The story behind Summly & London’s newest dotcom millionaire

Probably the most envied teenager in London, Nick D’Aloisio has sealed the dream deal: selling his five-month-old app to Yahoo for tens of millions of dollars and landing himself a job developing the software before he even finishes his A-levels

But behind his relatively new spotlight are years of building skills and developing algorithms, from before the iPhone App Store even existed.

Tech City News takes a look at D’Aloisio’s story and his plans to shape the future.

Early Fascinations

Born in London to a Morgan Stanley commodities analyst and a lawyer, D’Aloisio was raised in Australia for most of his first seven years, before moving back to London.

D’Aloisio was already using computers to make animations and films at the age of nine. But he was twelve when Apple opened its App Store for the iPhone, and immediately taught himself to code.

During his school holidays D’Aloisio built his Fingermill, an onscreen virtual treadmill for fingers. Also came music app SongStumblr and social app Facemood, which predicted a user’s mood based on their Facebook status updates.

By this point Mr D’Aloisio’s hobby had set him upon an important path.

It introduced me to the world of algorithms.

Trimit, D’Aloisio’s previous app

“Amazing Journey”

In 2011 D’Aloisio was 15 and studying for a mock history GCSE when it struck him how inefficient clicking through Google search results was.

That’s when I had the idea for an algorithm that would summarise the results of web searches automatically

From this D’Aloisio founded Trimit, an early version of Summly, which cut down long web articles to tweet-length summaries.

Teen Email stalker?

Early attempts to publicise the app produced mixed results, with D’Aloisio pleading with Gizmodo to reconsider dropping Trimit from a Best Apps of the Week feature in an increasingly manic series of emails.

D’Aloisio has matured since then, telling Bloomberg:

The great thing about that is it shows I was a 15-year- old who has been on an amazing journey. I was young and inexperienced

Despite this, the app quickly racked up positive review and thousands of downloads, before being spotted by Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong billionaire and Asia’s richest man.

D’Aloisio didn’t know what to do after the first message from Li’s people, but upon being approached a second time agreed to a phone call. The investors were surprised to be told that it would need to be before or after school:

They didn’t know I was a 15-year-old, so I had to explain that.

It was frightening. It was a hobby, I didn’t expect this to happen. But at the same time, I had nothing to lose: I was a 15-year-old.

With $300,000 investment from Li’s Horizon Ventures Ltd, D’Aloisio hired a team and set up a Shoreditch base from which to develop a completely redesigned version of the app.

D’Aloisio travelled to California, persuading King’s College School to let him postpone his mock GCSEs, to seek investors and work with scientists at Stanford University.

Summly beta launched in December 2011, and less than a year later D’Aloisio had secured more than £1 million in funding.

Familiar Faces

Recruited to help were both celebrities – including Ashton Kutcher, Stephen Fry and Yoko Ono – and technology experts – such as Mark Pincus and Brian Chesky.

Developing the algorithm also involved partnering with SRI International, a nonprofit research institute specialising in machine learning and natural language processing.

Meanwhile, D’Aloisio took a sabbatical from King’s College School.

It came down to me wanting to commit 100 percent to the build and the launch. I wanted to throw everything I had at Summly.

The full app launched on November 1st 2012, D’Aloisio’s birthday, to much anticipation, reaching number nine in the free iPhone app chart the same month.

To date, the app has deals with more than 250 publishers and has been downloaded one million times.

The start-up has also worked closely with News Corp – Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendy is said to be a private investor.

And less than five months later, Summly has been snapped up by Yahoo.

The Vision

D’Aloisio insists he didn’t pick Yahoo just for the price.

After spending some time on campus, I discovered that Yahoo has an inspirational goal to make people’s daily routines entertaining and meaningful, and mobile will be a central part of that vision.

For us, it’s the perfect fit.

New boss Marissa Mayer joined Yahoo from Google last summer, and is stepping up Yahoo’s focus on mobile.

Last year Mayer expressed her passion for web services that are customized for individual users, and cited adding engineers by buying small technology startups as a key strategy.

Since Mayer took over in July, Yahoo has made at least six such deals, known informally as acqui-hires, includING Jybe Inc., Stamped Inc., OntheAir, Snip.it and Alike.

The company is also reportedly in talks to buy a controlling stake in Dailymotion.

Algorithms over apps

Rather than keep the app itself, Yahoo have withdrawn Summly from the App Store since the purchase – the app’s features will instead be incorporated into Yahoo’s own mobile products.

D’Aloisio sees this as a positive:

It’s the technology that’s key. The app was just a showcase of the technology.

You’ll start to see Summly technology being integrated into as many of Yahoo’s products as possible.

Slightly more disappointed was London-based app developer Little Fluffy Toys, whose Android version of Summly, commissioned by Mr D’Aloisio, was days away from launch.

However, director Kenton Price said that his firm had been told the Yahoo deal was on the cards.

Outside office hours

Far from a ruthless businessman, D’Aloisio stands by the advantages of his technology for all parties.

He said shortening software would ultimately be a win-win for content providers, and international media companies such as News Corporation had already collaborated on making their content more Summly friendly.

We’re introducing their content to a new, younger demographic.

You like the summary, you read the whole story; it increases publisher viewership.

Boy done good

What’s more, D’Aloisio doesn’t even see himself ultimately as a coder. He’ll be studying for his A-levels “outside office hours” and still has the aim of reading politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford.

I like coming from a different place than most tech people. I’m interested in app design and where the business is going. But philosophy is my thing.

Long-term I do want to do other companies. We’ll see what happens.