The Changing Mark Of Developer Success

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.


    I find the equation of 'success' with multi-million earnings pretty sickening. You can tell *nothing* about how successful something/someone is by how much money it/he/she makes. Bill Gates has been amongst the world's richest people, but never achieved success in work because he never made anything of quality. David Walsh has made a fortune, but out of useless gambling, so his career hasn't been a success in any defensible way.

    Both of these very rich men then went on (atypically) to use their money well, so they both had successful retirements (Walsh isn't really retired, but you get the point). Yet those activities (philanthropy, building MONA), lost money. On your definition they'd be unsuccessful, yet they've been the only truly successful activities these two guys have carried out.

    Summly is a success to the extent (and only to the extent) that it does a useful job, and does it well.

    Away, far-right Americal fiscal fundamentalism!

      "Bill Gates has been amongst the world's richest people, but never achieved success in work because he never made anything of quality. " you are kidding right ?

        Half, yes. Exaggerating wildly. But there's a germ of truth, in that Microsoft's financial 'success' (scare-quotes intended) was always due mainly to stitching up deals with other large entities (corporations, governments, educational institutions), to force their products on users. Few Microsoft products have ever had much true, user-driven, demand. Xbox, perhaps.

        But to be fair, they have over the years made plenty of quality stuff. Windows 7. OneNote. Xbox. The CLR (and .NET in general). F#. Their big cash miner (Office) though isn't going to be on anyone's list of Microsoft's high-quality products. Which in itself says something about the relationship between true and financial success.

          The Xbox was a solid product, but microsoft was forcing it into a fairly tight market. They sold the console at a loss and bought out game companies to get exclusive content. The xbox division was losing money hand over fist for years, just because microsoft could afford it in order to establish themselves.

          By contrast, excel and word mostly got popular on their own merits. They had a solid product with some neat features and they kept improving it (and it was cross platform and worked great with competing file formats, something you don't see them do much now)

          I think if you set aside prejudice, Microsoft's Office is quite a remarkable product really. Every piece of software has its flaws, but the benefits to a company using Office (whether just Word & Outlook or the whole suite) surely deserves a better billing? The sheer number of formulae available in Excel isn't matched, let alone the macro/VB side of things.

          I've tried Google docs, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, KingSoft and Zoho - none stack up as long term viable alternatives (given my need for something more than sorting in a spreadsheet or formatting in a document). Then there's the inevitable compatibility problems, which is not a feature at all, but certainly an impediment to competitors...

            Remarkable? Excel, arguably. Word, hell no. Microsoft has been found guilty in multiple jurisdictions worldwide of anti-competitive practises. Viz: they stitched up deals with governments, schools, corporations and universities to force their products on users. This made their take (on word-processing in particular) the 'default' by fiat, and in effect killed the market.

            Of course, with the great rentier wealth thus generated, they've been able to produce some clever and functional products. Microsoft has for most of its life been a company of exceptional engineers and indifferent product designers (until Ballmer, who turned it largely over to sales-spivs). But we're 10 years behind where we could have been if Microsoft hadn't illegally captured the market in so many countries.

              Bob, I think you are on drugs ... you cant argue that MS is most recognized brand in the world - if its not success I dont know what is...
              I really dont know one complete package that works and give all the functionality that Office does... and yes I tried openOffice... which is quite frankly crap (only reason why everyone loves it coz its free and for free its good value)
              MS gave one thing that everyone seems to be 'ignoring' it gave standards to the industry there are no longer 5 different 'word processing' apps like there was in 20 years ago which are not really compatible with each other... how is that not a success of business and business model...

    I wouldn't measure developer success by Summly. It's more of a marketing/PR success than anything else. I've used the app, it's well crap. It's had less than 1 million downloads and no-one I know uses it. Well most people haven't even heard of it. The success was the marketing machine around it - 17 y.o. invents an app - gets lots of well know angel investors onboard and lots and lots of press. It's more of an acquihire to get Nick onboard as a spokesman for Yahoo!. They're trying to penetrate the youth market and he's an ideal role model (young, articulated, smart, tech-savy). Good on him thou, he's done more than most 17 y.o.'s at his age. Who knows maybe he'll go on to invent something great.

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