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The Red Herring Awards Scam

Willis Wee
Willis Wee
7:30 pm on Sep 18, 2012

(Image: brooketrout.com)

This past weekend, we’ve received a lot of emails from startups proudly telling us that they won the Red Herring Awards. Sure, Red Herring was an award brand name to be proud of in the past, but recently I’m hearing very nasty things about it. Some have even called it a scam, as told to me by a trusted source who experienced Red Herring’s bullshit first-hand.

My source’s company was nominated in the US in 2009 and 2010, and then for Asia in 2011 and 2012. He described to me how the Red Herring process works below:

[The guys from Red Herring] call you and give you a big pitch about how you were selected by some rigorous process and a special selection committee. But later I’ve learned through ex-employees that there are only a handful of folks in the organization and they’re really all just sales guys trying to convince startups to come to their conference. The CEO is the biggest sales guy of them all.

For Red Herring Award ‘winners’ that should sound familiar, no? Read on:

First, they send you an email saying that you’ve been nominated for an award and they need to set up a conversation with their CEO, Alex. He’ll never email you any info – even if you request it – he’ll only call you live. They want to make sure you’ve never been to the conference before (probably so you don’t know the scam) – even though this is something they should be able to check before they contact you.

Then Alex calls you and runs through a long congratulatory talk about how great your company is and how you made it through such a rigorous selection process, even though it is clear he doesn’t know anything about you or your business. It’s the same pitch he gives to everyone – I know because he’s given it to me three times and I know many other entrepreneurs that have heard the exact same pitch!

The killer blow is the way they sneakily work in their sales tactic…

Finally, at the end of the phone call, he says the “only” requirement for you to get the award is to come present to their esteemed panel of judges at the conference – and “of course, this means paying your own travel expenses AND a conference pass.” Before you can say anything, he always goes into some story about how some nominee from some random place (one year it was a guy from Idaho, then another year it was a mysterious guy from Kurdistan), expected Red Herring to pay for him and his family’s travel expenses.

The story is the exact same every year, just a different country. He’s really just trying to cover up the fact he wants you to pay him about $3,000 as a registration fee to attend his conference. He even goes into how “that should be nothing for a company like yourself that’s doing so phenomenally well.”

When I followed up later to see if I had to pay for the conference even if I was not going to attend – just go for the seven-minute presentation to the judges, the answer was still a resounding “yes.” Along with a long email about how great the conference was and had so many great speakers that I would definitely want to attend.

Your blood boiling? This is even more ridiculous:

When I attended the first time to present, I found a nearly empty room with five or six people and another entrepreneur presenting on stage. Next up, was me. Before I started, I just asked, “Who were the actual Red Herring judges?” No one raised their hands. Since it was only five others, I asked who they were with. They were all entrepreneurs waiting to present next. We then realized, there were NO judges and NO “esteemed panel.” We were all so disappointed, as we realized at that moment, we had been seriously scammed. We all left and went and grabbed drinks and shared stories of how the scam went down exactly the same for all of us. None of us ever presented.

And in the end, everyone won…

Two weeks later, we were ALL announced as Red Herring 100 winners! Surprise, surprise. They say that 200 companies are nominated and then they all present at the conference and from there, the judges select 100 winners. However, it is clear that whoever goes to the conference, wins no matter what. In fact, a couple of years later when we were surprisingly nominated again, there was no way I was going to go back to the conference. However, we still won that year as well. Surprise again.

And, yes, I have contacted Red Herring for a reply on this case. I noted that I would give them 36 hours for a reply, and now after that elapsed time I still have not heard from them. I have total trust in my source’s story having known him for some time and also from him having a good reputation – as an entrepreneur and as mentor – both in the US and across Southeast Asia. So the bottom-line is: if you ever receive such an email from Red Herring, ignore the whole thing because it’s a bloody SCAM. Or, as its own name suggests, a red herring.


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Have Your Say
  • zaki

    We “won” this a couple of times too. I play a game with them. Just reply and say you’re so honored but you don’t have time this week, perhaps you can get back to them next week? Then disappear and watch them waste their time sending you stuff.

  • http://therodinhoods.com Alok Rodinhood Kejriwal

    Oh!! these guys are something!!

    Check this out – http://therodinhoods.com/forum/topics/saying-no-to-red-herring-no-no-no

  • KungfuVC

    Thanks for calling this out, a definite scam indeed.

  • Areyoustupid

    You should learn the meaning of the words “red herring” before you even get out of home.

  • http://www.techinasia.com Willis Wee

    nice piece, rodinhood thanks for sharing. ha!
    @Troll – you should check before you comment.

  • Tom C.

    Willis – great article! As a company that has gone through the same gimmick a couple of times now as well, I concur completely! Ridiculous. I even emailed Alex the CEO all of the detail of what they were doing and he tried to completely deny it! I have been told by at least a dozen other entrepreneurs the EXACT same story! The sad thing is I think everyone in the Valley knows this already, so now they’ve expanded to new regions to try and prey on new naive startups. You’ve been warned!

  • http://ekohe.com Maxime Guilbot

    I confirm- I got into the exact same process as described in this article but we didn’t go to the conference, we replied that we were too busy taking care of our customers and that they should give the award to someone else, but we still won.

  • Eric Koh

    *troll mode* Even more fun, just google for the past winners of this award. See the sucker list!

  • Yoga Nandiwardhana

    a scam is where somebody promised something and ask you to pay some amount of money, but you never actually receive the promised item.

    Red Herring is (probably) just a meaningless, prestige-less award. They did set up a conference, they did give out said awards. How is that a scam?

    It’s an awful way to make money, yes. And sucking out money from startups, that might’ve been more use somewhere else, yes.

    But it’s not a “scam.” Journalists should know that, Willis.

  • Saumil

    So this raises a very difficult question. Should startups focus on 1-day performance (aka demo-type day or whatever is locally called) or on the long term company growth? If its purely for PR/spotlight then would it matter if its Red Herring or Blue Salmon?

  • http://www.techinasia.com Willis Wee

    Hi @Yoga – see: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scam And even if i were to follow your definition of scam, it is still a scam. the buyer wants a recognised award, he was promised one, he paid, but he didn’t get it because he realised red herring isn’t a recognised award. it used to be but it has no glory in it now thanks to its deceptive tricks and empty award ceremony/presentation. testimonies above, in article and comments. yes agree, awful way to make money and more out there for sure.

    Hi @Saumil – I think long term company growth is no doubt important. but PR and demo are important too, especially if they fit into the company’s long term plan, which it usually does. but not for empty awards. awards are good of course, but not when it’s deceiving and adds no value to the company. Red Herring used to be a great award for companies to show off how good they are, but not any more. What do you think?

  • 2ManyAwards

    This stuff has been going on forever. Granted it’s not all print trade magazines any more but historically SPENDING GETS YOU AWARDS. We had a wall full of these industry-wide type awards in the 1990’s. The only one I kept was an Inc. 500 coffee mug. At least that was objective, even required submitting corporate tax returns as I recall. Also it was free.

  • Jay

    Willis how can it be a scam when our local government has called the Red Herring the “Oscars of the start-up industry”? 😀

    http://www.idm.sg/kai-squares-winning-formula/

  • Doron Vermaat

    Not exactly the scoop of the century this. Valleywag / gawker has been reporting on these tactics for a few years now (see http://gawker.com/392242/startups-brag-about-homeless-herring-honor and many more articles).

    It is however unfair to call passed winner of the awards ignorant or even “suckers”. Many great startups have won this award in the past. The time you can use this as a PR tool seems to be something of the past tho.

  • http://techinasia.com Willis Wee

    haha – they are so good. the art of deception.

  • http://www.techinasia.com Steven Millward

    reminds me of a pretty common scam on the streets of China (that someone I know actually fell for!). So, you’re walking along, and a guy says “Congratulations, you’ve won a sweater! Come into our shop to pick it up.” But then when you get in there, you’re pressured to upgrade your ‘prize’ for a more luxurious sweater. Those who succumb end up paying a few hundred RMB for a sweater that they didn’t even want – and which might be worthless, not luxurious – just because of that initial allure of the prize!

    technically not illegal – as with Red Herring – but it’s shitty.

  • http://www.bayareatechpros.com Alex

    Interesting to see scammers pick on techies, typically we know what’s up and it’s hard to trick us.

    I would like to know what method of payment was used to pay $3000, if credit is it not possible to file a chargeback?

  • http://dataresolve.com vikram

    This is sad

  • Do No Evil

    I can vouch for this. Alex called me and told me how rigorous the process was in selecting our company. At the very tail end he mentioned a $2,500 conference fee and said he needed my response within 24 hours. I was more pissed off than shocked on why this info wasn’t mentioned on their website, and why they hadn’t told me about it in our earlier email exchanges (with Joe Baxter). When I didn’t get back to him after 12 hours, he emailed me again trying to pressure me. But I had used the time to talk to three other “winners” and they all told me they hadn’t paid, and that it RH Asia 100 or Global 100 was no longer worth it. I’m glad I didn’t do it.

    Feel terrible for what RH has been reduced to. Used to be one of the few magazines I subscribed to early on…

  • Morgan Lee

    This article it really has a very scientific approach from Tech in Asia.
    Guys, you are losing north with this article based on opinions and feelings ??

    I have the max respect for TechinAsia since it was Penn Olson, but this article deceives very much.

    Demo Asia was similar, you still need to pay, Start up Asia, e27, etc… Name it.
    How do you finance those events?

    I have been in many of them and I must say that RedHerring was one of the few were you can find serious investors, serial entrepreneurs, no bs. Less amateur people trying to build the next facebook. Many of the companies there were in series A.
    Awards were the less relevant, the important was the amazing people you had access there. VC’s that usually you cannot reach in DEMO or any others.
    Anyways, as this is a moderated forum and this opinion does not go along with the author probably means it will not be published.
    I hope you base your articles in real facts as it would be a pity loss the confidence in Tech in Asia when I read those articles

  • http://andycroll.com Andy Croll

    We were invited for http://impulseflyer.com but declined.

    The name of the scammer is ‘Red Herring’…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_herring – “In mystery fiction, a clue or lead that turns out not to be relevant”

    So the quality of the companies is not relevant to the actual winner. Seems aptly named to me.

  • http://www.techinasia.com Willis Wee

    @morgan your comment is up, don’t be silly, we don’t delete them unless spam. opinion it is with other people’s experience backing it up. difference between RH and other conference is integrity. RH obviously doesn’t have one. you can choose to believe RH bullshit and sign up for one even.

  • Saumil

    As FYI, we met some pretty cool entrepreneurs and still keep in touch with 10 of em and have our regular gathering sessions around Asia when we travel. Those r’ships mean more than the award itself.

    I do agree with @2ManyAwards that many awards are highly linked with sponsorships or something similar.

  • Frank

    Frank Nazikian at CHINICT is pretty close too. He doesn’t charge the award nominees. He charges people who want to be in the same room. 2000 euros a ticket. He’ll plaster his website with names of people invited or attended in the past. The conference is a joke and offers no substance. One year he offered give away prizes and he gave one to himself. Ha!

  • Torgay

    I was there myself and I enjoyed this event. I met great entrepreneurs (you can find the list of the companies on the Red Herring website), I listened to HQ speakers and the organization of the event was very good,

    You are blaming Red Herring but in reality you discredited all nominated and awarded companies.

    This is really unfortunate.

  • entreprenuer01

    You need to know who are the people behind it and who are the people attending the event.
    If none of famous founders from tech and startup scenes attending the event, most likely it’s just a marketing company.

    You have to pay to attend most conferences, unless you’re up for the competition.
    TechCrunch, DEMO and other big names can charge up to $4,000.

    But it’s OK! Because it’s legit. Real entrepreneurs, real founders are on the stage!

  • Brian Yang

    They will also ask for another 5K or so to grant you the honor of joining another event in L.A. JUST HOW STUPID DO YOU THINK WE ARE?

  • Arijit Bhattacharyya

    We had the similar experience .. when they asked for money I simply send them a mail saying that “We’ve own lot of awards but never knew to give award people want’s 2,50,000/- INR from a company . Thanks we are not going to pay money to get award ”
    Even I’ve got multiple mails from this type of award giving companies who claim money to give awards. It’s really a shame that people do scam with Awards .

  • Matt

    My company fell victim to this recently as well. What really pissed us off, was the fact that one of our competitors didn’t even show up to present to the “panel of judges”. They just skipped that phase of the process. We showed up, presented, answered questions. Guess who won, and who didn’t win? That’s right. Competitor who didn’t show up for the “Mandatory” presentation phase won, and we did not. Clearly the winners have been pre-determined and the presentation phase means nothing. They want you to attend and present so they can collect your registration fee, which helps them put on their fraudulent event.

    Definitely ignore Red Herring if they call you. Total scam.

  • http://www.jtcapital.co.uk Brian

    The only scam going on here is this article that raises questions on one of the most trusted brands in the technology ecosystem–The Red Herring. Most of these companies here are small time and must have had a bad day, which is not uncommon for companies that do not win an award. As a company grows bigger there will always be those who try their hardest to shoot it down–this just shows that the Red Herring has reached this point.

    I have been to many of the Red Herring events as a CEO of a company in Japan then attended the Red Herring Global. I got so much mileage out of the PR and would never change what I did even though I did not win at both events. If you look on the Red Herring website you will see that they mention there is a registration fee for companies and this is required to keep it as a private 5 star event without the need of outside sponsors as in other events. The entrepreneurs should be here to support the Red Herring as this is one of the best mediums for their business to show excellence in what they have made. Many award events will just use sponsors or none at all in which case everything will be boot strapped and even require judges to pay for their own air fare and hotels. Sponsors will then require being catered to and helping them sell their products and choose companies that fit within their sector. Yes it is nice in that it makes the awards ceremony look authentic, but under the cover there is much more than meets the eye. The Red Herring will be showing the world something huge very soon which I hear and this will put all of these negative comments under the bridge.

    For a list of testimonials from well established companies and VCs have a look here

    http://www.redherring.com/top-100/testimonials/

    After reading that and hearing positive stories from many people who have attended the events I would say that the report fo Red Herring being a scam is the most ludicrous thing and seems more likely that this news piece is a scam. The Red Herring magazine has been my favorite magazine in the world and never will I let anyone damage that.

  • http://www.smoothweb.com Brendan

    Red Herring was a positive experience all round for me and many of the attendees. The fee is necessary to cover the administrative work,reception, dinner and lunches, prizes, and is modest in comparison to many conference proceedings and other brand building activities. Most of the companies understand this. For the minority of those who do not, it is a shame.

    The event led to a number of collaborative partnerships, a supportive business network of entrepreneurs and direct access to a number of VCs to whom it would have been impossible to talk to otherwise. Alex is a gifted speaker who has a lot to give and say about developing startup businesses and the speakers from household name companies would not associate themselves with a ‘scam’.

    On toop of all that, the after even parties were great fun.

    Your loss if you choose to think the worst…

    Full disclosure. We won a Global 100 award 2012

  • Frank2

    Agree with Frank on CHINICT. Useless conference. Suckers pay to attend.