Teen Millionaire Nick D'Aloisio Can Teach Us A Lot About Innovation

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"The bigger the corporation, the less the innovation."

So I was told by Nick D'Aloisio, who made headlines last week for becoming a teenage multimillionaire when he sold Summly, his story summarisation company, to Yahoo.

The big corporation he had in mind was Google, a firm that post-teens (!) like me tend to see as highly innovative, in everything from self-driving cars to reading glasses that display email. But D'Aloisio, a pupil at a high school in South London, proved his point by developing a valuable innovation long before the likes of Google or Yahoo got around to it.

To get a sense of this young man, watch this excerpt from an interview I did last year on with D'Aloisio when he was still just 16 years old.

Clearly, D'Aloisio is an extremely articulate person and was already supremely confident and full of belief that he would succeed - as he has now already done.

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This confidence, he says, is something he shares with many of today's young people. As he puts it, there is a belief shared by a "lot of young entrepreneurs that, yeah, we can create the next Google, it's possible. It is Google that should be worried, not us."

This self-belief and absence of fear is the sort of "spontaneous optimism" that the famed British economist John Maynard Keynes famously christened "animal spirits". Much of the positive activity in the economy is the result of these animal spirits, Keynes reckoned.

What can we learn from this teen millionaire?

D'Aloisio thinks that the internet has made it much easier for someone with a good idea to succeed, though it has also made the business of innovation a lot more competitive. I think he is right, in most industries if not all.

His generation does seem less fearful than those of us who are older. I wonder if you, like me, have been held back from trying something innovative by worrying excessively about the downside risk? I understand that not everyone reacts positively to him, but hopefully, you, like me, will find listening to D'Aloisio a source of inspiration to rekindle that youthful sense of all things being possible.

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True, maybe that confidence of youth will decline with the experience of a few hard knocks in the school of life, though with today's "millennial generation" I doubt it. I'm struck by how the confidence of D'Aloisio and other talented millennials seems to have survived, so far, the high rate of unemployment among under 25-year-olds as a whole in both America and Europe.

Besides, today’s youngsters may have more grounds for confidence than those of us who are older when it comes to being successful technology innovators. Having grown up with today's new technologies, they may understand it better than us oldies, and see its possibilities more clearly.

The ecosystem into which they can launch an innovation is also far more supportive today. When I was 16 and living in South London, even if I had come up with a brilliant innovation, I could have shared it with only a handful of people - parents, teachers, classmates - who probably would have had no clue if it was a good idea or how to help me commercialise it. D'Aloisio has a simple route, via the App Store, to reach hundreds of thousands of consumers and to get his product in front of the world's top investors.

There is also a growing number of wealthy investors far more willing to take a chance on youth than they would have ever been in the past. D'Aloisio got early backing from the Hong Kong billionaire, Li Ka Shing. Peter Thiel, a billionaire co-founder of PayPal, is giving away some of his fortune to encourage selected youngsters to drop out of university and start a business (see my article in The Economist). D'Aloisio told me last year that he would not drop out of high school to focus on developing Summly, but now seems to have changed his mind.

And, of course, the Summly deal shows, even big corporations, such as Yahoo, D'Aloisio's new employer, are willing to bet on youngsters to provide that innovation he says they lack.

If Keynes was right that animal spirits drive innovation, the supreme confidence of today's teenage entrepreneurs is a reason for great optimism - especially if we can further equip them to succeed by getting entrepreneurship taught in high school. As I see it, D'Aloisio's success is a sign that we are at the dawn of another golden age of innovation.

What do you think?

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