft again when it acquired Skype in 2011.
“In every organization I have ever worked, I never did what they asked me to do; I always created something new,” he says.
In 2012, he read Stephen R. Covey’s bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which he says inspired him to make the leap to entrepreneurship. He realized he was a well-paid executive for a corporation, but he wanted to build a company that was true to his own vision.
“We sold our house, we sold our cars, and we lived on nothing for two years,” he says of his wife and two children. “We made a huge leap of faith.”
A year later, he had built a platform prototype — initially called Perzo. As he remembers it well; it was his wife’s birthday. He had given a media interview about the product, and news of it leaked. Overnight, 10,000 users signed up for the system, he says. By the end of the week he had his first acquisition offer. And by the end of the month, Goldman, leading a consortium of banks, had made its proposition.
Symphony found its sweet spot by offering a messaging alternative to Bloomberg, the dominant provider of market data information and messaging. With 325,000 subscribers, Bloomberg is what traders generally use to get information and communicate among one another. But at $20,000 a year, it comes at a hefty price. Symphony, which only focuses on messaging, allows users to send and receive encrypted messages and create ad hoc social networks that mimic how traders interact on a real trading floor. As they do that, users are able to pull up relevant information related to the context of their communication. If it’s an oil trade, for example, users might see recent reports on that industry and specifics on the shares to be bought or sold. It costs $180 a year.
In recent weeks, Symphony announced new tools that allow its users to create on-the-spot video conference calls within chats, and bot technology that analyzes conversations and automatically pulls in relevant information during chats. The company also launched Symphony Software Foundation, which allows companies to create their own apps using Symphony’s open source code. Github and Salesforce are two early participants.
Two years since Symphony’s official launch in 2014, Gurle wants to broaden the appeal of the messaging platform beyond financial services to sectors such as government, healthcare, insurance, and education. More than that, he wants Symphony to bridge what he sees as a digital gap that exists within businesses, and between businesses and their external clients. He hopes Symphony can facilitate faster and more focused collaboration, for example by eliminating the need to flip between numerous applications to gather critical information.
Indeed, Symphony exists in a new sweet spot of companies working to enable collaboration digitally, says Vanessa Thompson, an analyst for research company IDC. Perhaps the best-known example today is Slack, which has 3 million active daily users, including teams working collaboratively within three quarters of the Fortune 500.
“Getting context is so important when you’re in an application, because it means you don’t have to leave to get other information and bring it back,” Thompson says.
Not everyone, however, says Symphony needs to expand beyond financial services. David Weiss, a senior analyst for research and advisory Aite Group says if Symphony focused exclusively on financial services, and captured 10% of the messaging market there, it could have a revenue opportunity of close to $1 billion.
Nevertheless, Gurle sees the intensely regulated financial services industry as the perfect jumping off place. “Solving problems in financial services, and solving them successfully, is a graduation opportunity,” he says. “We have a big vision of reshaping the business communications of tomorrow.”