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Nick D’Aloisio is at it again, bless his heart, with another “buzz” company

February 18th, 2014 |  Published in Brands and branding, Digital and Mobile Technology, Telecom and broadband


Nick D'Aloisio

18 February 2014 – Last year, Nick D’Aloisio came to public attention when at the age of 17 he sold his start-up, Summly, to Yahoo for an estimated $30m (of which he is thought to have raked in more than a third). With backing from a glittering array of investors, including the Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing and the British comedian Stephen Fry, he designed a piece of software that compressed long slabs of text into a few summarising sentences.

Seen as a killer app in a world in which an increasing number of people surf the web on their mobile phones, Summly attracted huge interest and quickly gained about 1m users before being snapped up by Yahoo. D’Aloisio now works for Yahoo improving Summly and developing new applications involving similar technology.

In fact at CES this past January Yahoo announced Summly will now become Yahoo News Digest, a free app offering two daily news briefings, each offering nine summaries of stories aggregated from across publishers across the web.

What was the driving force, and how does it work?

D’Aloisio saw everybody was talking about the “fire-hose” of information that has been unleashed by the internet, and how it is changing reading habits. He thought about these shifts, perhaps more deeply than most. So over the last few years he devised software aimed to let you “sip” from the flow without being drenched with information. He believed summaries were the way to bring to new media one of the more satisfying attributes of the old: “It’s the ability to get to the end and then you’re done. This sense of completion has been lost in cyber space. The problem with the internet is that you can never finish an infinite stream.”

The app uses advanced algorithms to summarize web content into manageable bullet points and keyword listings, which you can then share. It is not a normal approach to summarization. And by “normal” I am referring to the keyword-based summarization that is commonly used in other products. For example, when you Google the phrase “keyword summarization” you get more than 262 million results.

Summly uses a more abstract method, starting with a special algorithm that extracts text from a web page using HTML processing. The app analyzes the text and regurgitates selected, condensed portions of the article as bullet points. The Summly algorithm accomplishes this using a number of machine learning techniques and “genetic” algorithms — a search heuristic that mimics evolution.

D’Aloisio developed his final algorithm by initially employing a training algorithm: His method looked at human-authored summaries of articles of various types and from various publications. It then used these summaries as models for what Summly should be spitting out, and how it should change its own metrics to better emulate the work of flesh-and-blood information curators.

Summly also looks at the topics a website covers, so individual pieces of content can be classified as relating to business, tech, sports, and so on. This helps the algorithm more accurately consolidate text.

D’Aloisio believes long lists of hyperlinks that take you straight to content-filled websites were great for Google in the early days of the web, but things have changed: “Hyperlinks aren’t effective anymore. It’s information overload”.

He communicates daily by Skype with his 10-team of software engineers, flying out to Silicon Valley to see them one week in every four.

But that does not mean he does not have time for something else.

He made his first investment with the Yahoo proceeds into Sweden’s Tictail. Tictail allows users to set up an online store in a matter of minutes and has more than 35,000 active stores in 110 countries. The Stockholm-based start-up has raised $8m in Series A funding from a wide range of investors including D’Aloisio and Thrive Capital, the four-year-old venture capital firm known for its investments in Instagram and Kickstarter.

Founded just three years ago, it has become one of the buzz companies in a Swedish tech scene led by the likes of Spotify and Klarna.

Interestingly enough, Tictail founder Carl Waldekranz also started his first business as a teenager, setting up what he calls a “boutique design agency” aged 19, called Super Strikes. It had Spotify as one of its clients. He sold it when he was 23 before setting up Tictail.

Tictail is using the money raised to make a big push into the US, already one of its biggest markets alongside the UK, Sweden, France and Germany. It will open an office in New York to help with marketing to budding US online retailers. And it was also planning to focus more on the end consumer and provide an easier way to browse the products in all the stores it hosts as well as interact with the sellers behind them.

Tictail, which mostly relies on recommendations from existing users for growth, uses a simple interface similar to the blogging site Tumblr and the initial service is free. It makes money from additional services such as sending out discount vouchers or reminding customers when a product is back in stock.

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"The mind that lies fallow but a single day sprouts up follies that are only to be killed by a constant and assiduous culture."
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