Summly’s 17-Year-Old Founder Becomes a Millionaire
The biggest U.S. Web portal said yesterday that it’s buying Summly, an app that makes it easier to read online news on small screens, without disclosing financial terms. Yahoo is paying $30 million, a person familiar with the transaction said.
It’s the type of entrepreneur-makes-good story that has fueled the aspirations of a generation of engineers toiling in garages and workshops in hopes of finding financial backing or a buyer for a new program or gadget. Few fare as well as D’Aloisio, who has been making applications for handsets since he was 12 and will join Yahoo along with some members of his team. He met Yahoo Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer in 2012 and counts her among his influencers.
“Yahoo in my mind is one of these classic Internet companies, and there is so much opportunity now that they have new leadership with Marissa Mayer,” D’Aloisio said. “There’s a massive opportunity in what they’re doing, which is taking technologies like Summly and allowing them to become used by hundreds of millions of people.”
D’Aloisio, whose handicraft includes “gimmicky games” like a program that turns a phone into a treadmill for fingers, said in an interview with Mark Barton on Bloomberg TV's Countdown show that his parents will keep the proceeds from the sale in a trust fund for him.
Summly, founded in 2011 as Trimit, lists Zynga Inc. (ZNGA) Chief Executive Officer Mark Pincus, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, as well as actors Ashton Kutcher and Stephen Fry among its early backers. Summly’s technology generates summaries of news items and helps users search for topics based on keywords. The company partnered with SRI International, a nonprofit research institute, to come up with the algorithm that automatically generates its blurbs.
“Most articles and Web pages were formatted for browsing with mouse clicks,” Yahoo said on its blog. “The ability to skim them on a phone or a tablet can be a real challenge. We want easier ways to identify what’s important to us.”
Sara Gorman, a spokeswoman for Sunnyvale, California-based Yahoo, and D’Aloisio declined to comment on the price.
The program will be worked into multiple Yahoo products, and for now has been removed from Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s online app store, according to a statement on Summly.com.
Mayer is stepping up Yahoo’s focus on Web services that are customized for individual users, and aims to add engineers by buying small technology startups, she said on a conference call last year. Since Mayer took over in July, Yahoo has made at least six such deals, known informally as acqui-hires. These include Jybe Inc., Stamped Inc., OntheAir, Snip.it and Alike.
Mayer has said she sees the company building sites and technologies for daily activities such as checking e-mail and stock tickers. She said in January that she’s focused on technology that will personalize content from the Web and deliver it to people on handheld devices.
“We think about how do we take the Internet and order it for you,” Mayer said.
Raised in Australia, D’Aloisio has resided in a suburb southwest of London since the age of seven. He lives with his father, a commodities analyst for Morgan Stanley; his mother, a lawyer; and a younger brother.
D’Aloisio took a sabbatical from King’s College School six months ago after receiving an investment from investors including Li Ka-shing.
“It came down to me wanting to commit 100 percent to the build and the launch,” he said. “I wanted to throw everything I had at Summly.”
That passion for his company resulted in an emotional exchange with a blogger that even D’Aloisio admits betrayed a lack of maturity. In a series of e-mails with the technology blog Gizmodo, D’Aloisio urged writer Casey Chan to reconsider a decision to drop Trimit from a Best Apps of the Week feature.
“I feel like crying I’m that disappointed,” D’Aloisio wrote in an e-mail, which was later posted to Gizmodo. “You don’t understand what this means if we don’t get featured. We’ll go bust and I’ll end up unemployed.”
D’Aloisio said he has matured in the two years since then.
“The great thing about that is it shows I was a 15-year-old who has been on an amazing journey,” he said. “I was young and inexperienced.”
D’Aloisio met Mayer in January 2012 at a design conference in Munich, where he was a speaker and she attended as a representative of Google Inc., her then employer. The two had a “very brief chat” at the conference, and reconnected late last year, when Yahoo approached the entrepreneur about a possible acquisition, he said.
As much as he admires Mayer, D’Aloisio may not be long for the company she runs. He said he’d like to continue building companies after a stint there and is particularly interested in artificial intelligence technology, such as Apple Inc.’s Siri.
For now, he said he’s eager to learn what it’s like working inside an established technology -- a prospect that helped convince him to sell.
“I’m going to need to have had the experience at companies like Yahoo,” D’Aloisio said. “I’m going to have this awesome learning experience.”
D’Aloisio said that besides Mayer, he also draws inspiration from Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and Jony Ive, Apple’s design chief.
To hear D’Aloisio tell it, the admiration is mutual.
“He is a fan,” D’Aloisio said of Ive, with whom he’s met to exchange ideas. “Which is awesome.”