The programmer earning R1,500 who became one of SA’s top entrepreneurs

John Holdsworth is one of South Africa’s top tech entrepreneurs. He started and built three successful tech businesses and is now looking to shake up the financial industry with his new AI startup.

Holdsworth started his career as a trainee computer programmer at Barclays National Industrial bank in Harrison Street, Johannesburg, where he earned R1,500 per month.

After gaining experience in the computing and financial fields, he decided to leave the safety of the corporate world and start his first business – Digital Signature Corporation (DSC).

DSC – which developed authentication technology for ecommerce transactions – attracted a lot of interest, and Holdsworth sold the startup to an American company called US Encode.

Soon afterwards, he started his second company – Paym8. The company facilitated mobile payments from cell phones using a debit card.

Holdsworth sold Paym8 to Radiospoor in 2004. Radiospoor later renamed itself Paym8 and the company is still operating today.

Starting and selling ECN

After the success of Paym8 and DSC, Holdsworth started ECN with the specific aim of exploiting the pending liberalisation of the SA telecommunications market.

ECN pioneered the use of VoIP in the corporate fixed-line market and the company showed rapid growth.

It signed up 25% of the JSE’s top 200 companies and grew its revenue from R0 to R500 million per annum in five years.

ECN was eventually sold to JSE-listed Reunert for R172 million in July 2011.

Starting AppChat

After the success of ECN, Holdsworth was ready to shake up the mobile telecoms industry and started AppChat.

AppChat was one of the first exclusively data-based MVNOs in the world, with its goal being to lower mobile tariffs by up to 80%.

Unfortunately, AppChat became embroiled in a protracted legal dispute which resulted in the death of the company.

After AppChat, Holdsworth moved to Cape Town and took an extended break. “I cycled up Chapman’s Peak every day, ran on the beach, stared at the ocean, waiting for the next opportunity,” Holdsworth said.

Tautona AI is launched

After his Cape Town break, Holdsworth started Tautona AI – a cognitive automation company which automates tasks once reserved for human judgement.

“Over the next five years, we are about to witness the world we live in totally transformed by robotics and artificial intelligence,” Holdsworth said.

“Our vision is to redesign the traditional workplace and empower people by using robotics and artificial intelligence.”

He said machine learning is fast and accurate, while software robots are reliable and consistent.

“We believe that automation is best achieved when powered by both. Tautona offers a software-as-a-service model, rather than the traditional software licensing model,” Holdsworth explained.

“We also provide our clients with a globally accessible cloud platform, rather than a locally installed on-premises solution.”

Tautona is off to a good start and also provides intelligent automation technology to large insurance companies including Telesure and Metropolitan.

Tautona is also expanding into the US and UK and is the first South African company to be selected for the prestigious Lloyds Lab program.

John Holdsworth’s tech and business choices

Which smartphone do you use?

Samsung Galaxy.

Which laptop do you use?

Dell Inspiron.

What is the best gadget you have ever bought?

My first Blackberry smartphone, it changed everything; email was no longer something you did at a desk.


What is the worst gadget you have ever bought?

Amstrad CPC 464. It came with 64Kb of RAM, integrated greenscreen VDU, and typewriter style keyboard.

What Internet connection do you have at home?


What is the best investment you have ever made?

The R500,000 seed capital I invested in ECN. The return on investment was exponential.

What is the worst investment you have ever made?

The time, energy, and money I spent trying to save AppChat. The only winners in legal disputes are lawyers.

What is the best business book you have ever read?

The Art of War. In my view there was no greater leader and strategist than Chinese military general Sun Tzu.

My favourite quote from the book is: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Now read: From an admissions clerk earning R1,661 per month to MD of SqwidNet

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The programmer earning R1,500 who became one of SA’s top entrepreneurs