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Net service sells online seal of approval
by Katharine Campbell
Financial Times (London)
January 28, 2000, Friday London Edition 1, Pg. 14

A background in certification for the forestry, travel and tourism and fisheries industries might seem unlikely preparation for an aspiring global e-business entrepreneur.

But Christopher Upton, 40, who worked for Societe Generale de Surveillance, the world's largest inspection and testing company, is exploiting his knowledge of certification to build what he says is the world's first independent developer of quality certificates on the web for a company's web site.

Oxford-based Clicksure, set up last May, will principally target small and medium-sized businesses, offering an entirely paperless assessment process, at the end of which comes a seal of reliability, security and privacy.

The business, started with Pounds 500,000 in seed capital, has just raised up to Dollars 12m (Pounds 7.3m) from Apax Partners, a large private equity firm with a good recent run in technology investing, and zouk ventures, a specialist European e-commerce fund.

It is poised for a much bigger round in the summer, to support a heavy advertising push after it has certified 30 well-known sites in the US, UK and Germany.

The first certificate was issued in June to Blackwell's online bookshop, and Clicksure is aiming to put its seal on 5 per cent of the world's e-commerce sites - currently 600,000.

While the brand is not yet established, its pitch to prospective customers is the value of the quality test itself. "We change a company's risk profile," says Mr Upton. "The price at which it can buy services depends on risk." Hence the cost of anything from insurance premiums to obtaining venture capital should be reduced significantly with the Clicksure seal, he says.

The process begins with a thorough on-line self-assessment which is free. A start-up could complete the process over several months as it establishes itself. When it is confident it has addressed all areas, the company submits itself for certification by an assessor (trained by Oxford University) at a cost of Dollars 250. There is an annual fee to maintain the certificate, starting at Dollars 960. Four certificates have been issued and there are about 150 "in the pipeline".

The weaknesses identified so far are "really random", Mr Upton says, "we thought the problems would mostly be in security". But it seems everyone slips up on something slightly different. "You do find it depends on people's backgrounds. Those from the IT industry are great on infrastructure but poor on privacy, while ex-retailers are very good on the customer side but weak on technical solutions."

The company's own quality assurance includes an independent advisory council, chaired by Derek Wyatt, Labour MP and chairman of the all party internet committee. There are also "signatories" prominently displayed on the site, so far including IBM and Compaq.

Competitors address specific areas, such as Verisign in the US for security and Trustee for privacy, but Clicksure is much more comprehensive.

Webtrust, set up by three UK chartered accountancy institutes, is the nearest competitor, Mr Upton says, but it is far more expensive.

Berkman Center for Internet & Society