Looking behind the headlines – the success of Summly

26th Mar 2013
Looking behind the headlines – the success of Summly

National  news headlines yesterday were full of Nick D’Aloisio and the acquisition of his iPhone app, Summly, by Yahoo in a multi-million pound deal.

The BBC news report I watched said how anyone can now make apps from their bedroom, which is true – but then you could always make websites from your bedroom (and many people do!) – but making an app from your bedroom, even if it’s a really really good one, doesn’t necessarily equal a rumoured £18m sale to an Internet giant.

This blog post isn’t intended to dishearten – far from it, I’ve read and watched the news reports with an excitement that there still is hope that you can make “the next big thing”. And it’s absolutely not intended to take anything away from Nick D’Aloisio – the guy’s 17 and he’s got this on his CV?! That’s just all kinda of wow! But I’m not even talking about the technology right now, I’m talking about the PR machine. The timing of this is all really really fast. Summly is based on an initial app called Trimit which Nick built in 2011, but Summly itself didn’t launch until November 2012. That’s just 5 months.

Often in life, it’s not what you know it’s who you know. And this can very much be the case in getting a web project off the ground. Would Facebook be where it is today if it’s first users weren’t the influential-of-tomorrow all studying at Harvard University? Besides working in Yahoo’s Soho office by day, Nick is studying for his A-Levels at fee paying King’s College School in Wimbledon. He lives in London (it’s own eco-system, described in a post today by Stephanie Flanders) with his lawyer Mum and his commodities trader Dad. With that background, I wouldn’t be surprised if between them they know some people who know some people. Complete conjecture, but it’s a small world. I’m just 5 degrees of separation away from Madonna (as in pop-star, not the mother of Christ!)! Not that that helps with my start-up ideas mind…

The big break however seems to have come from the fact that the app won an Apple award at the end of last year for “Intuitive Touch”. If you read the top blog posts reporting on the rewards, it’s not actually named as it wasn’t one of the top top awards. But it was an Apple commendation none the less, and it put it on the radar of Hong Kong investor Li Ka-shing and his venture capital firm, Horizon Ventures, along with the rest of the world. Now, we don’t know how it came so clearly onto the Apple judges radar so late in the year when they’ll have had a lot to look at. Perhaps Trimit, which was downloaded 200,000 times before it evolved into Summly was the key. But it’s great that an award which – as far as I know – would have been free to enter (so many awards have application fees!) really identified a great product. The same awards picked out Instagram, now owned by Facebook, the previous year so maybe that’s a route to success? An affordable, viable route to success? Stiff competition, but if you want the big pay off and recognition, you need to produce an award winning product.

On their website Horizon Ventures say how they “like to actively assist entrepreneurs achieve their objectives and work closely with them to determine optimal exit outcomes”. Their job is to make you big and sell you to Yahoo. Their team are professionals in business dealings, PR and everything legal that goes with it. They will have geared the product ready for sale – they would have brought in additional professionals and approached other investors. It stood out to me, when reading Summly’s home page, how Americanised the product is – with talk of ESPN and The Wall Street Journal. Did a 17 year old Londoner who devised this app to help him study for his exams think to lead with those sources? Maybe, as he could well have a good business head on his shoulders. But maybe he got just a bit of business advice along the way.

Other external investors are apparently Stephen Fry, Ashton Kutcher and Yoko Ono. A Hollywood star, British icon known for his love of gadgets and a Beatles’ widow owns some of your company – you are going to get some PR coverage! You are going to get heard of, you are going to attract attention – you are more likely than not going to exit for a lot of money. I don’t know how these external investors got on board – I like to think Stephen Fry came along because he read about the award and is a tech pioneer and avid Twitter-er. Kutcher is also a famous Twitter user.

So in this case it seems ingenuity, technical wizardry and user insight – mixed with a fair amount of money and influence – helped make it big. Money and influence certainly isn’t everything – I’ve seen plenty of other projects with plenty of both come and go because the idea just wasn’t very good or the business was poorly executed. But it can help.

I still believe there’s space in life for something to be really good, to really stand out, and to be creatively and imaginatively marketed in order to make a mark. But these projects are having to fight harder to be seen above all of the shiny multi-million pound investment backed projects.

So if you’re taking this more modest approach, you’ve got to put the time in. Plan your project, listen to your audience, carry out plenty of your own (free) market research. And then stick with it – continue to evolve your product as required, enter it for awards, speak about it at any event you can; tell the world! Social media gives you that channel – OK so things that go really viral might be given a sponsored-helping-hand, but I’ve seen plenty of small businesses baking cakes at home or sewing kids clothes build up huge followings on Facebook just by sticking with it and continuing to engage their audience.

Make sure when you start your journey you really believe in your project – don’t just do it because you think it’ll make money. If you don’t believe in your project how can you expect anyone else to? Summly started because Nick became frustrated with the content he was reading online whilst studying for his exams. If your project / app  / tool can solve a problem or lift a burden, or make someone’s life easier, you could be on to a winner. So get out there, get it built, and shout about it :)

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