Nick D'Aloisio a Mogul in Training

With backers including Stephen Fry and Ashton Kutcher, Nick D'Aloisio, creator of the news summarisation app Summly, is Britain's most exciting young tech entrepreneur

Nick D'Aloisio, creator of the Summly app
Nick D'Aloisio, creator of the Summly app Photo: Rick Pushinsky
With his garish trainers and artfully tousled hair, Nick D'Aloisio looks like a typical British teenager. Initially, he seems like one too – almost his first act on entering the room is to ask for the background Radio 3 to be retuned to Radio 1, while he fiddles constantly with one of his phones as his photo is taken. But not many British teenagers have their own publicist, let alone the two different agencies that currently advise D'Aloisio. Still fewer have raised venture capital funding before they were old enough to drive. And he's perhaps the only British 17-year-old who can (and does, in a slightly embarrassed way) boast of being friends with Stephen Fry, hanging out with Ashton Kutcher, enjoying 'banter' with Piers Morgan and doing deals with Rupert Murdoch.
D'Aloisio's 'ridiculous' life (his word) is a function of the burgeoning popularity of the iPhone app he created – Summly, a news summarisation service that he describes as 'a completely novel way of consuming content on mobile'. Essentially, it pulls in news from a variety of sources and uses a computer algorithm to boil it down to a couple of key sentences, with users choosing the subjects most relevant to them. If you're interested, you can click through to a longer summary, or the entire, original article. The latest version, which is free, has already been downloaded more than 750,000 times since it launched in November 2012, with its summaries being read more than 75 million times.
If that makes D'Aloisio sound like an overnight success story, it's actually the result of several years of hard work. He was born in London to Australian expat parents (his mother is a lawyer, his father works in commodities for Morgan Stanley), who moved back Down Under when Nick was one. He spent six years in Melbourne and Perth and was an outdoor, sporty type until the D'Aloisio-Montillas (Nick doesn't use the second barrel of his name in his business life) returned to London when he was seven.
His love of computers developed to the point where he pestered his parents to invest in an Apple MacBook because he was intrigued by its iMovie application ('A really strange thing for a 10-year-old,' he admits). When Apple launched its iPhone App Store in 2008 he visited an Apple Store and asked the staff how he could learn the coding to make his own apps ('It was all so new,' he says, 'that they were like, "We don't know either"'). Eventually, he taught himself via online videos and launched his first app, Finger Mill – a workout for your fingers – at the end of summer 2008, when he was 12, and when there were only a few thousand apps available. 'It was the only thing available on the web that a 12-year-old could do,' he says. 'You couldn't tell it was me behind it, because I had the same real estate [on the store] as EA Games. It was really democratised. The first day I put an app in the store, I made £79. To me, that was amazing.'
Not that D'Aloisio was some kind of pre-teen Branson wannabe with a hard-nosed business brain – he still describes his success as 'a hobby that's gone crazy'. Each summer he would work on a new app during the school holidays – including SongStumblr (music discovery) and Facemood (for predicting the mood of a user, based on their Facebook status updates). Sometimes they were free, sometimes they were paid-for, but each would prove to be more popular than the last.
In summer 2011, he came up with Trimit, an application that cut down longform web content into tweet-sized bites. That made it into the App Store's 'New & Noteworthy' shop window, was reviewed favourably by several tech blogs and quickly hit 30,000 downloads. D'Aloisio went on holiday to the Algarve with his friends, and when he returned he took a call from people representing Li Ka-shing, the richest man in Hong Kong and an investor in tech firms from Facebook to Siri. 'At the end of that first phone call, I explained I was 15,' D'Aloisio says. 'They weren't in any way bothered. They could have screwed me over – they could've gone, "We want 90 per cent of the company," and
I probably would have said yes. But they didn't.'
And so D'Aloisio became the youngest person in history to receive venture capital investment. He was wired $300,000 in funding on his 16th birthday, something that would be a recipe for disaster (or one hell of a party) with most teenagers. 'I did celebrate that day,' he says. 'But the thing people don't understand is that although I've raised $1.5 million, it's been put into the company: it's not like I can just pull out a million dollars and go buy some car…'
Instead, D'Aloisio has used the money sensibly. Aware that people were using Trimit primarily to access news in small chunks, he applied its summarisation technique to a revamped, news-focused app, using Stanford University's Stanford Research Institute in California to help build its algorithm ('They have a strong reputation for building robust and scalable systems, so it made sense to have their people facilitate the project'). A full version of Summly launched exactly a year after the investment, on November 1 2012 (his 17th birthday), with D'Aloisio's youth ensuring he made a big media splash, particularly in the US, where he made remarkably unfazed appearances on high-profile chat shows. 'I'm normally an uptight, tense, stressed, kind of obsessive person, but for some reason when I go on TV, it doesn't quite hit me.'

Nick D’Aloisio (centre) with mother Diana and brother Matt, then 12, as Summly launches in 2012. Photo: Solo Syndication
In truth, D'Aloisio seems anything but stressed. But surely the pressure of being billed repeatedly as 'the new Mark Zuckerberg' must get to him? Doesn't that mean that if he's not a billionaire by the age of 23, he'll have failed? 'I've still got a few more years!' he laughs. 'It's great that people see Summly is moving in that direction, but it's far too early to say things like that.'
But D'Aloisio does admit to being inspired by the Facebook biopic, The Social Network, although he insists the film's depiction of successful digital start-ups as the gateway to sex, drugs and rock'n'roll lifestyle is inaccurate. 'The thing that is true,' he stresses, 'is that the opportunity is ridiculous. There's no upper limit as to where you can go. I was as low as you go, a kid with no experience, and I got to this position just through an idea. If the concept's good enough then it will work. People are looking for it.'
D'Aloisio maintains that, apart from securing his initial investment, hard work has played a much larger part in his success than luck. And while he admits he had to hustle to get this far – one profile described him as 'notoriously persistent', something he takes 'as a badge of honour' – he insists he hasn't trampled on anyone else in the process. While he has faced some jealousy from people in other tech companies, he says his school friends are unresentful to the point of disinterest ('There's absolutely no competitive element'). D'Aloisio still lives with his parents, Lou and Diana, and his brother, Matthew, 13, in Wimbledon. His parents have been taken aback by it all, he says, 'but they're very supportive, and they make sure I stay grounded: I still do chores.' He says they worry about him travelling alone, as on recent trips to Korea, Hong Kong, San Francisco and New York for 'commercial conversations', but they are always available as a 'sounding board' for his ideas. Owing to Nick's youth, Diana is a director of Summly ('So she can boss me around').
His school – King's College School in Wimbledon – has been very understanding. He is currently on an agreed sabbatical from studying A-levels in maths, history and philosophy and doesn't attend classes, although he still studies when he can and hopes to take his exams in 2014. He also wants to attend university at some point, preferably Oxford to study philosophy, politics and economics, although he is 'keeping his options open'.
'Education is always there,' he shrugs. 'I can go back a year later, or five years later. In technology, you have a one-off chance to find a gap in the market and really go for it.' He praises the government for its support of the tech sector (Joanna Shields, the Government's Business Ambassador for the Digital Industries, is one of his investors), although he'd like to see coding taught as part of the national Information and Communication Technology curriculum ('Much more useful than learning Excel') to help other teenage entrepreneurs follow in his footsteps. 'If the right ecosystem is put in place in the next five to 10 years, that age barrier [for venture capital investment] should definitely be broken,' he says. 'Twelve-year-olds could do this.'
Whether most 12-year-olds could remain quite as focused as D'Aloisio remains to be seen. Watching him in action at Summly's temporary office in Shoreditch, east London, where he leads a small, young team in a development session for the app (Summly now employs seven full-time staff plus a number of outside contractors), his faintly distracted air is replaced by a laser-focused zeal to make sure everything works perfectly. He is clearly passionate about Summly as a concept as well as a business and, while he admits doing a deal with Rupert Murdoch (whereby he can summarise paywalled News Corp content for free) was 'scary', he insists media companies have nothing to fear from his app. 'News aggregators are cannibalising publishers' traffic,' he says. 'We're not. If you want to read the full story, you interact with their content on their site.' And, while he worries about Google or another major player launching their own summarisation service, he is confident that first-mover advantage will always give Summly the edge.
He insists that he hasn't had his head turned by the celebrity lifestyle of Summly investors such as Stephen Fry (who appeared alongside D'Aloisio in an online Summly ad), Ashton Kutcher and Yoko Ono. True, he has been to Kutcher's house, but he is more likely to be found at parties with his schoolfriends (though he sometimes has to step outside to take business calls).
Acutely aware that many start-ups crash and burn, making the leap from popular app to successful business is next on his agenda. As the latest app is free, Summly isn't a moneyspinner, and no one has publicly put a price on the business. So although he draws a salary, the app hasn't made him rich – yet. Various options for future revenue-raising are up for discussion once he has launched tailored Android and iPad apps, ranging from taking advertising to charging for subscriptions. But D'Aloisio says Summly's summarisation technology is likely to be its most valuable asset; potentially of interest to media organisations, news aggregators and search engines alike. He dreams of the day when every mobile device features some form of summarisation technology, whether Summly-branded or not.
When we meet in February, rumours of an imminent Yahoo buy-out are swirling and, while D'Aloisio says he is unable to discuss specifics, he does say a sale is an attractive option, if the right home can be found. 'I'm not going to just sell out for the money,' he says. 'If we ever do get acquired it will be because of the opportunity. It has to be a good fit for where we are as a start-up.'
Whatever happens to his company, however, you suspect this unusually driven – and, ultimately, far from typical – teenager is just getting started. So when the time comes to generate the Summly-style summary of Nick D'Aloisio's life story, what will it say? 'I see myself doing other companies,' he says. 'In the Summly version of what I do in the next 20 years, this will only be the first half sentence.'