Nick D’Aloisio is one of the youngest self-made millionaires in the world and the Founder of the million-dollar app, Sumly. In addition, he is also the world’s youngest venture capital-backed entrepreneur, raising a whopping sum of $300,000 in seed funding in 2011 from Hong Kong billionaire Sir Li Ka-Shing’s Horizon Ventures for Summly. After which, he raised $1.23 million in 2012 from various A-List celebrity investors, including Yoko Ono, Rupert Murdoch, Stephen Fry and Ashton Kutcher. He was named ‘Innovator of the Year’ by the Wall Street Journal, was listed in the Forbes 30 Under 30, and appeared in GQ magazine’s 100 Most Connected Men of 2014.
D’Aloisio was born in London to an investment banker father and a lawyer mother. Talking about his parents, he says, “My parents aren’t involved in technology at all: my mom’s a lawyer, and my dad works in commodities trading, so there wasn’t really a technological background.”
He further explains, “The reason I got drawn into technology and computing — is I like creating things, and when you’re a young child, you don’t have the dexterity or skill set to manifest your ideas into reality that well. Like take drawing but on a computer, that imbalance isn’t there anymore because you’ve got the tools that professionals have, and you are able to create output that’s of a high quality.”
When he was nine years old, D’Aloisio began using his mother’s MacBook and found iMovie, and soon his obsession with technology began. In 2008, when the App Store was announced, D’Aloisio was drawn to the concept as it seemed like an excellent creative opportunity for the young boy.
He soon started working on his first app for the App Store, which Steve Jobs inspired. He recalled, “I was very obsessed with Steve Jobs at that point. The app was Steve Jobs quotes, but it didn’t get accepted. “
However, his next app, called Finger Mill, was accepted by the App Store. He explained, “The app was a treadmill for your fingers. It was just an image with some sound, and you used your fingers to run on the treadmill. There wasn’t much source code. It was very basic, low-level coding, but it was more the idea. I did it all myself, and I made £79 ($127) the first day it was up, and that excited me as a twelve-year-old.”
With his newfound confidence D’Aloisio, alongside school, dabbled with creating apps on the side that came to fruition in late 2010 when he did his first proper app called SongStumblr, a geosocial music discovery app. He explained, “The idea was that you’re in the same room as someone and you want to see what song they’re listening to, so it uses Bluetooth to connect. I saw those apps more as technical overcomings, so I would learn how to use Bluetooth, for example.”
After that, there was no looking back; the next app D’Aloisio designed was used by Facebook; it was called Facemood, and it would detect the mood of your Facebook friends with an algorithm. He adds, “So, that was when I was first introduced to natural language processing — or that aspect of it.”
That eventually led him to create the million-dollar app, Summly; talking about the app’s genesis, he says, “I got the idea in April or May of 2011, it wasn’t like it just came to me. This is the thing: I had been thinking a lot about this process. It took a few months, and it was challenging. I was trying to do a new app, I was also revising for some exams (GCSE mock exams) at this point, using Google and Bing a lot, and it was at that point, I realized that the archetypal search interface had not changed in about fifteen years, especially on mobile. I was like, ‘This looks anachronistic. Why hasn’t it changed?”
He continued, “After thinking about it you could show results in a more interesting manner and expressive to what the content was about, and then I thought about textual summaries, which is looking at languages as though they’re mathematics. It’s statistical, and it’s like, ‘How can I get the relevant points from this passage without necessarily understanding the meaning?’ I had done a lot of languages at school, which helped. I had done Mandarin and Russian out of curiosity. I did Mandarin for three years, and I did get quite good at it. Mandarin is syntactical, very structured. You have verb, object, noun; there is ordering in a sense, so you have to adhere to those structures. And that’s how we do the summarization — looking at English mathematically.”
The unique feature about Summly — different from any other app — is that they are the first to yield high-quality results. Summly is an app that went to hundreds of thousands of people who consumed the content; he explains, “So we wanted to make it legible and readable, so, we came up with a scalable system. We built a test, a summarizability filter, because not everything is summarizable in the current architecture; certain articles are just not written in a way from which you can take candidates and form a summary, so we detect that. We’ve done a lot of training and have a lot of data that we’ve used to come up with a rule-based filter that tells us if something is summarizable or not.”
In March 2011, D’Aloisio launched the app on the Playstore and named it Trimit, which used an algorithm to condense emails and blog posts into a summary of 1000, 500, or 140-character text. With over 100,000 downloads, the app was soon featured on the Apple App Store. Due to its immense success, Trimit soon caught the attention of business magnate Li Ka-Shing, who invested US$300,000 in venture capital investment to 16-year-old D’Aloisio’s Sumly. After gathering feedback, D’Aloisio re-designed the app and renamed it Summly at the end of 2011.
To continue this upward trajectory, he hired a team from Israel to improve the app and work on its features. In March 2013, D’Aloiso sold Summly to Yahoo! for a whopping sum of US$30 million, after which he joined Yahoo! as their product manager.
In January 2014, D’Aloisio announced the launch of Yahoo News Digest, an evolution of the Summly App. Yahoo News Digest provided mobile users with a summary of the day’s important news in the form of a twice-a-day digest. The articles were automatically and manually curated and summarised into critical units of information, known as ‘Atoms’, which included maps, infographics, quotes, and Wikipedia extracts. It was also the winner of the 2014 Apple Design Award. However, D’Aloisio wanted to open up something of his own that led him to resign from Yahoo! in 2015.
In late 2015, he co-founded a new startup called Sphere Knowledge. Sphere is a knowledge-sharing service where users can swap information via instant messaging. Twitter recently acquired the startup due to its remarkable potential. The team at Sphere shared a message after their acquisition, saying, “It’s been a long and exciting journey to this point. Like many startups, Sphere started with a very different mission — to help anyone find and share knowledge instantly through the creation of a ‘global brain.’ We originally built a marketplace of paid experts from all around the world, connecting them through group chat. What we realized is that some of the most helpful and knowledgeable conversations came from groups where members felt a strong sense of belonging to one another. In other words, at the heart of our challenge was helping every single person find their community. The opportunity is massive.”
Sphere raised $30M of venture capital investment from world-class investors such as Mike Moritz and Index Ventures to develop a new product in the chat & community space, and D’Aloisio is continuing this vision at Twitter. He is currently a student at Oxford University, where he graduated from the BPhil Programme in Philosophy in July 2021 and now is undertaking the PhD (DPhil) course.
In conclusion, he says, “My motivation has always been to do technology apps and companies, not making money. Just because the money’s come, nothing’s changed.”