Algorithms, Art and a Whole Lot of Wonga ; He Has Gone from Masterminding a Controversial Payday Loan Company to Being a sculptor.Charlotte Edwardes Meets the Kinetic Jonty Hurwitz, Who Combines 'Techie Art' and Big Data
Edwardes, Charlotte, The Evening Standard (London, England)
JONTY HURWITZ, co-founder of Wonga.com, doesn't look like a loan shark. He's like a cross between Robert Downey Jnr and Woody Allen, cracking grins and talking with frazzled intensity.
He doesn't look like a banker either, with his graze of greying stubble, brown hair curling over his collar and Sigmund Freud glasses. "Why would I look like anything?" he asks, palms up. "I'm the techie. The guy that does the maths and writes the code." He shrugs. "And anyway, I'm an artist now: a techie artist."
We're in The Savoy with the last of the breakfasters, clattering their silver against Wedgwood plates. Piped violins soothe their brains before a harried London day. Ostensibly we're here to talk about his sculpture for the hotel's new Kaspar's Seafood Bar & Grill. (It's an "anamorphic" work, which means you can only see that it's a cat reflected in a silver cylinder. It's clever, I say. "It's algorithms," he replies.) But I have to ask about Wonga, the controversial "payday loan company" he conceived with fellow South African Errol Damelin. It evokes admiration and vitriol in equal measure. Advocates hail it as genius, the future of banking; detractors say it's usurious, immoral and rips off the poor.
Hurwitz, 43, is finishing the takeaway coffee he brought with him while simultaneously ordering another. He's reluctant to talk about Wonga. He left the day-to-day management in 2011 but is a board member and major shareholder.
He refers me to a sculpture called Co-Founder, of a fragmented clown's face. "That just about explains it," he says.
Yes, well. Why did he leave? "It's just not me."
Why? He uses frantic hand gestures, like a man sifting for gold and finding fag butts. "There comes a point when," he stalls. "When one person saying 'hey, let's all go left' is not necessarily the right thing for the business. I think it probably quietened down after I left."
Too artistic? "My part was done." His part was correlating the data. He wrote the pioneering, highly complex algorithms that allow the company to analyse customers in minutes before agreeing or rejecting a loan. It's proper techie stuff. He shrugs one shoulder: "Yeah, I'm okay at maths."
I bring up Wonga's staggering 4,124 per cent APR if a loan is calculated over a year. Hurwitz counters that you can't get a Wonga loan over a year. "Everyone's obsessed with an annualised interest rate!" He sounds exasperated. "It's the Galileo syndrome! No one understood Galileo because they couldn't conceive that the world was round!" APRs are, he explains, a historical remnant of financial institutions "making money available to people longterm with the objective of keeping them in debt for ever. Wonga is real time, day- by-day lending. It's the next five days -- maximum a month. Not a year".
But some people do get into terrible debt, don't they? "Obviously I don't want any human to suffer," he says. "But you need perspective." Wonga helps "more than 100,000 people every month". A tiny number "have a bad experience".
"I feel pain for anyone who suffers but is that a reason to turn off Wonga? To take the British finance industry back 20 years? No. I have a responsibility to the future, too. If you're at the forefront of something, you have to be brave. You have to take a battering from critics."
He takes his jacket off. His shirt is emblazoned with a massive rose, which at first looks like a flowering gunshot wound. "The media bash Wonga. I have moments of feeling defensive, of feeling angry," he says. "It's held up as representative of debt. But everything in capitalism, from the banking system to the mortgage system, revolves around debt right now."
I ask about the non-Wonga customers who had money taken from their account because of fraud. "Yeah, that would piss me off too," he says. "But we have less fraud than the rest of the industry. We're transparent so we're open to criticism. We actively fight fraud rings."
Has he been in debt? …