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BusinessJanuary 29, 2019

The bizarro world of the very young, very rich Jake Millar

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He’s 23 years old and runs a $9 million video company that interviews successful business leaders and then posts them online. Who is Unfiltered co-founder Jake Millar? And what even is Unfiltered? 

“Who’s got a couple of thousand dollars to spare?”

One hand, two hands, three hands go up – for a Dick Frizzell, a Billy Apple and even a ‘priceless’ John Key. Over the course of about an hour or so, canvas after canvas of painterly landscapes, impasto abstractions, and finely chalked sketches are brought up on stage for spates of quick-fire bidding. Some works end up selling for as little as a $1,000 – others as much as $25,000.

It’s a clear, fine November evening for an art auction in Takapuna. Held at the $14 million coastal home of rich lister Annette Presley, a select group of cultured, charitable and wealthy elite have gathered to help raise money for the charity Lifeline. As guests mingle before the main event with bottomless flutes of Moët, an eclectic assortment of performers proceed to liven up an already opulent atmosphere – a fire dancer, a jazz singer, a seven-piece band. There’s even a marauding group of naked body-painted waiters shuffling between guests with trays of gourmet hors-d’oeuvres. One’s covered in an assortment of pastel cubist shapes, another’s flecked with a web of Pollock-esque streaks.

Pivotal to this strange, affluent event is Jake Millar, Unfiltered’s 23-year-old co-founder who’s organised the event as an ambassador for Lifeline. Dressed in light blue shirt, cuffed white trousers, and black leather Gucci slip-ons, Millar floats leisurely from guest-to-guest, a picture of relaxed comfort amid a sea of geriatric rich listers and ever-flowing champagne.

“It’s funny, we’ve been trying to drum up publicity for this auction,” Millar tells me when he stops by to introduce himself early on in the evening. “But then this ‘Forbes 30 Under 30’ thing happened [which] we really weren’t expecting at all.”

Just a day before the auction was set to take place, Forbes had announced that Millar and his business partner, Yuuki Ogino, had been ranked in its North American ‘30 Under 30’ list in the education category. They were listed for their work with online video platform Unfiltered which interviews successful business people and then posts them online. Since launching in Auckland back in 2015, it’s uploaded more than 200 videos, attracted almost 30 million views, and worked with companies like Bell Gully, AMP, PwC, and Spark to create and distribute branded content. 

Nowadays, the business is based out of New York City, where Millar spends most of his time; although he does still make the odd trip back to New Zealand, whether that be for general business matters or for events like Unfiltered Live. Last year, the annual event finished off with an elaborate Gatsby-themed party at the former Dotcom Mansion, a party which I shamelessly gawped at, then wrote about at the time. The party, which was sort of a flashy coming-of-age for the country’s new business elite, featured helicopters, celebrities, kitchen aquariums, and tuxedoed men talking about the future of AI.

“I really enjoyed reading it!” Millar tells me in an email later on, although he admits it may have been “a tad harsh in places”.

Millar with Slingshot co-founder Annette Presley and two body-painted performers at the Lifeline Auction (Photo: Jared Donkin)

Media company, tech platform, events organiser, content marketer – what exactly is Unfiltered? Any one of these could be an apt descriptor, and in fact, even Millar isn’t completely sure himself, admitting that “honestly, I’m still working it out”.

At first glance, Unfiltered’s vast and impressive range of video interviews gives the impression of a media company like Forbes, Wall Street Journal, or the NBR. And like a lot of modern media companies, one of the ways it makes money is by producing and distributing sponsored content on the side, which isn’t too dissimilar from what The Spinoff does with partner content or what NZME or Bauer do with sponsored pieces.

But Millar is adamant that what Unfiltered does is different, the difference being that none of the content Unfiltered produces is actually journalism. There’s no distinction between ‘advertorial’ or ‘editorial’ because in the Unfiltered universe, such concepts don’t exist. Journalistic principles simply don’t apply: if a subject doesn’t like something they’ll happily cut it out, and if they want to see questions in advance, they’ll gladly supply them.

“The focus on education and learning is a common theme in all of our interviews,” says Millar, who ultimately settles on “education technology company” to describe Unfiltered. “We see ourselves firmly in the learning industry as opposed to the traditional media industry because everything we do is so different from ‘media’ as such.”

“Media companies are looking for a story, something that’s newsworthy or applicable today whereas we never look at that. [Our interviews] are a collaborative process. We want to create something that portrays the interviewee in a really nice way – celebrates their success, celebrates their story, and is something they can feel really proud of; almost like a documentary of their lessons and advice that they want to pass on to the next generation.

“We always say one of the rules we have with Unfiltered is we’d never release an interview an interviewee wasn’t proud of. If people ask for questions in advance we give it to them. If people want to review the interview before it goes live, we let them.”

A selection of Unfiltered’s most popular interviews (Screenshot:

With such an amicable and laudatory approach to producing content, it’s no surprise that many of Unfiltered’s interviewees (or at the very least, their sons and daughters) end up becoming some of Millar’s closest friends. More interesting is how a number of them decide to become investors in Unfiltered after being interviewed themselves, like Cullen Investments founder Eric Watson, Villa Maria Estate founder Sir George Fistonich, and Jonty Kelt, a former executive at Palantir (a US-based big data analytics company).

In fact, of Unfiltered’s 30 investors, at least half have been interviewed at some point since 2015, which goes some way to explaining how the company has managed to attract so much financial support ($2.2 million in total since February 2017). Because an interview’s effect is ultimately twofold: it’s not just creating content, it’s also giving potential investors a first-hand ‘experience’ of how the business works. It’s a self-sustaining, self-perpetuating model in a way. The pitch is the product and the product is them “trying to help the next generation of entrepreneurs”.

“A lot of business people that ‘make it’ as such want to give back, advise, and see people get ahead. Our investors want to see a good commercial return, but at the same time… a lot of them are older and probably admire what we do to help entrepreneurs. It’s kind of like a philanthropic investment in a way. But that only goes on for a certain amount of time. When the stakes and valuations get higher, you have to show solid commercial results.”

But a lot of Unfiltered’s success in attracting investors also comes down to Millar himself: his ambitiousness, his affability, his ‘personal brand’. Even his showiness plays a role, which in essence is just someone else’s definition of confidence and charm. After all, what more could a 50- or 60-something-year-old businessperson want to see from a young person of today? Rob Fyfe, for instance, has said in the past that he “invests in people not businesses”, while Diane Harrington (nee Foreman) explained that she invested in Unfiltered because Millar was “one of the most authentic people” she’d ever met.

“He’s a very bright and intelligent young person,” says Sir Eion Edgar, former chairman of Forsyth Barr and long-time investor and friend of Millar’s. “He’s got this wonderful ability to open doors and he really gets to know everyone.

“I thought if anyone could make it work, it was going to be him. So when he was looking for capital [for Unfiltered] I was very happy to support him … It was high risk, high reward, but we were prepared to take that risk.”

Millar with Icebreaker CEO Rob Fyfe (left) and former executive of Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide Kevin Roberts. Both Fyfe and Roberts serve on Unfiltered’s Board of Directors (Photo: Supplied)

If there’s one thing Millar would change if he could go back in time, it would be to change his name to Jacob Jacobs – ‘Jacob’ as a more biblical derivation of Jake, and ‘Jacobs’ as a homage to his mother, artist Robyn Jacobs.

“Jacob Jacobs. It’s kind of a fun name, right? I’m not going to change it again though because it’s not like a profile picture. You can’t just change it when you get bored of it.”

“Again”, because when Millar was 19 and just starting his first business, he switched his name from ‘Miller’ to ‘Millar’. The reason? People were confusing him for the American rapper.

“All the stuff we were posting about the business and the publicity we were getting at the time was just getting lost. I spent months trying to work out what to change it to and I wish I changed it to something more fun instead of just changing a letter.”

After all, a name like Jacob Jacobs (which rings a few comic book superhero bells) could’ve been an easy fit for a self-described “risk taker” like Millar. Having grown up with the sport, he’s an avid skydiver, having done his first dive at age five and more than 150 since. His next goal is to finally learn how to fly, adding that John Banks – former ACT leader, Kim Dotcom nemesis, and lover of tea – was going to take him to do some acrobatics.

But the 23-year-old’s propensity for adrenaline doesn’t stop there. He’s an enthusiastic skier and is obsessed with getting tattoos, estimating that he’s now been inked something like 30 times (he insists on showing me one of his favourites: a rather ominous looking eye peeking out from the middle of his chest). Last year, he even went to Burning Man for the first time with fellow Kiwi entrepreneurs Peter Huljich, Paul Organ, and Tim Norton of 90 Seconds, spending nine days galavanting under the Nevada sun.

He’s not one to shy away from the finer things in life either. Moët champagne seems to be his drink of choice, and he’s a keen consumer of Michelin-star fine dining. In Auckland, he’s a regular patron of restaurants like Soul and Prego, and is apparently prone to a bit of fine art collecting himself.

Then there are the luxury hotels, the helicopter rides, and the sports cars he gets to whizz around in as a BMW ambassador. There’s the travel, the suits, the high-powered friends, and of course, the glamorous parties he either attends or organises himself. Planning for the next Unfiltered party is already underway, and this year it’s going to be a circus – literally – with a Cirque du Soleil themed party somewhere “out in the countryside”.

All this and more screams a very specific type of bravado – young, male and seriously moneyed. There’s a ‘work hard, play harder’ aura to his persona, one that comes across as aspirational to some, but garish to others. Conspicuous displays of wealth don’t go down well in New Zealand, where we tend to value understatement. We like our rugby players to be gruff and our politicians to be ‘normal’. We like our business people to work hard and do it with their heads down, not flaunt designer clothes and have champagne on the regular.

But for all that excess and flourish on paper, Millar in person cuts a decidedly earnest figure, and he’s empathetic – that much is clear from his charitable commitments. He also seems to be reasonably self-aware.

“Obviously I’m a young guy, I’ve just turned 23, and I’ve had a really privileged last few years, “ he says, clearly pondering his choice of words. “I’ve achieved some success relatively young and with that comes opportunity.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is… I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve worked really hard and I’ve played really hard. Sometimes I’ve probably overstepped that line a little bit too much and not always got it right. So many of the people I’ve interviewed have become really close friends, but also so many of their kids [who] come from extremely wealthy and privileged backgrounds… when you’re hanging around with the sons and daughters of billionaires, it’s easy to get sucked into that, particularly in New York.

“Selling my first business when I was 19 for a six-figure sum really did change my life. I often look back on that now and I think in some ways making that money at that age was one of the worst things that could’ve happened to me because it gave me a taste of this kind of lifestyle. You get kind of addicted to the fun, to the glory as such. But sometimes I need to tone it down a bit. I get that feedback sometimes and I actually really appreciate it.”

Paul Organ, Millar, Peter Huljich, and Tim Norton at Burning Man 2018 (Photo: Facebook/Jake Millar)

At the same time, there’s also a kind of youthful optimism – an optimism that looks at success, particularly in the face of adversity, with genuine, wide-eyed admiration and awe. He prizes the importance of mentors and role models, often referring to the influence of figures like John Key who, in his capacity as prime minister in 2010, went to see Millar and his family in Greymouth following the death of his father, former Skydive NZ director Rod Miller, in a Fox Glacier plane crash when Millar was just 15.

“I vividly remember being inspired by the fact that Key had lost his father as a young kid, before achieving his childhood dream,” Millar wrote in a Stuff opinion piece back in 2016. “I remember thinking, ‘if he could, why couldn’t I?’”

It’s no wonder then then that upon reading Virgin Group boss Richard Branson’s autobiography, Losing My Virginity, as a teen Millar was so inspired that not only did he turn down a $40,000 scholarship to study law at Otago University in favour of starting his own business, he even got a tattoo of Branson’s “Screw It, Let’s Do It” mantra in bright red ink – which he proudly showed off to his hero while interviewing the billionaire mogul for Unfiltered a few years back.

“At the time, my headmaster [at Christchurch Boys’] was encouraging me to take the scholarship, as were a lot of my teachers and my family,” he recalls. “My mum was really angry about [not taking it]. I think she called me a ‘fucking idiot’. No one in my family had ever gone to university so I was going to be the first to go, which was why she was so emotional.

“But I was really close-minded about going to university back then. I remember sitting in my headmaster’s office and saying ‘If this was a scholarship from Harvard, I’d still say no’ and I genuinely believe that I would’ve. I had no interest whatsoever. I was so inspired by Richard Branson that no one could’ve convinced me otherwise.”

Millar showing Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson his ‘Screw It, Let’s Do It’ tattoo (Photo: Supplied)

So instead of university, along came Oompher – Millar’s first ever business which he started when he was just 18. He sold his car, a $12,000 Subaru Legacy, and used $9,000 from the sale for startup capital. Having run a speakers programme during his time as head boy at school, Millar already had a pool of contacts he could draw on to create content aimed at school leavers like himself, digitising advice from successful New Zealanders such as Icebreaker CEO Rob Fyfe, Air New Zealand boss Christopher Luxon, and Olympic gold medallist Mahe Drysdale.

By the time Oompher had scaled to a size where it had over 150 video interviews, Millar was looking for distribution deals to try and get its content into schools. He managed to strike up talks with government entity Careers NZ, which was led at the time by Keith Marshall, former owner of Thrifty Car Rentals NZ and a somewhat controversial one-time chief executive of Nelson City Council.

During a meeting with Marshall about how Careers NZ and Oompher could work together, Millar made the unlikely suggestion that Careers NZ simply buy his company altogether. From that moment on that was all the pair talked about, and five months of price and purchase agreement negotiations later, Oompher was sold for an undisclosed six-figure sum. It was the first (and only) startup Careers NZ ever purchased. At the time, Millar was just 19 years old.

“Looking back now, there’s always a certain element of luck in business and I certainly don’t sit here and say I’ve achieved it all with talent because that’s just not true. In the case of Careers NZ, I don’t think that deal would’ve happened with any other government entity. I think it happened because its CEO (Marshall) was really entrepreneurial.”

Today, Oompher’s value remains unclear. Since Careers NZ was merged into the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) in 2017, Oompher’s content has remained limited, with their last video on YouTube uploaded more than a year ago.

In response to this, TEC chief executive Tim Fowler says the entity is now focusing on developing “New Zealand’s first ever careers system strategy” that will see it review “all products and services currently available.” He says it expects to introduce new products and services later in the year.

Millar after having sold Oompher to the government for an undisclosed six-figure sum. On his right is Careers NZ at the time Keith Marshall (Photo: Supplied)

The similarities between Millar’s first business, Oompher, and his current business, Unfiltered, are pretty self-evident. But he didn’t always intend for it to be that way.

After selling Oompher in 2015, Millar set out to start a digital marketing company with a young Kiwi entrepreneur he once interviewed named Sam Ovens. On the side was going to be a blog called ‘The Business Leaders Series’ in which Millar would go out and film interviews with successful business people to post online.

“[But] then I basically decided that digital marketing wasn’t my passion at all. I said to Sam that I wasn’t going to continue on with this because I didn’t think I was going to get too excited about this industry.” As part of their “very civil” separation, Millar was allowed to keep the 20 interviews he’d already filmed for the blog while Ovens went on to expand his existing online consultancy business,

In recent years, Ovens has faced serious scrutiny with a number of websites accusing his $2,000 courses of being fraudulent. Several discrepancies have also been found in the self-described “millionaire consultant’s” rags-to-riches story (a employee declined an interview on Ovens’ behalf, citing his “crazy schedule”).

Meanwhile, Millar decamped to New York and started considering his next venture. He soon became interested in the budding food tech scene and came up with an idea for a platform where restaurants could sell surplus food. But when he realised how crowded the food tech scene was he decided to scrap the idea and return to New Zealand to try to figure out what he could do with his 20 interviews. He ended up approaching Stuff (then Fairfax) and suggested they start a company together. They even got so far as coming up with names for their newfound venture (‘Unfiltered’ was apparently a Stuff suggestion).

But eventually the deal fell through. According to Millar, Stuff were keen but only if the content was hosted on their website. “I turned around and said ‘that’s not a business, that’s not a commercial deal for me’. I didn’t want to be working for Stuff. So I said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and went and did it myself.”

That was when Millar enlisted the help of Yuuki Ogino, an old high school friend from Christchurch Boys who’d been Dux at the same time Millar had been head boy. Ogino at the time was studying engineering on a scholarship at the University of Canterbury and had previously worked with Millar on a contract basis doing filming and day-to-day general management for Oompher. When the opportunity to start Unfiltered came along, Millar convinced Ogino to drop out from his studies and join him on his brand new venture. Four months of behind-the-scenes admin later, Unfiltered launched in November 2015. Millar was 20 years old.

A 15-year-old Jake Millar talking to then Prime Minister John Key in 2010 (Photo: Supplied)

For the first two and a half years of its existence, Unfiltered made money by operating a subscription model which charged users $267 a year (or $167 for six months) to access its content. But in May last year Unfiltered decided to lift its paywall. At the time, many wondered how the company would sustain itself having eliminated one of its most valuable sources of revenue. Then there was the question of ‘why’. Why try and change things so much now?

The reality is that the change was a long time coming. In 2017, Unfiltered began to expand into the US market. Since then, it’s raised a total of $2.2 million from two capital funding rounds, switched to a monthly subscription model of $15 per month, opened an office in New York, and started to do more interviews with founders of US businesses such as WeWork, Slack and Warby Parker. It also decided to forfeit its corporate subscriptions model (B2B) in an effort to focus exclusively on targeting entrepreneurs (B2C), a move which was spurred by a desire to make Unfiltered more clearly defined within the US market.

“What we found was that the content we were creating for entrepreneurs was very different to what corporates wanted. For example, a middle manager at BNZ wanted a very different learning experience to the kind an entrepreneur that would turn up to the Gatsby Party wanted.

“Going into America, we really wanted to have a clear definition of the market we were targeting… [so] we decided to drop all corporate subscriptions, forfeiting about 20% of our revenue.”

The next step was to tear down the paywall in a bid to open up new opportunities in the international market. Currently, it’s in the midst of negotiating “global distribution deals” with potential corporate partners and brands. If successful (and that’s a big ‘if’), these deals will act as a new source of income alongside a revamped paywall for the “activation of exclusive features and modules”.

“When we took the paywall down, we lost a substantial portion of our revenue. But we’re betting on distribution and eyeballs, which is a high-risk bet, particularly in today’s day and age with online content and commercialisation of content,” says Millar. “But [the American market] is just so big and there are so many people craving high-quality content. If we can get millions of people watching it to start off with, then there are so many other things we can do to commercialise it.”

Ogino and Millar is 2018 (Photo: Supplied)

In the long term, the dream for Unfiltered is to become the world’s best business learning platform. But in the short term, the company is planning to open an office in Vietnam this year with possible offices to come in Singapore and Hong Kong depending on how these distribution deals play out. These offices, which will be “in association with some major global brands and commercial partners”, will focus on providing information for Western companies on doing business in South East Asia (but also, from a cost perspective, it’s relatively cheap to have an office in Vietnam).

And what about Millar? What can we expect from him in 2019?  More skydiving, more skiing, more tattoos, and more Burning Man. But at the same time, dialling back on a few things that might constitute “overstepping the line”.

“I definitely don’t want to fall into that category of a lot of these internet marketers,” says Millar. “Specifically, selling yourself as a ‘guru’ and a multi-millionaire and charging thousands of dollars for people to buy your online course where you teach them how to be successful.”

Is that why he left digital marketing for Unfiltered?

“Partially, although I think what we were looking to do was different… the ‘internet marketers’ I refer to are more based around a personality teaching you how to be successful.

“I’ve always felt great pride that the information we’re putting in front of our viewers comes directly from the most successful business leaders on the planet,” he says. “It’s not me personally telling our viewers how they can be successful – I’m still working it out myself – but from the mouths of those who’ve achieved massive success.

“Business is full of ups and downs [and] we’d never promise our viewers that they’ll achieve huge success only if they watch Unfiltered.”

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