The incredible story of how a South African company sparked a global tech revolution – with four lines of code
- In 2000, Cape Town company Clickatell created a way to send SMS from the internet to cellphones – a world first.
- The firm was also instrumental in helping WhatsApp create a sign-up solution that doesn’t require email.
- Clickatell has offices across the world including in Silicon Valley and Nigeria, but most of its developers - and its CEO - remain based in Cape Town.
Almost 20 years ago, one of the largest breakthroughs in modern technology happened in Cape Town.
“It now sounds ridiculous, but at that stage the internet and cellphones could not communicate with each other,” says Pieter de Villiers, CEO of Clickatell.
Along with his twin brother, Casper, and two friends Danie du Toit and Patrick Lawson, they created a way of sending SMS from the internet to cellphones – sparking a global revolution in digital communication.
Pieter started his career as an optometrist in the 1990s, but gave it up after only a year. “I found that I wasn’t helping people to see, I was basically running a retail shop.”
There was one aspect of the business that fascinated him, however: the digital transfer of lab tests. Where in the past it took days to get the physical lab reports, advances in technology meant that lab tests could be transferred to optometrists’ pagers within hours.
This fired up De Villiers’ long-standing interest in tech, which started as a young boy, when his dad brought an Apple computer back from the US in 1983. With his brother, he made the jump into tech by starting to working on building information platforms for optometrist practices.
As the internet started booming, they thought about launching a “last-minute” booking travel venture. “At that stage, the only industries that were making money online were travel and adult content, and we certainly weren’t going to venture into the latter.”
But they realised there would be long delays in getting information to clients.
“This was the late 1990s, when people were only looking at their email once every couple of days,” says De Villiers. They started looking for a solution to send information like booking details from the internet to cellphones, and found that it didn’t exist.
So, with Lawson and Du Toit, they embarked on creating the world’s first application programming interface (API) between cellphones and computers: four lines of code that you could cut and paste into a website, allowing you to send text messages to a mobile phone.
It took off immediately. Their first client was an Indian company, followed by another in the UK, and then global expansion followed quickly.
From the start, the company grew at a break-neck speed, doubling its turnover every year.
In 2006, Clickatell acquired a business in the US, and moved its headquarters to Silicon Valley. The American venture capital giant Sequoia Capital, an investor in Apple, Google, Oracle, and WhatsApp, made a "Series A" investment in the company – its first in an African venture. (A Series A investment is when a company offers shareholding to investors for the first time.)
Soon afterwards, Clickatell was instrumental in helping WhatsApp to create a sign-up solution that didn’t require email: you only need a four-digit code sent by SMS. From SMS, the company started offering business solutions on other channels, including WhatsApp.
After nearly 10 years in San Francisco, De Villiers relocated back to Cape Town in 2015.
“We needed to be close to the action in emerging markets, specifically Africa at the time,” he says.
The company has a regional office in Nigeria, and while Clickatell still has part of its product team based in Toronto, the biggest group of its software engineers are in Cape Town.
Running an international operation from South Africa isn’t an obstacle to Clickatell, which was a global company from Day One, says De Villiers. “We quickly learned to operate across various time zones and cultures.”
Perhaps the only constraint is the relatively small pool of tech skills in South Africa, which Clickatell is trying to address through various collaborations and the non-profit Simodisa, which supports entrepreneurs.
Clickatell is profitable and is still growing fast, and in a Reuters interview last year, De Villiers said the company may list in the US this year. But the company has not yet decided whether to go public or whether it would do a private placement.
"While we do raise capital from time to time and will always explore options to maximise shareholder and stakeholder value, we cannot comment further on the Reuters article," De Villiers told Business Insider SA.
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