Nick D'Aloisio

Nick D’Aloisio was 12 years old when he began coding on Apple’s App Store. By 15, he became the youngest person ever to receive venture capital funding. 

By 17, he had quit King’s College School in Wimbledon and sold his first company to Yahoo for £20m, joining the company and becoming a millionaire in the process. 

Now, aged 25, D’Aloisio has sold his second company, Sphere. The 20-person technology start-up, which was developing a group chat app, has been sold to Twitter.

The second time around came with fresh challenges, he says. “It was easier and harder. Easier because I had a lot of experience and we were able to raise $30m from investors who wanted to take this risk. 

“On the other hand, there was more pressure and more expectations. Entrepreneurship is hard, you have to work hard, and it is increasingly hard to convince people to [try a new app] when they are increasingly set in their habits online.”

D’Aloisio’s meteoric rise in the tech world has been well documented but his path has not been typical. Between his two creations, he chose to return to education, in stark contrast to many entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley – the land of college drop-outs. Many among its glitterati have a seeming distrust towards higher education, the humanities and college campuses.

But the Brit, who spent some of his early years in Australia, secured a place at Oxford University to study computer science and philosophy, where he authored seven papers, and is now completing a PhD.

Nick D'Aloisio at 17

Credit: CARL COURT/AFP via Getty Images

“It was a wonderfully niche course,” he says, “I got obsessed with the problem of consciousness and how we have experiences. Almost taking a computational view of the mind, it doesn’t cut it, it doesn’t get you to consciousness. I think the role of the human is so important.”

At Oxford he met Sphere co-founder Tomas Halgas, a student of computer science, and the pair began brainstorming what problems humans could solve. 

“There was all this human potential on the internet,” says D’Aloisio. “How do you get people to exchange ideas and knowledge in a way they do not do currently?”

The idea was pegged as a more advanced version of Quora, where users could have their questions answered by experts who would receive micropayments in exchange. It secured 500,000 downloads but didn’t quite work out as hoped. “The unit economics were quite tenuous,” admits D’Aloisio.

Still, it gained backing from some of the biggest names – and founders – in tech, including Airbnb’s Brian Chesky and Tinder’s Sean Rad. 

But in 2019, D’Aloisio and Halgas moved on and Sphere switched to building a new kind of social network. 

He argues that most modern group chat apps, such as WhatsApp, originally offered just a one-to-one conversation. There was scope to do something new.

“No-one had really thought about it from scratch,” D’Aloisio explains. “What is a group chat that works so more than a few people can speak? Other group messengers have kind of emerged by accident.”

Sphere’s app, which only ever launched in a closed test before being bought by Jack Dorsey, split users into group chats, each featuring a Twitter-like feed. That feed could prioritise certain key posts, such as polls or calendar invites, while clearing out dead chats. And, similar to Slack, users could comment or send emojis on different posts. 

One of the problems D’Aloisio and his team hoped to solve was how to make chats less divisive – perhaps stemming from his philosophy degree, and a problem Sphere’s new parent company Twitter has struggled with. 

“We arrived at the issue of trying to make online discourse healthy,” he says. “We tried a lot of different things, ephemeral [disappearing] chats, how you define ‘reading’ a message, emotional responses, lots of features. The vision was to replicate the physical world in online conversation.”

Nick D'Aloisio

Credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

He declines to detail how this will play out at Twitter, citing confidentiality. But he has come along at the right time: digital interaction is clearly the issue of the moment, with ongoing debates over how online abuse and anonymous trolling plague social media.

D’Aloisio’s original app, Summly, also came along at the right time and received positive reviews – it created bite size news digests collected from various outlets, and was downloaded around one million times amid a flurry of early offerings for Apple’s iPhones.

After securing venture capital funding from Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, Summly was snapped up by Yahoo in 2013. It marked a bid by the almost two decade old internet giant which was struggling under chief executive Marissa Mayer, to appeal to younger users and take on Google’s dominance.

Summly suffered under new ownership. Relaunched as Yahoo! News Digest it had some initial success – winning an Apple Design Award and netting 9.5m downloads – but, like many Yahoo products, was shut down in 2017. Yahoo was acquired by Verizon that year, leading to closures and thousands of redundancies. Luckily for D’Aloisio, he left two years prior, to take up his place at Oxford.

If it was a disappointing way for the app to end, D’Aloisio doesn’t let on. 

“For me there was still a legacy with Summly,” he says, “there are many news products that followed that model. I was very happy with the work I did both at Yahoo and Summly.” Certainly, there seems to be a market for news in brief – newsletters such as Axios and Google’s News Showcase have since launched.

Now, history has repeated itself – Sphere has said it will shut down. Whether some of it survives is now up to Jack Dorsey’s team.

Whether it would have been a breakout hit is unknown. Some in Britain’s tech sector suggest the deal represents an “acquihire” – taking on talent rather than necessarily the product itself.

That said, two buyouts to two of the world’s biggest technology companies is not to be sniffed at. D’Aloisio says the UK has improved dramatically at fostering tech entrepreneurship compared to when he was a teenage developer.

“I now have friends who I have known for a long time who are in entrepreneurship. Ten years ago none of my friends dreamt of doing tech.”

And the bug hasn’t left him yet. While Twitter is now home, D’Aloisio won’t rule out another start-up “in the very long term”.