Wonga won The Startup100 awards, not Spotify

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A month has passed since I stood on stage and announced Spotify as winner of The Telegraph newspaper’s inaugural Startup 100 Awards. Since then, something has been playing on my mind, and I just can’t remain quiet on it any longer.

Despite being named the winner, Spotify didn’t win the Startup 100 Awards. Wonga did. I reached out to The Telegraph an hour ago for comment, they say they will get back to me, and I will carry their response in due course.

[Update: A Telegraph spokesperson sent me the following statement about this whole thing: "Our role in the awards was that of a media partner, responsible only for publicising and hosting the event. The voting process was overseen by Wrong Agency Ltd, a company owned by Milo Yiannopoulos, the organiser of Start-Up 100.”]

So here’s the story.

In the lead-up to the event I’d joined as chair of judges and worked with them on the methodology of how the startups were picked. For someone who’s done this before, I have to say I was impressed by the running of the event and the attention to detail.

Now, I realise sometimes there are heated debates behind the scenes about how these startups win competitions and awards. But if you set up a competition and say the judges are deciding, then the judges have to decide. In the event Wonga was picked by the judges to win – but that did not happen.

So since the Startup100 awards happened, I’ve been extremely busy, covering other startup events in London, Berlin and Amsterdam. Today I’m at The Next11 in Berlin (again, wow, I am in this city a lot these days). It’s partly as a result of geting back into the process of looking at and judging startups at these events that I’ve been acutely reminded about why we are here, why we exist.

We have to be super-real with startups. There must be no punches pulled. So when a startup wins a pitch competition or an awards, it should really be on merit and that process needs to be transparent.

But whenever judges get on a stage at a startup event and pick a winner, and that winner gets a tonne of press or accolades, it’s because the judges picked the winner, not someone behind the scenes. When I run The Europas Awards, my team and I in Europe for TechCrunch – me, Robin, Steve, Roxanne – get to decide the winners, based on feedback from a bunch of advisors and public voting. It’s transparent. Everyone knows who is deciding this. We are, and no-one else. Not VCs, not other media. Us.

Which is why, after a month I can not let things lie.

As you know, TechCrunch Europe has always given startups a ‘fair crack’ when they launch or create something new. We’re supportive of this scene as it grows. When they screw up, I hope we point that out too.

But it’s 2011 and there is a huge amount of activity now in this market. It’s really time to get real. It’s time to criticise when its fair to do so and praise when its fair to do so. Everyone needs to get real. God knows there is enough hype now.

So what happened with the Startup100 is this. The finalists came down to the wire on points and it came down to two potential winners who had levelled up on points from the judges.

I had a conversation with the organiser, Milo Yiannopoulos and I picked Wonga as the winner. I had the casting vote. Although, as organiser, he didn’t have a vote he agreed. Spotify was doing great in Europe, but despite three years of pronouncements that it would launch in the US, it had yet to do so. The jury was out on where it would be next year. Wonga, by contrast was knocking it out of the park. What other startup, barely a couple of years old could sponsor the free Tube travel on the Underground over New Years Eve?

This was a couple of days before the event.

I then rocked-up to the awards ceremony – a glittering event in London – and was to announce the overall winner. I opened the envelope and expected to read the word Wonga.

It said Spotify.

My mind racing, I halted for a second and read out Spotify. Up comes a Spotify representative to take a picture with everyone on stage.

I get off stage and wonder what’s happened. I’m not sure of what to do, but I then got caught up in the moment and proceed to party just like everyone else. Mistakenly, I thought there had been another ring-around amongst judges and the points had come out differently. This was not the right assumption, and I’m happy to take the punches on that bad decision.

Since then I’ve learned from sources that that it was a conversation inside the Telegraph newspaper that allegedly vetoed Wonga’s win, based on its high profile as a short term money lender.

My sources tell me that the higher-ups in The Telegraph, it seemed, couldn’t be associated with this company as a winner of an awards it was putting on. As I said, I’ve already reached out to them for comment to ask why and I will update this post when they come back [Update: They did, see above].

Now, normally – outside of an awards event – that’s fine if that’s their position about certain companies. The Telegraph has it’s own political and cultural standpoint. That’s how it serves it’s particular market. But that has to be a transparent one. Normally it is. But it appears that was not the case in this instance.

So here’s the deal: If there is a legitimate concern about Wonga then we should be having that conversation in public. This is a company that has raised £73 million. I think if its investors thought it was somehow ‘dodgy’ they wouldn’t have bothered. Wonga’s customer satisfaction reports – independently verified – are consistently off the charts.

Milo Yiannopoulos was put in an incredibly invidious position – it was a couple of days before a huge event he’d conceived of. He’d built the event on the legitimacy of the methodology behind the judging process. And it looks like that was sat on, unceremoniously. I don’t think he should take the blame for this at all. He could only do what he could do under the circumstances given what my sources tell me was overt pressure from his backer. I reached out to him about all this but he’s declined to comment – perhaps understandably.

The whole thing – especially as I go around Europe looking at startup competitions – has been playing on my mind.

And I’m afraid, after some reflection, I can’t be party to this any more and nor can TechCrunch Europe.

Although both companies were worthy winners, why is there no public and transparent debate about the issues around why Wonga might be a controversial choice? If it’s a legitimate company, trading legally, why can it not win an award?

The suggestion that some people inside a newspaper can nix the legitimate winner in an awards that is claiming to be the definitive statement on European startups is simply not cool.

If the Startup100 awards are to happen again they need to get back on track. We might even be involved again – but only assuming cast iron assurances can be made about the awards’ editorial independence from any backers, whether they be a newspaper or a commercial sponsor.

But the simple fact is Wonga should have won the Startup100 awards. Period.

[Update: Some comments below post-moderated for legal reasons]