The savvy network behind Summly

9 Nov, 2012

It's the perfect dotcom success story: a 17-year-old from south London topping App Store charts with an iPhone app he developed in his bedroom and scooping a $1m investment. But the school uniform-to-riches tale of Nick D'Aloisio and his Summly news app tells only half the story.

Though he taught himself to code aged 12, his success stems not just from his technical talents. After securing backing from Li Ka-shing, one of the world's richest men, Mr D'Aloisio fell in with a group of powerful spin doctors and networkers that helped him win backing from some leading lights of Silicon Valley.

Summly is a deceptively simple product that tackles a big problem: information overload. Its algorithm reduces live news feeds – categorised by topic – to summaries that fit in a single iPhone screen.

"The idea of having to click on every article and wait for it to download was very inefficient," says Mr D'Aloisio. "My age group likes to get content in concise bullet points . . . Our summaries are easy to read, fit the screen, look beautiful and download very quickly."

The free app attracted formidable support. "We saw it and we didn't know anything about Nick himself: it was just the technology we really liked," says Frank Meehan of Horizons Ventures, the private investment arm of Mr Li, which invested $300,000 after seeing an early prototype.

Josh Kushner, another tech investor to back Summly, first met Mr D'Aloisio through Rupert and Wendi Murdoch. "He is incredibly thoughtful with a keen eye for product," Mr Kushner said of the teenager.

Alongside big tech names such as Hosain Rahman of Jawbone, Brian Chesky of Airbnb, Mark Pincus of Zynga and Spencer Hyman of Last.fm and Artfinder, Summly's backers include tech-savvy celebrities such as actors Ashton Kutcher and Stephen Fry, Lady Gaga's manager, Troy Carter, and Yoko Ono.

But the real drivers of Summly's success are less familiar names such as Ian Osborne, the PR supremo and strategic adviser, Laurie Erlam, his partner, and Shakil Khan, adviser and fixer to Spotify, the music service and Path, the hot mobile app.

"Shak had been instrumental in getting Spotify's visibility in the US," says Mr Meehan, who also backed the music service. "So we brought him in and he started to pull together a great network of people."

In recent years, this new nexus of London-based tech power players has illustrated the growing importance of "smart money", or what Mr Khan calls "people capital".

"People capital is different – it's a network of trusted relationships that sometimes spans decades," explains Mr Khan, who says he spends a third of his working day making introductions and topping up his "global favour bank". "It's about who can open the right types of relationships – and stop you from making the wrong decisions."

Aware that the first version of Summly was a little rough round the edges, the newly assembled network was mobilised to find an experienced chairman, Bart Swanson, formerly of Amazon and Badoo. The Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California, was brought in to improve the summarising algorithm and new designers were found in New York and London. The network even enlisted advice from Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple's design supremo.

After its overhaul, Mr Osborne and Mr Erlam achieved blanket media coverage for Summly, making it a chart-topper.

While it is yet to make any money, Mr D'Aloisio is hopeful that publishers will pay for the traffic – a deal has already been struck with News Corp – or that a larger internet company might eventually be prepared to buy Summly outright.

In the hyper-competitive technology industry, sometimes having a good idea, a great story and an even better network is more important than talent and finance alone.

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