Saturday, February 04, 2006

Encore

Let's say that you had a business idea that was so good that someone bought it from you for $600-M. What would you do for an encore?

Mark Shuttleworth, in tie. Picture courtesy of Charo Nuguid
The situation and the amount seems highly improbable, like something out of a novel, that the question itself seems absurd. Encore, indeed! As if you would need one!

But that, in fact, is what happened to Mark Shuttleworth, a young South African technopreneur. Barely out of the University of Cape Town in 1995, Shuttleworth started, Thawte Consulting, an Internet security company in his native country. Thawte soon focused on digital certificates, what e-commerce web servers and browsers use to secure transactions. Thawte was the leading digital certificate authority outside of the United States and was certainly the fastest growing one until it was acquired by Verisign in 1999 for the cool figure of $575-M.

All this when Shuttleworth was all of 25 years old.

Since that achievement, Shuttleworth has gone on to do two other projects for which his worldwide renown has grown.

The first is the more spectacular. In April of 2001, after several months of training, he joined the Russian Soyuz TM-34 mission to the International Space Station. Passage for the trip set him back by $20-M. While it may seem frivolous at first glance, Shuttleworth became the first South African in space, a fact which did his country proud. While in the space station, Shuttleworth also performed experiments designed by South African scientists.

The second is more low-key but has a far-ranging global effect. In the 1990s, Shuttleworth had been involved in Linux development. In 2004, through his company Canonical Ltd., he funded the development of Ubuntu, a user-friendly version of the Linux operating system. This endeavor takes up 95% of Shuttleworth's time as he is deeply involved in several aspects of the project.

While he admits that he has yet to turn a profit for his investment in Ubuntu, it does look like it has the beginnings of a new and successful business model. That change is, in fact, already happening: Ubuntu has won several awards and is one of the fastest growing distributions of Linux today.

These aren't the only things that Shuttleworth has done for his encores, though. Decidedly low-key, but no less effective, is his work back in South Africa. Shortly after his windfall, Shuttleworth set up HBD Venture Capital, which seeks out and funds innovative ideas in South Africa. His Shuttleworth Foundation is focused on improving education in South Africa. On the side, there is HIP2B2 (pronounced "hip to be square"), a branding effort to make science and math cool among the younger set.

For all this, Shuttleworth remains soft-spoken, idealistic, and a genuinely nice fellow. I had a chance to meet him last week in Manila as part of his blitz tour of Manila, and I asked him about the life-changing event that was Thawte. "I was very lucky," he said simply, "I was at the right place at the right time."

Switching to fanboy mode, I had him autograph a couple of CDs. Message: "Follow your dreams."

When you have that much class, you don't really need to think about encores. It sort of naturally flows.

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