A Little-Known Cloud Company Turns to, Yes, Real Estate Agents for Help

Seattle-based Symform has a traction problem and, interestingly, it’s turning to the National Association of Realtors for help.

Indeed, the five-year-old, alternative cloud storage startup is announcing this morning that it has raised $3 million from the massive trade group, largely on the hope that its million-plus members will embrace Symform’s technology, as well as talk it up to their own clients and service providers.

Why would they bother? Well, for one thing, insists Symform, it’s a more affordable, and more reliable, way for way for real estate agents — many of whom use mobile devices that are prone to theft or loss — to back up their precious data.

The reason: unlike “traditional” cloud storage systems, which rely on servers in far-flung data centers and charge 50 cents per gigabyte, Symform has created an elaborate virtual data center by weaving together the excess capacity on its customers’ hard drives. Specifically, for every gigabyte of data a user gives up on his hard drive, the user receives a gigabyte of cloud storage.

The service is free up to 10 gigabytes; for each extra gigabyte a customer wants, the fee is 15 cents per month. (Customers can also begin contributing 2 gigabytes of local drive capacity for every 1 gigabyte of cloud capacity if they prefer.) As Forbes noted last month in a smartly written feature on Symform: “Why pay thousands per month for cloud storage on someone else’s dedicated hardware, when you can pay with the spare capacity you already have?”

As for the inevitable security concerns, Symform cofounder Praerit Garg told me in a call yesterday that, “Every file belonging to the user is encrypted and ‘shredded’ into little pieces before it’s disbursed across the globe. So unlike a data center where your file is sitting in a single location and available to an administrator the entire time, no one has access to your file” using Symform.

Given the rising expenses of more “traditional” cloud storage options and the growing glut of data each of us is producing, it isn’t surprising that Symform has now raised a collective $20 million. (Its newest $3 million closes out an $11 million Series B round that the company began raising last year.)

Presumably, investors appreciate the experience of the company’s team, too. Garg, for example, logged more than a dozen years at Microsoft, including as a senior director in its server and tools division; his cofounder, Bassam Tabbara spent nearly 20 years at Microsoft as a senior engineer. Meanwhile Symform CEO, Matthew Schiltz, was previously the CEO of the electronic signature company DocuSign.

Even still, sufficient numbers of people have to be willing to contribute their bandwidth and storage to make Symform’s network flourish, and it isn’t clear that’s happening yet. Though Garg and Shilitz say their technology is now being used in 160 countries, they decline to disclose how many customers they’ve garnered or even how many people Symform employs. They also say their newest funding won’t be used to perfect Symform’s technology so much as to simply get it into the local hard drives of many more people. “We don’t need to take our capital and invest it in data center infrastructure,” says Schiltz. “Our biggest hurdle is raising awareness.”

Only time will tell whether the company’s newest investor can make the intended impact, but it certainly seems worth a shot. As Constance Freedman, the managing director of  the National Association of Realtors’ venture arm, told me yesterday, “We roll up our sleeves and we’ll expose [Symform] to as many members as possible, including through educational sessions about the importance of backup and the disastrous consequences of losing data.”

Added Freedman, whose unit also backed DocuSign in 2009 when Schiltz was at the helm: “We’re the largest trade association in the world. We have a lot of resources we can tap into.”

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