How Mark Shuttleworth built his wealth

13 December 2017 - 05:00 By Bloomberg
South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth, the world's second space tourist, gives the thumbs up inside the Soyuz capsule after landing in the Khazak steppe near Arkalyk, on 5 May 2002.
South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth, the world's second space tourist, gives the thumbs up inside the Soyuz capsule after landing in the Khazak steppe near Arkalyk, on 5 May 2002.
Image: MIKHAIL GRACHYEV / POOL / AFP

He is best known for being the world's first "Afronaut", but since returning to Earth from his 2002 trip on Russia's Soyuz TM-34 rocket ship, Mark Shuttleworth set about with the conquest of a much more lucrative universe: the internet of things.

Shuttleworth created Ubuntu, an open-source Linux operating system that helps connect everything from drones to thermostats, to the internet. His company, Canonical, makes money from about 800 paying customers, including Netflix, Tesla and Deutsche Telekom. Its success has helped boost his net worth to $1-billion, according to Bloomberg.

"It's destructive to be too focused on that," Shuttleworth said of his wealth. "It's just a distraction from whether you have your finger on the pulse of what's next."

What's next for the 44-year-old mogul is ensuring Ubuntu is the base language used across the internet of things, where end-point devices such as TVs and cars have their own programming and cloud connectivity.

Canonical sees as many as three million downloads of its software and 50 million security updates each day and, because Ubuntu is free and doesn't require registration, the company isn't sure how many devices are running on it today.

Shuttleworth was raised in Cape Town, where his father was a surgeon. After graduating from the University of Cape Town in 1996, he started Thawte Consulting, which quickly became one the largest online providers of digital certificates, which are used to help prove that websites are legitimate. In 2000, he sold Thawte to VeriSign for $575-million in stock. He cashed out the shares ahead of the dotcom bust, probably making more than $700-million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Flush with cash and nurturing a lifelong fascination with the cosmos, Shuttleworth became the second person to pay Russia $20-million for a ticket to space. He trained for a year in Russia and with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to qualify as one of three crew members on a mission to the International Space Station in 2002.

Back on Earth, he formed an Africa-focused technology venture capital arm, HBD, relocated to the tax-friendly Isle of Man and funded a foundation that provides grants to idealistic entrepreneurs. In 2004, he started programming Ubuntu as an open-source project and formed Canonical to explore business prospects arising from it.

"It gave me the luxury of being able to focus on the things I thought were really meaningful and interesting and deep," Shuttleworth said.

"Open-source software is deep. You have to get under the hood a little bit; then you realise it is everywhere. It is defining innovation today.

"The vision for Canonical is to provide the platform that you see everywhere other than the personal domain. We won't make a dent in phone or PCs. But pretty much your entire data centre runs Linux and every other thing in the room is running Linux," Shuttleworth said.

"Can we help deliver that innovation and do it in a format that is secure, reliable and very, very cheap? That's an interesting set of challenges."