Annabel Palmer talks with the App star of the moment, Summly’s founder Nick D’Aloisio
WHEN I talked to Nick D’Aloisio – founder of Summly, an app that summarises news stories – it was a few days before he brokered a headline-grabbing deal with Yahoo for a reported $30m (£19.7m). Summly distils online news into text that can be read quickly on smaller phones, using “artificial intelligence to shorten stories”. Following the sale, D’Aloisio has global recognition. He knows how to handle the media, talking quickly, confidently and concisely. It is easy to forget he won’t turn 18 until November.
His story is now well-known: D’Aloisio was given his first computer at nine and taught himself to code with open-source software. “I wanted to be creative, so as soon as I got my first Mac, I started editing home videos.” It seems self-teaching and hard work can turn even a 17-year old’s bedroom into the hub of a successful tech business.
Even in an industry dominated by upstarts, D’Aloisio has broken records. He was the youngest person to receive venture capital funding (at 15), and he started writing applications aged 12. Nonetheless, he doesn’t think being young has been a problem – “people wanted to help me”. And in many ways, his age has been an advantage – generating media interest, and he knows first-hand that younger people are increasingly consuming information on smartphones. But it also made him fearless: “I had nothing to lose”. When the Apple App Store launched in 2008, he saw gaps in the market and, even as a 15-year old, seized the opportunity.
First came Fingermill – a treadmill app for fingers. It was a joke, but when it made £79 on its first day, D’Aloisio was inspired to create more. He has since launched apps including Touchwood, Facemood, and SongStumblr. When preparing for a exam at 15, he came up with the idea that would get him where he is today. Using the internet to study, “I found I kept clicking through to websites that didn’t have the information I was looking for. It was frustrating. People needed a better way to preview information before reading an article.” D’Aloisio took action and “started experimenting with filters”.
Trimit was created in March 2011. It used an “analytical tool to condense text into 1,000, 500 or 140 character summaries”. It was launched on the App Store later that year and downloaded 30,000 times. D’Aloisio knew he had to get the word out, so he tried to catch the attention of blog sites. Trimlit later appeared on TechCrunch, the Silicon Valley news website.
Soon after, Horizon Investors, a venture capital firm owned by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka Shing, invested $300,000. I ask whether he encountered difficulties fundraising. “I was lucky,” he says. “Horizon contacted me. When I started this two years ago, it was just a hobby.” But with investment behind him, D’Aloisio hired a team (when I spoke with him his company had seven employees) tasked with helping to redesign his app, and set up a base in Shoreditch. He also made strategic partnerships, travelling to the US to work with scientists at Stanford University, and created a high-profile network of angel investors and advisers including Ashton Kutcher and Yoko Ono. Stephen Fry appears alongside Nick in a Summly commercial. “Stephen has been so supportive.”
Summly, a redesigned version of Trimit, was launched in December 2011. The uptake was “great”, he says, but there was potential to do more. It seems that D’Aloisio has found an appropriate suitor in Yahoo. The full details of his contract are unknown, but he will be working there full-time to develop and integrate his technology.
I ask what his friends and family (his parents have no professional tech knowledge) think of his success. “They’ve always been so supportive,” he says. “I still see friends regularly, and live at home with my parents.” In the future, he wants to create and run more businesses. But he still has the more modest ambition of “finishing school (King’s College School in Wimbledon) and going to university”.
CV NICK D’ALOISIO
Company name: Summly (now part of Yahoo)
Company turnover: Not applicable
Studied: University? Not yet
Drinking: Fresh orange juice
Eating: Spaghetti Bolognese
Reading: On my mobile!
Talents: I enjoy playing cricket
Motto: Our motto has been to keep the interface clean. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve had that conversation.
First ambition: To build companies