Nick D’Aloisio took a big risk at the end of 2011 when he stopped attending high school regularly to focus on developing a mobile news app powered by a text-summarizing algorithm. This week his bet paid off. Yahooo purchased D’Aloisio’s app, Summly, for a reported $30 million, and now the 17-year-old has a full-time job in the tech giant’s London office. D’Aloisio stopped by the TIME office to discuss his previous apps, how Summly will affect the media landscape, and what his girlfriend thinks about his newfound fame.
How did Summly come about?
I thought of the idea of Summly in March or April 2011. I was 15 years old and I was revising for some kind of history exam. The problem was I was trying to find information that was useful to me. When you type into Google an esoteric term, you get quite a lot of stuff that’s not relevant. If you could come up with a textual preview, that would give you a snapshot of the full story. I put together an iPhone app called TrimIt and released that in July 2011. About a month later, the private fund of the Hong Kong billionaire Li-Kashing cold emailed me and expressed an interest to invest, but they didn’t realize I was 15. They thought it was a UK company with a team. It turned out that they actually liked my age because it demonstrated I was net-native, so I’d only grown up with the Internet. They flew to London about a month later and invested $300,000. That kick-started this whole journey.
What got you interested in app development?
It was the opportunity to be on an equal playing field with the biggest companies and publishers in the world. The App Store has democratized the creation of content. As a 12-year-old kid I was able to put my application on the store. No one knows who’s behind the screen so you can’t tell I’m a 12-year-old. I was very careful not to publicly give my age prior to the investors coming on board because I wanted the idea to be judged on its own merit and not because of the story or because of my age.
Your first app was when you were 12? What was it?
My first app was released in July or August of 2008. It was a “fingermill”—a treadmill for your fingers. My level of programming was quite basic to begin with so it was more gimmicky to start with. Day one it was up there, I had 79 pounds worth of revenue.
How did Yahoo come into the picture?
We spent about 12 months developing Summly, launched it in November. One or two months after that we began talking to a few companies and investors. The really exciting thing for me with Yahoo is the new CEO, Marissa Mayer. She’s a product person. She’s really keen to take technology and bring it to the mobile phone.
Have you met Marissa Mayer?
I actually first met her at a conference in Munich last year when she was still at Google. That was the very first conference I did. We had conversations [before Yahoo purchased Summly]. I spent a bit of time on campus and got to meet the team. All of them have this big long-term vision of where Yahoo can be. I wouldn’t have joined Yahoo had I not bought 100% into it. In five, ten, 15 years time, I could still see myself being there.
What does an app like Summly mean for the future of media and journalism?
Some people have said, ‘Oh Summly’s trying to dumb down information.’ It’s really quite the opposite. Its intent was to make it easier to discover what you want to read, therefore giving you more time to read in depth. It’s like a film trailer, but for content. It’s actually incentivizing people to read the full story.
There’s been a lot of tension between news aggregators and news publishers lately. How do you think publishers and technology companies can find a balance between old and new media paradigms?
I think they need each other. Some new service launches tomorrow that’s this new media paradigm and people would expect people in the old media to go sue them, but quite frankly they need each other. Summly’s a new paradigm service. What we’re doing is a bit innovative, but we still fundamentally rely on old-media journalism because you need a journalist out in the field to write the original, sourced story. If the sourced story is written poorly, the summary will be poor. We’re still dependent on that original content. If you flip it the other way, the old media also now relies on the newer services and aggregators to distribute their content. There’s a whole generation of younger people who only consume information on their phones. If the old media’s going to continue to thrive with this new platform, services like Summly can really try and help that. It’s going to be a partnership.
What has this media spectacle been like for you?
Numbing is probably the best word to describe it. It’s a shock to be honest. The only thing I can take from this that I’m genuinely kind of proud that I’ve been getting a lot of tweets where young people are commenting and saying, “This is really inspirational, I want to go and start my own thing.”
Are you going to be going to school and working at Yahoo?
I’m a full-time employee at Yahoo now. I’ll be working out of their London office. I’ll be doing my A-Levels–equivalent of SAT–on the side outside of school.
What will be the nature of your job?
I’m going to be on the mobile team. First things first will be, ‘Let’s get our summarization technology integrated as fast as possible.’ Over the past 18 months, we believe we’ve made ground from a scientific perspective in how we go about approaching this summarization stuff. It’s now our time to bring that to the forefront of mobile consumption.
When was your last day of regular school?
I”ve been visiting on and off, but it was the end of 2011 when I was going to school every day. We launched a product in 2011 that I’d been developing while at school. The [initial] investment had already been made, so for a time I was doing this all at the same time, which was hell. In lessons I was checking my phone and I was phoning people at lunchtime. I was very careful not to tell my friends about it because I didn’t feel it was necessary at that point.They ended up reading online about this when it broke. They flipped. It was like 100 posts on my Facebook wall.
Do you still have friends that are your age?
Yeah, I see them on the weekends because I still live with my parents.
Do you have a curfew?
To be honest, I didn’t have a curfew before, but my mom is always texting me. She was on the phone this morning making sure I was OK. They’re always texting me and calling and making sure I’m being taken care of.
Are they involved in technology at all?
No, my mom’s a lawyer and my dad works in oil and gas.
How did you gain an interest in tech, then?
I don’t know, it was natural. I got my first Macbook at Fifth Avenue here when I was about 9. I started using it not in a recreational sense but in a creative sense. I started to do movie making. I played with Garage Band. I wanted to create things, but I couldn’t do them with my hands. With a computer, you have the tools a professional at the top of their field would also be using. Think about how many people now upload things to YouTube or have their own blog or are doing apps. There’s a lot of teenagers doing that because they have the toolset.
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What does your girlfriend make of all this?
I’ve been going out with her for about 10 months now. She’s been really supportive. The good thing is with my close friends and my girlfriend and even my family, if I’m with them we’re not talking about this at all. They don’t see it as coming into who I am really. When I’m with them, we’re not wanting to discuss my work. I was on the phone with my girlfriend last night and she wasn’t even talking about any of this. She was talking about how we’re going out next week to this party or something. If my close friends or my girlfriend were massive fans or in technology, it would mean I wouldn’t have any personal normality. Everything would surround Summly, and that would be really hard for me to psychologically handle.
What are your favorite apps?
I like Path. Visually, that’s a really awesome application. Quora I use for a lot of informational stuff. The answers on quora are really high quality. Just started getting into Pinterest for design. I type in a keyword and you get all these curated lists of content, which is really exciting. I’ve been playing with Mailbox, that’s pretty cool from a design perspective. Any app that has really good design, I just download it and start playing with it.