Why I created the Smarta 100 and why you need to enter

And breathe…

That was me at 9.30pm on 23rd April 2009 bitchfesting to Shaa Wasmund over dinner when we were meant to be talking about our board’s instructions to stop getting distracted and focus on core business.

By 10am on 24th April 2009, without a sponsor, business plan or model (that’s how we roll) we’d knocked up a holding page announcing the ‘launch’ of Smarta’s ‘anti-awards’ for small business, the Smarta 100.

Our remit was simple: to showcase and support 100 seriously smart small businesses every year.

Our criteria: unashamedly unscientific.

Our rules:

  1. We never charge businesses to enter
  2. We never charge businesses to attend
  3. We never try to make money out of our winners
  4. We only give awards to businesses we think are cool
  5. We’re not just an awards

In true Smarta 2009 style (we’re a lot more organised now, honest), we took the ‘build it and they will come’ approach. Thankfully they did. Small businesses seemed to appreciate what we were trying to do and the entries flowed in.

Our first Smarta 100 winners were truly, wonderfully eclectic: from a market trader to a bedroom business and a pre-revenue tech startup run by 18 year-olds to the most disruptive, innovative entrepreneurial upstarts we thought had the best chance of making it big.

Looking back at the original 100, a fair few have gone bust (shock horror, we’re no Warren Buffet), many are doing really well and several are flying! Those include the likes of eCourier, Graze, Huddle, Struq, Zoopla, Skimlinks and, yes, Wonga!

You can find out more about our previous winners here.

Determined to stay true to our ‘anti-awards’ vision, our ‘ceremony’ was probably best described by one attendee as ‘like taking my dream LinkedIn contacts to an awesome party’.

DJed by KISS FM founder and pal Gordon Mac (later a winner with his new station MI-SOUL) all 100 winners and their guests attended for free and got to mix it up with a frankly ridiculous guestlist including Smarta investors Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis, some serious VCs, politicians, journalists and entrepreneurs you'd never catch attending traditional awards. There were no tables, no VIP-only areas and dress code was strictly ‘smarta or casual’ not black tie. The booze flowed; the goodie bags were epic; the press coverage immense.

WE LOST LOADS OF MONEY.

I GOT TOLD OFF.

But it was worth it (sorry, investors).

The buzz we created helped us bring on O2 as partners the following year and gave us some budget to reach more businesses and give cash prizes and high value support to our winners without compromising what the Smarta 100 stood for.

We’ve since celebrated 400 brilliant small businesses; had more than 2 million people visit our Smarta 100 winners’ profiles; had more than 300,000 of you vote for your favourite businesses; reached more than 10 million of you on Twitter; and put on more than 30 live events for more than 5,000 small businesses.

Later this year we’ll be launching the Smarta 100 Alumni for all O2 Smarta 100 winning businesses, an online space for winners to network and do business with each other and access exclusive support and deals.

We’ve watched some amazing winners prosper and exit; had the support of some heavyweight entrepreneurial judges and the help of a brand, in O2, that just gets it and cares.

It’s still fun and motivating for everyone working on it.

We now even make a tiny bit of money (oh yes, investors…), but everything we do for the O2 Smarta 100 participants and winners is free and every year we try to do more.

So why should you enter? Because this is real: we give awards and shout about smart businesses run by bold people who have made sacrifices that too often go unnoticed in order to build something special that improves the lives of their customers and creates jobs.

If that’s YOU apply HERE.

Then we can hold you up to the world as an inspiration for other people to do the same and help you with the publicity, tech and support to grow bigger quicker.

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