For someone who has so recently hit the headlines, Symphony’s CEO, David Gurlé, has already attracted powerful myths. Is he really the man who wants to “take on Bloomberg”, or is it truly his ambition to challenge Microsoft? Even further from the mark was an early story that his company would provide a way to evade government surveillance – at the time when Symphony was working with New York’s Department of Financial Services for recognition that its messaging system was fully supporting, rather than bypassing, legal compliance.
In fact David Gurlé’s ambition soars far higher than these myths, as he presents his challenge at the very heart of modern communications. He wants to simplify email with communication experiences as close as possible to human face-to-face encounters. What makes him believe this can be done?
Communications and engineering
When David Gurlé describes his earliest taste of the wonders of engineering, it was not so much the child’s fascination of interlocking gears and well oiled machinery as it was an introduction to the engineer’s underlying motivation. His applied maths teacher asked the class to boil water “the way an engineer would do it”. Where anyone would simply take a pan of water and put it on the stove, the engineer should always take the same pan, the same measured quantity of water to an identical stove under the same atmospheric pressure and so on… He was told that the engineer looks for patterns, which could then be consistently applied to physical situations for the greater benefit of humanity.
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David was born in Istanbul in 1967 – his father a French diplomat, his mother an English diplomat who could speak eight languages. This was an intriguing situation, considering the complex relationship of co-operation and rivalry that has so long existed between these two nations! The family moved to Syria and Lebanon and, at the tender age of thirteen, he settled in Cannes in Southern France when his father retired. So it is hardly surprising that a profound awareness of the role of communications should be in his DNA – just as he retains a fondness for Mediterranean cooking in all its variants and flavours.
The combination of journalism and diplomacy would also instil clear awareness of the vital importance of style as well as content – “it’s not just what you say but the way that you say it”. Recently he suffered a further revelation: when his mother died, The Times obituary revealed that she had been long working for British intelligence. “It was an incredible shock” he says. “I read the paper three times to be sure they spoke well of my mother.
We think we know people, but in fact…” Indeed, what is not communicated can be every bit as important.
In classical Mediterranean mythology, communications are ruled by Mercury, who also rules trickery, deceit and – as the God with winged sandals – the element Air. It was this last aspect that first entranced David, with the ambition to learn to fly – albeit as a fighter pilot. Ironically for someone who would become known for his long-term vision, it was his need to wear spectacles that caused the French army to turn down his application. Subsequent success in business allowed him to revisit that passion: and he got his wings in 2011 and now owns a six-seat monoplane which he keeps near the Palo Alto home where he lives with his wife Valerie.
Speaking of his love of flying, he says: “I like it because of the freedom, and because the end game is not straightforward.” Then he adds: “I like to be in an environment I know and control and can run in the most efficient way” – a statement that also matches his subsequent choice to become an engineer. Thus David continued his education at the elite Esigetel engineering school in Paris.
IT and the future of communications
France in the 1980s provided a fertile ground for forward-looking ideas about communications. In 1982 an online videotext service called Minitel had been rolled out across the country’s telephone network: using a simple PC-style interface, it allowed people to buy items online, make train reservations, check stock prices, search the telephone directory, have a mail box, and chat in a similar way to today’s Internet. (Although the word Minitel sounds simply cute and snappy in English, in typical French style it is actually short for Médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique).
David agrees that the wide availability of this proto-Internet service across France had a positive effect on the country’s ICT culture, for all its inflexibility as a business model. Just as Britain’s software industry in the 90s benefitted from a generation brought up on the BBC computer and Sinclair Spectrum – so did David, along with many of today’s web entrepreneurs, find inspiration from Minitel. As a user he had the benefit of a culture growing aware of the huge potential for telecommunications – at a time when English-speaking cultures were still talking about POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service). Then, as a student engineer, he hacked a Minitel terminal to connect into the provider’s X25 service to the Internet. In those days the Internet was little more than an unprotected net of connected universities, but he did provide Esigetel with direct access to a global academic service.
In particular, this experience fuelled his vision of what would come to be called “unified communications” – replacing a set of diverse and often conflicting media such as cell phone, landline, e-mail and SMS with a single integrated interface. Following jobs at DEC and France Telecom, where he became an expert on IT security, he joined ETSI in 1995 and worked on standards. As he explains: “Both of my parents being diplomats played really well: because you can’t establish standards if you don’t know how to work to very high political stakes. It was very high political stakes, even though I was comparatively young”.
From the formality of standards, he then got a real taste for disruptive technology at an Israeli startup, VocalTec, that was revolutionizing telecommunication by bringing voice over IP: “In 1995, nobody believed voice over IP was ever going to be real, especially the telcos, and suddenly, I decided that was the future.”
VocalTec moved him to Princeton – he was getting closer to the throbbing heart of IT development – and he was soon head hunted by Microsoft. For most that would mark a career high point, but David immediately rebelled against his allotted role: “It was an initiative that I knew it was never going to be successful. So the same day, I went to the VP who hired me, and I tell him that I cannot stay at Microsoft. It was a mistake”.
Happily for Microsoft, his recruiter decided to give him free reign and he soon crossed paths with Bill Gates himself. David had an opportunity to present his radical unified communications vision to Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates, at a time when the Outlook e-mail team was looking for better ways to collaborate with the real-time SharePoint team. This laid the foundation for Microsoft’s real time communications strategy that would become Skype for Business – where a wider public would enjoy its first taste of David’s vision of integrated voice, video, text and file transfer via a single screen.
From disruption to consolidation and back again
Microsoft helped David with the next vital link in his learning chain: “Microsoft was for me forming ground for all of my skills that I use every day today…
I learned a ton from Bill and Steve and many other people. And I learned that the attention to detail is one of the most important things for anybody in technology… Microsoft helped me to complete the business side of my training, and from there, the idea that became Symphony emerged.” The company would initially be called “Perzo”.
Even for someone with David’s vision and drive, leaving a rewarding job at Microsoft to form a start-up was a tough decision: “Entrepreneurs are risk takers, and I never thought myself as a risk taker. I always thought myself as somebody who basically calculates everything possible so the worst-case scenario never, ever happens”. Speaking about the disruption to his family lifestyle he adds: “It was funny, because I was ready to disrupt many other things, but not our equilibrium”. And yet his wife backed him all the way and said “go for it!”
Perzo achieved immediate recognition from a most demanding quarter. The finance industry that had until recently been powered by the most immediate eye-to-eye communication across the trading floor, was now hungry for something better than anything today’s IT could offer. No less a name than Goldman Sachs brought together a team of big name investors to back the project and David chose to fend off no less than five acquisition offers in just three weeks: “They said, we love your technology. We love the team that you built. This is going to solve for us a very important problem in our industry, and let’s make it happen”.
What is in a name? Everything!
The rest of the story has been told many times in the months since the public launch of Symphony, but there was to be one more detail that was needed to consolidate his vision: a name that would capture its true essence better than an off-the-peg label like Perzo.
It happened at a concert David attended where Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was being played. Here was a diverse group of individuals brought together to perform a single task: each receiving the actual content in the form of a written sheet and yet acutely aware of a myriad real-time subtexts that would shape and refine the experience. There was the conductor’s gestures, body language, personality and its reflection in the presence of all the musicians around, creating a group experience that transmuted the written content into one harmonious, beautiful, efficient and utterly effective whole. David recognised this immediately as a metaphor for everything he truly sought for human communication.
The amazing thing was that it turned out that the highly desirable brand name “Symphony” was still available: “I said, holy cow! That’s not possible! And he said, yes. I said, how much? He said, about $400,000. I said just go for it, buy it. It was a bet: I had to then sell the name to the potential investors, and they thought it was a great name. So we became Symphony Communications Services, LLC”.