How Babel became Symphony

October 1, 2014
The communications platform announced this week went through several different names before Symphony.

The idea for a communications platform went through several names before Symphony.

In late-2012, Goldman Sachs traders started to notice something unusual. News was sometimes breaking on social media faster than it was breaking on sophisticated information terminals that cost the bank millions of dollars each year.

The realization set in motion a series of events that would lead Goldman to team up with 13 other financial firms and invest in a new communications platform called Symphony. But before it was called Symphony, it had a lot of other names. What follows is the story of how Symphony got its name, as told to Unstructured Finance by people involved with the project.

A group of engineers at Goldman called “strats,” who work closely with the trading division on technology issues, set about finding a way to get relevant social media content in front of traders in real-time. They launched an internal platform called LiveCurrent in 2013 that combined elements of messaging, social media, research and other information in one central place. Because it was developed internally, the platform could be used by all employees across front, middle and back-office functions without significant additional cost. That made communicating about active trades much quicker and easier for all the staff involved.

As Goldman’s trading desk was grappling with this issue internally, its principal strategic investments team began picking up on the same theme of fragmented communication across Wall Street. That group, co-headed by Darren Cohen, makes investments with the bank’s own capital in the financial-services industry. It began looking for startups that had a solution to the problem. Cohen’s team code-named the project “Babel” because they saw their task as simplifying a wide-ranging set of communications systems that were speaking in different tongues.

In late-2013, Cohen approached David Gurle, who built his career doing new things with chat at Microsoft, Thomson Reuters and Skype. Gurle’s Palo Alto startup, called Perzo, was working on chat technology that could bring Goldman’s LiveCurrent features to a wider set of users. Gurle had been thinking about the next steps with Perzo – selling it or merging it with another tech startup – but the idea of partnering with Wall Street banks intrigued him. (The name Perzo means “prices” in Italian, though it’s not clear why Gurle chose that name for his firm.)

Cohen and Gurle met for breakfast in New York in January. After seeing a LiveCurrent demo, Gurle agreed to team up with Goldman to merge their software. The two also decided to find a group of Wall Street firms that could invest capital in the venture and adopt its technology.

Then came the hard part: coming up with a name that could stick.

The idea was already operating under at least three different names, and some Goldman employees believed LiveCurrent was actually called “Goldman 360,” another internal information platform. (More confusion ensued as some people mistook the word “Babel” for “Babble.”)

For days on end, Cohen asked Gurle for a name, which he needed to market the project to potential partners. Gurle wanted a name that captured the exact opposite idea of the Tower of Babel, but was drawing a blank.

The 47-year-old Frenchman went home to reflect on the idea while listening to his favorite classical music, “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi. Suddenly it hit him: Symphony. As Webster’s defines it, a “consonance of sounds” that has  “harmonious complexity.”

Despite how common the word seemed, the website www.symphony.com was available, and the project, finally, had its name.

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