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Thursday, 20 April, 2000, 15:27 GMT 16:27 UK
South Africa's millionaire

By Mohammed Allie in Cape Town

When one looks at Mark Shuttleworth wearing his trademark T-shirt, baggy shorts and sandals, one could be forgiven for thinking he is just another young South African student.

Had it not been for the $575m (3.5bn rand) sale of his computer consulting company Thawte to his American rival VeriSign, the 26-year old Capetonian could well have continued his low-profile lifestyle.

I realised the huge potential the internet had, I started looking at web systems and and technology and it just grew from there.

Mark Shuttleworth

But the deal, which has catapaulted the University of Cape Town Business Science graduate into the sparsely populated ranks of South Africa's billionaires, has placed Shuttleworth firmly in the media spotlight.

Shuttleworth stunned local and international computer giants when news of the deal with VeriSign emerged early in the new year.

Four-years old

His one-man operation which was launched four years ago grew into a team of 37 local and 20 American staff.

By the time it was sold Thawte had captured 40% of the worldwide Internet digital certification industry.

During that time Thawte had developed into the second biggest Internet certificate authority worldwide with offices in the US and South Africa and representation in more than 22 countries.

With no capital or reputation Shuttleworth set up Thawte Consulting and started providing digital certificates to web sites to confirm their authenticity.

These certificates allow Internet users to transact with sites knowing they are genuine.

"We sell certificates which are like passports or ID books for the Internet. When you go shopping online, before you hand over your credit card details you should look for a little padlock in the browser window.

"That padlock is the symbol that tells the internet customer that the site is secure and has been verified through a digital certificate.

I knew this was the night that was going to change everything for me.

Mark Shuttleworth

"If you think about it an internet site is very easy to imitate so bogus operators can set up a site that looks like that of a well-known commercial enterprise and it would be impossible for the customer to know who actually operates that site," said Mr Shuttleworth.

Perhaps the main reason why he was unknown in his own country is the fact that less than half of 1% of the company's business is done in South Africa.

"When we first started in 1996, VeriSign had complete domination of the marketplace and other big computer companies were also trying to challenge it," he said.

Competitive edge

Shuttleworth believes working from Cape Town gave him a big competitive edge over his international rivals.

"Cape Town has three great universities close to one another, it is broadly English speaking which is very important for the global market and the engineers' salaries are so much lower than overseas. Its affordability has enabled us to be the cheapest in our market."

His remarkable achievements were born as the result of his fascination with the internet as a student at the University of Cape Town in the early 1990s.

It was while studying at UCT that Shuttleworth first came across a web browser and acquired a taste for the internet.

"It was about 11pm and I remember staying up the entire night exploring. I knew this was the night that was going to change everything for me. I began consulting for a few businesses after that and enjoyed it.

"There was a lot of tension between my studies and my consulting. It caught me off guard when I realised, after graduation, that all my friends had jobs and I didn't.

"I continued consulting and as I realised the huge potential the internet had, I started looking at web systems and and technology and it just grew from there."

One of the first things Shuttleworth did when he sold his business was to tell his South African staff that they would receive a gift of at least R1 million each (about $153 000).

Among them are two cleaners and a gardener at his offices located in a farmhouse in Durbanville north of Cape Town.

Shuttleworth is passionate about South Africa and plans to reinvest much of his windfall in the country.

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