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Coding Plus Charisma Leads to 16-Year-Old's Success

Posted: 28/02/2012 10:37

In this digital age, it's not uncommon for people in their twenties to be the CEO of the hottest new startup in Silicon Valley. However, doing that at 16 is an entirely different feat.

Nick D'Aloisio, the founder and CEO of Summly (a summarisation app), has not even stepped into university but has already acquired a 300k investment from Horizons Ventures, the private investment vehicle of the Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing. Nick is also in the process of securing a second round of funding and building a London-based team (probably in Shoreditch) to take the app further. Despite his achievements, the 16-year-old GCSE student claims that everyone has the potential to be successful. You just need to put in a lot of hard work, come up with a cool idea and learn enough code to build a prototype.

Let's take a brief look at his background, even though it's a bit weird to do this since he's only in his teens.

It all started at age nine when Nick's curiosity for movie making prompted him to learn iMovie, Final Cut Express and Final Cut Pro. For two years, he toiled with videos trying to replicate movie-like cinematography. At age 11, he got an iPod touch and developed curiosity towards building iOs apps. Remember that at the time, the App Store wasn't saturated yet and there were barely any App Tutorials since it was so new. So, he went to the Apple Store and asked the Geniuses how to make an app. To his dismay, they didn't know the answer so he got resourceful and tried to find forums, blogs, books and a few tutorials on the net before finally starting work on his first app during the summer. With these resources, went and built FingerMill, Facemood and StongStumblr in the next few years.

Let's fast forward to him studying for his GCSE History exam. Realising that he wasted so much time on the internet reading material irrelevant to his studies, he built the first inklings of Summly (then called TrimIt) to show summaries of various web content. This app enabled him to easily discern if the link content was relevant or not. He finished this app over the summer and within the span of a few months, gained the attention of Li Ka-shing and acquired his first seed round of funding. He has then been given time off from his school to travel Silicon Valley to meet and greet various people for business and inspirational purposes.

Obviously, this is very impressive, but Nick insists that everybody has the potential to succeed. He also emphasises that a large part of his success was employing very good user interface design because consumers really do expect good design these days. He claims that this factor will help differentiate you as an app in Apple's extremely saturated App Store. He reveals that this is part of why Summly got picked to be a New and Noteworthy App in the App Store at one point. It is also worth noting that Steve Jobs was someone that Nick used to look up to, especially with regards to design.

(Video interview with Nick D'Aloisio, Founder of Summly)

When asked if Nick considered himself normal, he couldn't really answer the question as he considered himself sociable and fit in with his peers. However, what I did notice was that he was also good in articulating himself and charismatic in general. This is largely brought about by his participation in his school's debate team from age 10-12 and his participation in his school's annual house speaking tournament from age 14 onwards.

He also considered having a balanced life crucial to his success as he plays in his school's cricket and rugby team and hangs out with his friends on a regular basis. He leaves his coding to Sunday afternoons or weeknights so that he can spend Friday and Saturday nights with friends. Nick doesn't have a steady girlfriend (which he says he doesn't have the time for), but he also hangs out with girls (although I suspect that this will largely be cut down due to other more exciting ventures). Overall, he claims that being sporty, having extracurriculars and being academic is very normal at his school.

The picture painted here is an extreme opposite of the traditional coder stereotype. Nick is the perfect example of a new breed of geeks - ones who are sporty, sociable, charismatic, creative and know how to code. They will also be naturally motivated, hardworking and largely driven by their curiosity. Of course, not every 16-year-old can gain VC funding for their tech start-up. Founding a start-up would need variety of skills which are not usually taught in school. However, to have a shot at this, you'd need enough code to build your prototype, charisma to network and gain traction for your product and finally, curiosity to always learn and improve your creation.

You can't also ignore the parent factor at this age. Although Nick claims that his parents didn't play a central part in his tech start-up success, he did acknowledge that his dad (VP at Morgan Stanley) was helpful in giving financial advice regarding negotiations made with the first round of funding and his mom (a lawyer) initially looked over all the contracts before other professional lawyers came into play. However, they weren't involved in the ideation or production of the app at all.

When asked about advice Nick would give to young aspiring prodigies, he said, "If you work hard, come up with a cool idea and mock up a basic prototype, investors will come. User Interface design is a crucial factor though and you have to hit the benchmark for users' expectations. As the years go by, it will be harder and harder to come up with a new app." He also says that having both coding and communication skills is a rare but effective combination to have because you are able to articulate the technology in a way that is enticing to the consumer.

To sum it up, what can we learn from Nick? Learn to code, have good communication skills and work on your new idea driven by your natural curiosity. Be part of the next generation of geeks.


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