The story of how British-Australian teen Nick D'Alosio has sold his Summly app technology to Yahoo! for a reputed $30 million or so has been all over the news this week. It's an inspiring example for developers, but it's also a reminder that the goalposts for building a successful product have changed. Forget forging your own path; these days the big bucks are in selling out to someone else.
I was discussing the Summly sale on Radio National Drive last night. It's a fabulous success story, but the excitement over the headline has tended to mean the story has been oversimplified. One point I was keen to get across was that it's not like D'Alosio gets $30 million all to himself — he has agreed to work for Yahoo!, and he has been supported by a bunch of investors in the past who will certainly want their money back. I also wanted to highlight that this isn't purely the story of someone building a technology single-handed in their bedroom; D'Alosio has employees helping with the coding.
However, what really struck me about the story was that it signifies how the landmarks of developer success have changed. At the dawn of the PC era, you could be a college dropout and go on to found a massively successful company (think Bill Gates at Microsoft, or Steve Jobs at Apple). The mark of success was coming up with a technology so successful that it was the basis for an ongoing and successful company that became a brand name in its own right.
These days, that's less likely to be the case. Start-ups still abound, but the end game is to be purchased by someone larger. Often, the end result of being bought out is that your brand name disappears altogether. That's what has happened to Summly (which is no longer on the App Store), and it's a path many other technologies have followed (Apple and Lala is the first example that springs to mind).
Does that mean standalone success is impossible? No. There's always the chance you might build something and it becomes the next Facebook. But in a highly competitive market, the odds are ridiculously low. The odds of getting $30 million for your tech from Yahoo! are also low, but as an exit strategy, it still seems the more likely path.