Introducing Harmony: An Open, Scalable Marketplace for the Decentralized Economy
Not long ago, Stephen Tse’s Sunnyvale, California, garage was filled with boxes and storage bins. Today, it’s home to Harmony, a brand-new company that’s already getting a lot of attention for its potential to rebuild — and scale — the decentralized economy. Stephen and his fellow founding members Alok Kothari, Nicolas Burtey, Rongjian Lan, and Minh Doan explain why they believe they can revolutionize blockchain, what new team members should know, and where they see Harmony in six — and six hundred — years. Also, Harmony is hiring! Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
What is Harmony, and what problem are you solving?
Rongjian: We’re building the infrastructure for the next generation of blockchain. Blockchain is still in its early stages, but it has enormous potential beyond payment transactions, from streaming content to mobile marketplaces. It can be useful to millions of people in their everyday lives, and we believe we can support that mass adoption by making blockchain 1,000 times faster and cheaper than Bitcoin and Ethereum.
Alok: The value of blockchain is that it enables trust — it’s a public, unchangeable, decentralized record. For example, if I give you money, everyone on the network will have a record of that transaction. The problem is that so far, the process is slow, and fees make putting together a “block” of records expensive, especially on the more popular blockchains. Bitcoin is 10 years old and still at six or seven transactions per second. It can’t scale.
Stephen: Right now, only hundreds of thousands of people are participating in crypto-economics and its marketplaces. We want to push that to millions and more. Through a combination of research-proven innovations in transport networks, consensus protocol, and system tooling, we think Harmony can eventually support one billion users.
Why do you believe Harmony will succeed?
Alok: Lots of people are working on blockchain systems, but they’re starting with a thesis and then trying to build a system to support that. What’s unique about Harmony is that we’re starting with good ideas for every layer of the stack. We’re all senior engineers, and our backgrounds are diverse — we come from AI and machine learning, blockchain, VR, and compilers. We intend to apply our deep understanding of research in all components of the stack: transport networks (Google’s UDP, 5G mobile networks), consensus protocols (Practical Byzantine Fault Tolerance, sharding), and system tooling (unikernels, zero-copy streaming). And we’ve worked at companies like Apple and Google so we understand how to deliver large, scalable systems. But at the same time, you can see in our white paper that even though our ideas are ambitious, we’ve done a lot of the groundwork.
Rongjian: I think another key advantage for Harmony is that the innovations we’re combining are already proven. They’re based on the latest data from research, and in some cases, implementations. We’re using OmniLedger, for example, which is a scalable and permissionless protocol that has been tested in a lab environment. Now we have the opportunity to bring it to life at the production level.
“The value of blockchain is that it enables trust — it’s a public, unchangeable, decentralized record.” — Alok
Nicolas: Of course, for a successful blockchain project, you need a strong community in addition to good tech. We’re just getting started on the community side with our first couple of hires. But even before we have a website up, we’ve had more than a thousand requests from people all over the world who want to get involved. We don’t even know where they came from! It’s crazy to have that kind of traction with zero marketing.
How did Harmony come into existence?
Stephen: It all started with a bottle of wine! Actually, many bottles of wine. When I was working on my second startup, I put together a weekly gathering of fellow entrepreneurs, and that’s where Harmony was born. We’d get together every Thursday evening to have some drinks, talk about our ideas, and share knowledge with each other. We started out focusing on machine learning, which is Alok’s background, then Nicolas told us about VR at Orah, the company he founded. Rongjian had his background with Google, and we all got to know each other on a personal level, which helped us push each other in the best ways and challenge each other to improve our ideas. Eventually, we decided to join forces and start Harmony.
“It’s about more than just how big this company can get. It’s about building a community.” — Stephen
Alok: Coming from the artificial intelligence point of view, what interested me most about this project was the opportunity to democratize AI. Right now, the big companies control all the money and data. They can buy out any startup trying to compete with them. I want to take AI out of their hands and put it in everyone’s hands. And when you look at the research on this problem, the biggest barrier to bringing AI to everyone is creating a platform that can scale. And we’re nearly ready to do that.
What are you looking for in new team members?
Alok: People who are excited about this opportunity and eager to learn. Knowing something about the blockchain space is helpful, but what’s most important is that you’re passionate and hardworking, because skills can be learned, but values are difficult to change. We’re also looking for people whose skills will complement our own — so we can learn from them, as well. We’d love to keep building diversity, both culturally and in our professional backgrounds.
Rongjian: We also want people who are interested in joining Harmony because they truly believe in the future of blockchain, not just because it’s a startup. As Alok said, you don’t need to have previous work experience in blockchain, but you do need to be excited about working on it and building your career in this space.
“You’re not just making small tweaks to a larger platform. You’re impacting a system that will eventually affect millions of people.” — Rongjian
Nicolas: We’re looking to hire primarily senior engineers who have experience with the kinds of innovations and technologies we’re using. We’ve raised enough money that we can afford to pay top salaries in this space. That said, we’re wary of hiring someone for whom money is the driver. It’s important that our mission matters to you, and we want to add people who can help us build Harmony’s culture. As we expand, we know we’ll have growing pains. We want to make sure our culture stays aligned with our mission.
Stephen: Absolutely. Even though we’re just getting started, culture is something we’re being very thoughtful about. We spend a lot of time together — we share lots of meals, and we hang around the tree house. That’s how we foster collaboration and learn from each other.
What would you tell someone who’s skeptical about joining Harmony so early on?
Rongjian: For those of us coming from big companies like Google, this is a very different environment. We are literally working out of Stephen’s garage right now. And you do wear a lot of hats — we’re handling all the hiring, the coding, the legal work. But that’s part of what’s so exciting to me, because it’s an opportunity to grow new skill sets and build something from scratch. You’re not just making tweaks to one small piece of a larger platform. You get to have an impact on a system that will eventually affect millions of people.
Alok: That level of ownership is so empowering, especially when you get to build something cool. And blockchain is cool! Anyone who joins this team now will be on the ground floor of an incredibly exciting future. And once Harmony is built, it only gets more exciting, because then there are countless applications that we can build or help build.
Nicolas: Absolutely. Blockchain is going to be the next big tech disruption. It’s the next internet. I think another big benefit is that once we finish the first prototype, Harmony will be an open-source platform. When you work for a big company, most of the time your code won’t be public, but here, it will. That’s exciting, too.
I do think a new team member should be prepared to work hard. We’re often here on Saturday. You don’t have to be here at 9:00 a.m. every day, but the workload is higher than at most larger companies, because we have a short window of potential and we need to move quickly.
What’s your vision for Harmony’s future?
Stephen: We can give you several — at 6 months, 6 years, 60 years. And 600 years!
Nicolas: I’ll take 6 months. Right now, we’re focused on hiring the right people to build this product. Once we’ve put out the prototype and made sure it’s stable, the next step is to engage and build our developer community. The more developers involved, the better. Toward the end of this year, we’ll be focused on the network launch and preparing to handle the security challenges that will come up as word gets out.
Alok: In 6 years, we hope Harmony will be known in everywhere around the world. We hope by then, we’ll start to see some interesting practical applications, going beyond basic payments to gaming and all kinds of things we haven’t even imagined yet.
“Blockchain is going to be the next big tech disruption. It’s the next internet.” — Nicolas
Stephen: Personally, I think about my next journey in terms of 40 to 60 years. We’re heading toward life expectancies of 150 years, and with all that time together, we might as well work on something amazing. For me, that’s Harmony. It’s about more than just how big this company can get. It’s about building a community.
Rongjian: We even see a future for Harmony in 600 years. When AI controls every aspect of our digital world, we want Harmony to be the backbone of that society.
Alok: I mean, I’d sure like to send Rongjian a message when he’s living on Jupiter.
Nicolas: You stole my joke!
Rongjian: It’s ambitious, but we really do believe blockchain has the potential to revolutionize our society. All the intermediaries that provide trust right now, the banks and the lending companies, they take a big cut in the process. If we can replace that with blockchain, we can dramatically increase the efficiency of everyone’s lives.