Just over a year ago, startup darling Unfiltered was valued at almost $12 million with ambitious plans for global expansion. Now, under the umbrella of Crimson Education, the business as we know it faces an uncertain future.
UPDATE (February 11, 3.20pm):
Since the publication of this article, Millar has contacted The Spinoff to clarify that contrary to initial reports, he will not be joining Crimson’s advisory board.
He added that, along with co-founder Yuuki Ogino, he will no longer have “any official role with Crimson or Unfiltered moving forward following the initial handover process … due to the fact that my focus will soon be on new projects in other parts of the world”.
Millar also revealed that he had no plans to return to New Zealand and would soon be permanently relocating to sub-Saharan Africa.
News broke this week that online business education platform Unfiltered had been sold to another New Zealand educational startup, Crimson Education. The deal marks an unprecedented era for the Unfiltered and its young, charismatic and sometimes controversial founder Jake Millar who says he will no longer have an official role in the firm. So how did Unfiltered get to this point? We recap some of the key moments from the company’s action-packed first six years.
2014: First, there was Oompher
Fresh out of high school and having just turned down a $40,000 scholarship to study law, 18-year-old Jake Millar decided to start his first business after reading the autobiography of Virgin Group boss and billionaire Richard Branson. The result would be Oompher, a “motivational website” aimed at school leavers like himself that digitised and distributed advice from successful New Zealanders.
Less than a year later, Millar sold the business for a six-figure sum to Careers New Zealand, a Crown entity which connects education and training with employment. At the time, he said he would be reinvesting the money into another business, a “startup idea in the technology space which has already received investment interest from multiple parties”.
2015: The birth of Unfiltered
After dabbling in the digital marketing and food tech scene in New York, Millar returned to New Zealand in the hopes of setting up another video interview-based venture. After a potential deal with Stuff fell through, he decided to enlist the help of an old high school friend and former Oompher employee Yuuki Ogino, whom Millar convinced to drop out of university to co-found the business. Just a few months later, Unfiltered was born, officially launching in November 2015.
2016: Starting up
It wasn’t long before the company started receiving a wave of media coverage which latched onto both Millar’s youth and ambition (first business at 18, second business at 20) and its series of high profile interviewees, including John Key, Julie Christie, Karen Walker and even the famed Richard Branson himself. It also helped that a number of reputable brands were onboard: the likes of PwC and AMP joined as commercial partners, and TVNZ and Russell McVeagh were early paid subscribers.
In July, Unfiltered announced a $500,000 investment from Australian entrepreneur Richard Bell, signing a “sweat equity” agreement that would see Bell invest time, energy and expertise for three years in return for a 21% stake in the company. At the time, Unfiltered was preparing to launch in Australia and US, with Millar estimating the business to be worth $5 million with the goal of making it a $100 million business within five years.
2016: Unfiltered Live
Exactly one year on from launching, Millar started his first business speaker series, Unfiltered Live, featuring a lineup including bungy jumping pioneer AJ Hackett, My Food Bag founder Cecilia Robinson and Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck. Tickets for the one day event in Auckland ranged from almost $300 to $500. It would soon become an annual event that returned in 2017, then in 2018 as part of TechWeek, then in 2019 where the theme was “falling forward”. There was no Unfiltered Live in 2020.
2017: Rapid growth and investment
In March, Unfiltered announced it had raised $1.2 million ahead of its launch into the US with Icebreaker CEO Rob Fyfe, former Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts, businesswoman Diane Foreman and 90 Seconds founder Tim Norton among investors. Roberts and Fyfe were subsequently appointed to the company’s board of directors. “I’ve come into Unfiltered because I believe it’s unstoppable,” Roberts said in 2017. “The big idea is that we can disrupt every business education programme the world has ever seen. The opportunities in front of us are enormous globally.”
2018: The paywall, the party and Forbes
Going into the US with the goal of getting as many eyeballs on its content as possible, Unfiltered took the unprecedented step of removing its paywall and giving audiences free access to its content from May. The following month saw Millar team up with Zuru’s multi-millionaire Mowbray siblings to host one of the most extravagant private parties in recent history – The Great Gatsby party at the Toy (formerly Dotcom) Mansion – for New Zealand’s young entrepreneurial elite.
Later in the year, Millar and Ogino made headlines again when Forbes named the 23-year-old duo in its North American ‘30 Under 30’ list in the education category.
2019: International expansion
Towards the end of 2019, Unfiltered announced it had raised a further $2.4 million to fund expansion into the United States, an investment round dominated by early Xero investors Guy and Sue Haddleton whose software company Anaplan listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2018.
2020: Shareholder shakeup
It was a quiet year for Unfiltered in 2020 with Covid-19 putting a spanner in the company’s plans for further US expansion and forcing the company to apply for the wage subsidy scheme where it received a payout of just over $21,000 for three employees. Documents filed to the Companies Office in December 2020 also showed that the Haddletons had been removed as shareholders in Unfiltered. Crimson Education (which had been a part of the previous investing round with the Haddletons) and US-based The Campbell & Ehrenfriend Company were also removed.
2021: Along comes Crimson
On February 9, 2021, it was announced that Crimson Education had acquired Unfiltered for an undisclosed sum. Crimson’s 25-year-old co-founder Jamie Beaton said it would look to incorporate Unfiltered’s content into Crimson’s offering to give its students direct access to Unfiltered features.
Crimson, which promises to “supercharge students’ ability to get accepted into the world’s most competitive universities”, has attracted an impressive array of accolades and headlines since launching almost eight years ago with US billionaires Julian Robertson and Chase Coleman among its backers. However, the last few years has seen the firm embroiled in a number of legal challenges, receive criticism around its practices from New Zealand schools, parents and Beaton’s fellow Rhodes Scholars and, most recently, face questions over claiming more than $500,000 through the wage subsidy scheme.
When approached by The Spinoff this week, Millar – who is based in the US – declined to be interviewed and directed all inquiries related to Unfiltered to Crimson Education.
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