One Question Quiz
Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

MoneyMarch 31, 2021

Popping the Unfiltered bubble: Jake Millar on how it all went so wrong

Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

From travelling the world interviewing business titans to defending himself against aggrieved investors, the story of Jake Millar and Unfiltered is a true jaw-dropper. The young entrepreneur talks to Jihee Junn.  

For the last few weeks, Jake Millar has been watching his reputation crumble away. In early February, news broke that Unfiltered – the business education platform he co-founded in 2015 – had been abruptly sold to university admissions consultancy Crimson Education for an undisclosed sum. A few days later, reports emerged that not only had the business, once valued at $12 million, been sold for just US$60,000 cash, but that a group of investors were accusing Millar of poor management, lack of transparency and attempting to “divide and conquer” shareholders to approve the deal. 

The reaction was brutal and swift. Unfiltered, best known for its video interviews platforming high-profile business leaders and entrepreneurs, was once lauded as a beacon of startup success. Now, it was being decried as flawed, a failure, and little more than a vanity project for the country’s most successful and wealthy elite. Some even compared its demise to the likes of WeWork, Fyre Festival and Theranos – ventures awash with cash, hype and attention, but ultimately lacking in substance to succeed. Meanwhile, its 25-year-old founder, formerly celebrated as an entrepreneurial wunderkind full of ambition and drive, was denounced for his hubris, his naiveté, his spending and, perhaps most viscerally, for his Gucci loafers. 

Unfiltered founder Jake Millar

Halfway across the world in New York City, Millar became increasingly incensed and described much of the coverage and comments as “inaccurate”, “defamatory” and “character assassination”. After having initially declined The Spinoff’s interview requests, he’d had a change of mind. Less than a week after the first damaging reports emerged (and having spoken with his lawyer and a public relations consultant) he decided he wanted to give his side of the story after all.

And for two long hours over the phone, Millar did just that; then again a few days later for another hour-and-a-half, in a follow-up interview initiated by him. He spoke about everything that had occurred over the last five years. His attitude veered from gracious to indignant towards investors, apologetic yet defiant about the sale, and alternately candid but careful with his answers, some of which had been prepared in advance. He also requested (but never demanded) he be portrayed as grateful for his opportunities, to not come across as “too angry or disgruntled”, and to not include any swear words he might have used. 

There were also many emails sent over the course of several weeks, of which at least 20 were unprompted. In them, Millar offered everything from a “brand presentation” of Unfiltered’s new market strategy in 2020, to a transcript of his head boy’s speech seven years prior. Some emails offered interviews with a selection of his closest friends and mentors, while in others, he shared personal reflections and revelations regarding his struggles with mental health. His longest email, sent shortly after our final interview, was more than 2,500 words long.

“I do not have an agenda here except for my right to stand up for myself and my human values,” Millar wrote in one of his earliest emails, “so I will provide you with a wide range of material I have not circulated before and you can decide what to use and what to ignore.” 

Crimson Education’s Jamie Beaton after being appointed an Unfiltered director in 2019 (Photo: Supplied)

In another email, Millar explained the impact of his father’s much-publicised death back in 2010 when a plane he was working on as a skydiving instructor crashed near Fox Glacier killing everyone onboard. At the time, the plane was said to have been badly loaded and overweight which placed the blame on the skydiving company which Millar’s father co-owned. But investigations later found excess weight alone was unlikely to have been the only reason for the crash. 

“As a young entrepreneur, some people would probably accuse me of having quite strong defence mechanisms,” he wrote. “I have always stood up for what I have believed in and also against people I have felt wronged by, often even if they have been much wiser and more successful than me. When I reflect over my journey, I think this is one of the reasons I became, inadvertently, more controversial than I ever set out to be.”

But Millar isn’t the only one feeling wronged here. Over the last five years, many of New Zealand’s most highly respected business people lent their names, status and millions of dollars to help Unfiltered chase the dream of becoming a global company. They were motivated not by the prospect of a windfall, but because they liked Millar and they liked what he was trying to do. According to one investor, many felt paternal or maternal towards Millar and “believed in him as a young man who needed support”. They trusted him which they said, in hindsight, turned out to be a terrible mistake. 

The early years

“I’ve come into Unfiltered because I believe it’s unstoppable. 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.” – Kevin Roberts in 2017.

As a teenager, Millar was the model student. At Christchurch Boys’ High School, he was head boy, a student trustee and a youth representative for the local district council. He ran a much-lauded speakers programme that invited high profile New Zealanders to talk to students, including former and current prime ministers Helen Clark, Bill English and, most notably, John Key. Millar says his life changed when Key had earlier visited him at his Greymouth family home shortly after his father’s death. 

“It was the goodness of Key’s heart that inspired me to try my hardest in life, and strive to be the best version of me that I could be,” Millar wrote in a tribute to Key back in 2016. “I vividly remember being inspired by the fact that Key had lost his father as a young kid, before achieving his childhood dream. I remember thinking, ‘if he could, why couldn’t I?’” 

Left: Skydiving with his father, Rod Miller / Right: The letter from John Key after the Fox Glacier crash (Photos: Supplied)

Millar’s dream was to one day become prime minister, but everything changed when he read Virgin boss and billionaire Richard Branson’s autobiography, Losing My Virginity – a text that became so pivotal to his life that it convinced him to turn down a $40,000 scholarship to study law. Instead, he decided to start a business called Oompher, a “motivational website” aimed at school leavers that digitised and distributed advice from successful New Zealanders. Less than a year later, Oompher was sold to government job agency Careers NZ for $130,000 (or $230,000 including the “consultancy agreement”, according to Millar). 

While Oompher ultimately lasted just two years before the Tertiary Education Commission decided to abandon the venture, the sale elevated not just Millar’s bank account but his reputation as well. A few months later in November 2015, Millar launched Unfiltered with the help of co-founder, director and long-time friend Yuuki Ogino (who declined to be interviewed for this story).

For many seasoned members of the business community, Millar was a young, confident, risk-taking entrepreneur they could get behind. He was a slice of Silicon Valley swagger on the shores of Aotearoa, and his commitment to high impact, fast-growth business with global ambitions had an appeal more modest startups in New Zealand simply didn’t offer. And it worked: by the end of 2016, Millar had scored interviews with a number of high-profile businesspeople, such as Villa Maria founder George Fistonich, hotel magnate Gavin Faull and former Forsyth Barr chairman Eion Edgar, who would eventually be persuaded to become investors in Unfiltered themselves. 

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

That same year, Unfiltered also signed a “sweat equity” agreement worth $500,000 with Australian businessman Richard Bell, who would invest time, energy and expertise for three years in return for a 21% stake in the company and the roles of director and chairman. Shortly afterwards, Unfiltered decided to end its corporate subscriptions model to focus exclusively on targeting entrepreneurs after feedback from both Bell and the companies it engaged with. In hindsight, Millar says this was “a terrible mistake” as it cut off a key source of revenue. A year-and-a-half after coming into the company, Bell stepped down from his executive roles.

In March 2017, Unfiltered announced it had raised more than $1.2 million ahead of its launch in the US with a supergroup of stellar investors, including ex-Air New Zealand and Icebreaker CEO Rob Fyfe, former Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts, 90 Seconds founder Tim Norton, and ice cream entrepreneur Diane Harrington. Roberts and Fyfe were subsequently appointed to the company’s board of directors. By November 2018, Fyfe had ceased his directorship, as had Brian Wong – a Canadian entrepreneur and co-founder of mobile advertising network Kiip who’d been appointed as a director in February that same year. Several months later, Wong was indicted by a grand jury for sexual assault in the United States. 

In November 2019, Unfiltered announced another successful funding round, this time raising an impressive $2.4 million for its US expansion from more than a dozen investors including property developer Garry Robertson, early Xero investors Guy and Sue Haddleton, Wildfire founder Victoria Ransom and Crimson Education CEO Jamie Beaton. Guy Haddleton and Beaton soon joined Roberts on the board of directors. But by the end of 2020, all three had departed from their roles, leaving just Millar, Ogino and newly appointed director Sophie Watts, a Los Angeles-based film and media executive, on the board. 

Icebreaker CEO Rob Fyfe (left) and former Saatchi & Saatchi executive Kevin Roberts (right) after Unfiltered first successful capital raise (Photo: Supplied)

The Spinoff reached out to almost a dozen former and current investors to get their take on being a part of Unfiltered. The majority declined to comment publicly or failed to respond, including former board members Haddleton, Beaton and Roberts. Most of those who did speak did so strictly off the record. All except for one.

The shareholder fallout

“A lot of business people that ‘make it’ as such want to give back, advise, and see people get ahead … 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.” – Jake Millar in 2019.

For more than two decades, Garry Robertson has helped mastermind some of the country’s most substantial housing projects in Auckland, Kaikōura and beyond. He’s been described as a “secret millionaire” and doubts anyone has bought more land in New Zealand than him. In recent years, he’s helped fund various projects close to his heart, including a documentary on late social reformer Celia Lashlie which premiered at the New Zealand Film Festival in 2018. So when he decided to invest in Unfiltered in 2019, he says he wasn’t looking to make a profit: he was looking to support a “nice young lad” who was living the dream. 

“I’ve always wanted to interview people. I like motivating people. But I’ve got on in years and young people probably don’t want to listen to a person my age so I figured I could do all that through Jake,” he says. “I thought If I help him become successful, others and I could mentor him to motivate and help other New Zealanders. So I invested solely to help him and other people through him. I thought he could say it and do it better than I could.”

But it wasn’t long before the dream began to fall apart. With Covid looming at the start of 2020 and everyone preoccupied with trying to save their own businesses, Robertson says he advised Millar to “cut back the spending and put the thing on hold”. However, things got progressively worse, and in September, a decision was made to pursue a merger or acquisition (M&A). 

Garry Robertson on set (Photo:

According to Millar, shareholders who invested in 2019 were given the opportunity to either withdraw their capital or stay put, with eight choosing the former and eight choosing the latter after Millar “resold the vision” for what he believed was “a genuine opportunity”. He told investors that if he was unsuccessful in finding a deal by January 31, 2021, he would resign as CEO and give the board the right to handle the asset. A few months later, a deal was struck with Crimson Education, who Millar says was “the only serious bidder” after approaching a total of 37 companies, funds and publishers offering to sell. The deal was eventually approved by 90% of shareholders “in both head count and percentage of the capital table”, according to Millar. 

However, Robertson – Unfiltered’s second-largest shareholder according to the Companies Office but the fourth largest shareholder according to an updated list provided by Millar – claims he was told that if he kept his money in the company it would keep it going well into 2021. Robertson declined to state the exact amount he kept in the business except that it was a six-figure sum.

“In November, I asked him five times in this one phone call: ‘if I leave my money in, will that run this company for another year?’ And he said ‘yes you’ll keep us going, you saved us, Garry’. So I said on that basis, I’d leave it in since we could go into hold mode and figure out what to do. A little more than a month or two later – with much of it being the Christmas/New Year period – he’d sold the company for less money than I left in there.”

Millar travelled across the US interviewing dozens of successful businesspeople (Photos: Supplied)

Subsequently, when the deal with Crimson was sent to investors to vote on in late January, Robertson says he offered to purchase the company himself, which Millar rejected. Robertson says he was then told he’d have to pay more than Crimson’s offer, after which he tried three times to call for a shareholder’s meeting. In one email exchange seen by The Spinoff between Robertson and Unfiltered’s legal representative, Robertson was told the Crimson deal had already reached the threshold to be approved and that he would not get a quorum of shareholders. “In fact, it seems you will encounter resistance (at least from Peter Huljich’s shareholder block) from shareholders who just want to move on without any turmoil,” the email said. Huljich, whose family has invested in a number of businesses over the years including Pushpay, declined to comment for this story.

One investor The Spinoff spoke to says they were angry at how the sale had been pushed through and felt Millar should have told other shareholders of Robertson’s offer. They also questioned the ethics of the sale to Crimson Education in light of Beaton’s presence on Unfiltered’s board until December (Millar firmly rejected any suggestion that a deal had been discussed with Beaton during his time as a director). 

Another investor says they signed the deal simply because they’d had enough of Millar and wanted to move on. They believed it was a bad deal but were under the impression that it was the only option available. Had they known of Robertson’s offer earlier, they say they wouldn’t have agreed to the sale.

“Jake hasn’t done this openly and transparently where everyone can talk in the same room,” says an enraged Robertson. “He refused to sell me shares, he refused to let me buy the assets, he refused to have a shareholder’s meeting, he refused to give me their contact details, and he refused to share the company minutes. Instead, he rang every single person individually, talked them into it, and then told the next person that the person before them was signing, and then the next person would sign and so on.”

“No one had any idea what the next person was doing other than what Jake said, and I think anyone doing that has got a high lack of integrity.”

Our Members make The Spinoff happen. Every dollar contributed directly funds our editorial team – click here to learn more about how you can support us from as little as $1.

‘It was a groundswell’

Defending the sale, Millar insists the deal was done “by the book” and according to the shareholder’s agreement (which The Spinoff was unable to obtain a copy of). He strongly rejected all of Robertson’s accusations, stating that he never promised the remaining capital would keep the company going until late 2021, that he had never offered to purchase the company, and that he never formally requested a shareholders’ meeting.

In a follow-up email, Millar also noted that Robertson was “a South Island property developer with zero expertise in the education industry (or tech)” and that, as majority shareholder, he wouldn’t have voted in favour of Robertson buying the company unless he’d outbid Crimson by a significant margin. “Regardless, this is all massively hypothetical as Mr Robertson never made an offer,” he wrote.

Millar with co-founder Yuuki Ogino shortly after being named in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 North America in 2018 (Photo: Supplied)

Despite the “vocal few” who’ve spoken out publicly, Millar makes a point to emphasise that the deal was ultimately approved by a majority of shareholders, some of whom he’d rung to explain why he was personally supporting the deal. 

“We tried our best to sell the company, but it was during Covid and it was over the festive season. The cash at the bank was diminishing and we had to make a decision: do we let the company go into liquidation or do we take the best and only deal that was available to us?” says Millar. When asked for further details on diminishing cash and what expenses there were at the time, Millar declined to comment.

For his part, Robertson says he rejects Millar’s claim that the company was at risk of going into liquidation and that he was told in a Zoom call with Millar, Ogino and their legal representative that there was still “$80,000-$90,000 roughly” in the bank. 

“If you don’t hold people like this accountable they’ll do the same thing again in five years’ time, and it’ll be $10 million and it’ll be from your mum and dad,” Robertson says regarding his motives for speaking out. “Blokes like him are very persuasive. He’s very plausible. I believe him and I know I shouldn’t …. He’s very good at what he’s done – you can’t get to where he has without being good.”

Jamie Beaton, Kevin Roberts and Guy Haddleton with Millar after raising $2.4 million in 2019

While Robertson and the group of investors he represents believe they’ve been burned by Millar, not everyone feels the same. One investor who approved the deal was Steve Brooks, the man behind controversial payday lending company Moola and rogue advertiser for the National Party. Brooks, who was contacted by The Spinoff at the direct suggestion of Millar, is a minor shareholder under the name Taurus Investments Ltd. He defends Millar and says things could have “easily gone the other way” if things had worked out in the US. 

“All these investors are fairly switched on businesspeople and they were all aware of the risks. But I hadn’t heard of any comments from other shareholders until it seems to have all blown up at the end,” says Brooks. “I would’ve preferred to have sold it to [Robertson] if he’d paid more money, but to complain that we didn’t have any shareholder meetings … I mean, we’re all running busy lives ourselves and have other business interests.”

Another investor who’s publicly supported Millar is Andrew Barnes, founder of Perpetual Guardian and Coulthard Barnes Capital, the latter holding a 1.28% stake in Unfiltered. In an opinion piece published in the NZ Herald, Barnes wrote: “If our attitude in New Zealand business and media culture is that failure is unacceptable and will be mocked and punished brutally, we will make Kiwi entrepreneurship extinct, and fast.” Barnes’ shares in Unfiltered were not disclosed in the story.

The company’s last Unfiltered Live in 2019 focused on the topic of failure (Photo: Jihee Junn)

Millar remains resolute that he did everything he could to get the best deal, adding that despite what’s been reported about Crimson Education in recent years, he “believes deeply in [Jamie Beaton’s] ability and his talent as an entrepreneur”.

“The shareholders spoke and it was a groundswell,” Millar concludes emphatically. “I’m reminded of the words made famous by Abraham Lincoln: ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’.”

The high life

“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.” – Jake Millar in 2019.

From designer clothes to vacations at some of the world’s most exotic locations, Millar’s lavish lifestyle, for better or worse, has long attracted people’s attention. He seemed to live, at least judging by his now-deleted social media accounts, like a multimillionaire: Rolex watches, collections of fine art, and loafers from not just Gucci but Louis Vuitton too. There were trips to London, Los Angeles, Canada, Fiji, Singapore, Hong Kong and more which sometimes, but not always, involved filming for Unfiltered. Notoriously, he spent nine days in the Nevada desert in 2018 with fellow New Zealand entrepreneurs Peter Huljich, Paul Organ, and Tim Norton attending Burning Man, and just last August, he celebrated his 25th birthday with friends at a boutique villa in Joshua Tree, California.

Left: Millar in LA in 2021 / Right: At a villa in Joshua Tree in 2020 (Photos: Supplied/Facebook)

The source of Millar’s wealth, however, has been somewhat of a mystery in the last few years. The Oompher money was only ever going to last so long and Millar’s only reported investment outside of Unfiltered was in Fashbae, a failed start-up whose customers were left high and dry when its founder disappeared to traverse the globe. At the same time, Unfiltered never made a profit – any revenue it generated (a little under $703,000 in FY2019, according to Millar) was immediately invested back into the business to grow.

As a result, speculation over Millar’s use of company funds have grown rampant in the past month as many wondered what had happened to all those millions of dollars invested. Millar, however, strongly rejects any suggestion of a crossover between company and personal spending – an accusation he appears to particularly resent. Pushing back, he reveals he held other sources of income “independent of Unfiltered”, including investments and assets in companies such as Ask Nicely, DocuSign and Long Island Iced Tea (now known as Long Blockchain). It’s also understood Millar sold $400,000 worth of his Unfiltered shares when he moved to New York City. 

“Much of the commentary about my lifestyle has been untrue and defamatory … and trying to imply that money came from the company is absolute nonsense,” he says. “However I chose to spend my own money was always a personal decision, and the fact that the fashion, the shoes, the suits have become the story is disgusting and disgraceful.”

Millar in front of a BMW M2 (Photo: Facebook)

Several current and former Unfiltered investors have told The Spinoff they remain sceptical of these claims, although they were unable to provide material to support their allegations. One long-term investor says they asked on multiple occasions to see the company accounts but were rarely granted access. Another says they weren’t informed about financial performance at any stage except for a few business plans which they criticised as “smoke and mirrors”.  

“The issue we had was he spent too much money, he couldn’t justify it and he wouldn’t show people what he was spending,” says Robertson, who was told it would be “commercially sensitive” to share that information with investors. “For all his excuses, he still won’t disclose all the accounts and show anybody. So if you think you’re innocent, why would you do that?”

In response, Millar says he communicated the numbers to former and current investors “incredibly transparently” in the company’s investment memorandums. “Ever since raising capital, we’ve always had a board of capable, independent directors in place [who approved] our financials, budgets and executive compensation,” he repeats on at least four separate occasions.

“With the benefit of hindsight, could we have done a better job of providing more regular updates with more detailed numbers? Yes. But when I look back on our IMs, it included all of our financials for every single year.”

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

Despite disclosing some sources of income, Millar declined to comment on the total value of his wealth. He also declined to comment on whether his goods and experiences, such as the trip to Burning Man, were paid by him personally or financed, at least in part, by any of the successful business people he’d befriended over the years.

“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,” Millar said in a profile published on The Spinoff back in 2019. “When you’re hanging around with the sons and daughters of billionaires, it’s easy to get sucked into that, particularly in New York.”

Friends in high places

“Blur the lines between family and friends. True friends are family, and true family are friends. Moreover, friendship is ageless ” – Jake Millar in 2016

If there’s one thing almost every current and former shareholder agrees on, it’s that they didn’t invest in Unfiltered principally because they thought it would make money – they invested because they thought it was an admirable idea. They wanted to support up-and-coming entrepreneurs, and that included its ambitious and affable CEO who overcame tragedy to make something of himself in the world. 

Millar often mentions the importance of his mentors, some of whom now criticise his handling of the business. But there are still plenty of people Millar looks up to and, in turn, support his character and credibility as an entrepreneur. Two mentors The Spinoff spoke to at the direct suggestion of Millar include real estate mogul Mike Pero and ex-Reserve Bank governor and National Party leader Don Brash. While neither has ever invested in Unfiltered, both felt they had little reason to doubt Millar’s account.

“I don’t have any doubt about Jake’s integrity. I have no doubt about his desire to succeed. He’s been criticised right down to the shoes that he wears and I think it’s quite unfair to judge someone on their clothes, their colour, their religion or whatever,” says Pero, whose business was Oompher’s first-ever client and sponsor. 

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

Brash, who is now a vocal member of controversial lobby group Hobson’s Pledge, first met Millar when he was 16 years old after he’d been invited to speak at Christchurch Boys’ High School. He says while he sympathises with disappointed investors, he believes the young entrepreneur had ultimately tried his best. 

“I don’t know what the financial state of the company was like but I have no reason to doubt Jake’s comments that he simply wasn’t able to continue trading and had to sell the assets for the best price he could get,” says Brash. “There’s also this perception that Jake was living [the high life] at investors’ expense. I don’t know if it’s true or not but I’ve got no reason to believe that.”

Moola founder Steve Brooks, a current shareholder whom Millar also describes as a “trusted friend and mentor”, says that having known him for many years, he also didn’t think Millar had misused company funds, although he admits he’s never seen or asked for financials. 

But Brash isn’t the only polarising figure in Millar’s life. Perhaps most polarising of all is Eric Watson, whose family has both personal and professional ties with Millar. TMB Trust, of which Millar and Watson’s son Sam are trustees, are the largest shareholders in Unfiltered (37.75%). Valley Capital Ltd, which is registered under the name of Watson’s mother, Joan Pollock, is also an investor in Unfiltered with a 1.37% stake.  

Eric Watson watches the New Year’s Day racing at Ellerslie Racecourse in 2015 (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

“Eric has been one of the closest father figures in my life and one of the most loyal people in my life since my dad died,” says Millar. “His son, Sam, is also my best friend in the world. For me to not stand by him after the tremendous support, generosity, mentorship and guidance he’s provided me with would be disgraceful and I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

“I don’t know what else to say other than that I love Eric like a father and I love Sam like a brother and friendship, to me, is one of the most important things in my life. And I’m a loyal friend.”

In October last year, Watson was sentenced to four months in jail after English courts ruled he’d been hiding assets from creditors in a “rainy day account” in his mother’s name. Large swathes of his business empire are currently in liquidation and his companies are said to owe Inland Revenue more than $118m.

Why it failed

“Unfiltered is in its infancy – but the online business education space is massive and Jake’s innovative approach to the category has the potential to unlock a massive opportunity. I’m thrilled to contribute and to help Jake realise his ambition.” – Rob Fyfe in 2017

Covid-19 was the final blow for a business that never really had what it took to stand out. It was a content producer that made video interviews with some of the biggest names in global business, but so did countless media companies, YouTubers, podcasters and TV shows all over the world who, more or less, let their viewers watch or listen for free. It was also a business education platform that prided itself on sharing stories and advice that went deeper than clickbait-hungry headlines, but lacked the detail, rigour and technical nuance more formal business courses offered would-be entrepreneurs. Despite its handful of interesting and exclusive interviews, it was neither entertaining nor academic enough to build a consistent audience. It didn’t know what it was, and neither really did Millar

To his credit, Millar admits Covid-19 – which made a crowded content market even more competitive  – wasn’t the only reason for Unfiltered’s demise. He says he was too obsessed with getting the next big interview, too preoccupied with talking to unicorn founders and too quick to enter the US market. But the biggest misstep, Millar reckons, was that he was too slow to keep up with the pace of change in an industry that was already light years ahead.

“We should’ve evolved midway through the journey away from building and operating our own independent platform and instead put our efforts into trying to sign a major distribution deal with the likes of Netflix, Spotify or YouTube,” he says. “If I was launching Unfiltered today, I would do it through [one of those platforms] if I could get a deal.” 

Millar visiting the home of Julian Robertson, American billionaire and investor and developer in New Zealand (Photos: Supplied)

To help open those doors to Hollywood, former STX Entertainment president Sophie Watts – who oversaw the distribution of films like Bad Moms and Molly’s Game – was appointed to the board in April 2020. Millar says while they never got around to actually pitching anything, he did have an idea: an Oprah Winfrey/David Letterman-type show looking at how young people could become leaders to change the world. It would explore issues like politics, climate change, LGBTQ+ issues and gun control – a sizable shift from the more middle-aged, establishment-oriented audience Unfiltered was used to engaging with. 

“I wanted to do it with a co-host, probably a woman in America with more of a left-leaning perspective who could add a different perspective to my own. Not to say I’m ultra-conservative, which I’m not, but I would’ve added more of a business perspective,” he says.

The Spinoff could not exist without the support of its members. Click here to make your contribution.

Despite these regrets, Millar maintains he still believes in what Unfiltered was trying to achieve: engage and inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs in a way traditional business education and news media were failing to do. He also maintains that the $12m valuation – attached to the company as recently as last year – was one he truly believed in, despite it being sold for less than 1% of that figure. 

“I absolutely stand by every valuation that we put on the company based on my belief at the time. I never raised capital off a valuation I didn’t believe in [which were based] on a combination of progress, lessons and the future.

“Was I guilty of believing too much in my vision? Perhaps. But I think every founder is. To this day, I deeply believe in Unfiltered and I deeply believe in what we were trying to create.” 

Millar on set in Los Angeles for an Unfiltered interview in 2020 (Photo: Supplied)

Just how widespread was Unlimited’s reach? In 2017, Unfiltered claimed it had attracted more than 1.65 million video views, rising to 25 million in 2018 and more than 30 million in 2019. However, these numbers have never been publicly verified and the business has never released data to back up its claims. 

Search data, which only goes back to August 2017, suggests that organic traffic for averaged a little over 2,500 visits per month with record numbers this February and March when the sale to Crimson was announced. Prior to 2018, the website operated behind a paywall, although Millar was unable to say if traffic from that period would show up in any analytics. Meanwhile on its Twitter account and YouTube channel (which has since been unlisted) short clips excerpted from its interviews mostly racked up fewer than 100 views. 

An SEO expert The Spinoff spoke to says that Unfiltered’s own numbers – 30 million views by 2019 – suggest that more than 27,000 videos were accessed per day (an average of 10 million per year, 2017-2019, divided by 365 days). But search volume and traffic data suggests the daily numbers were closer to five to 50. 

Millar, however, says he never misrepresented those numbers and continues to stand by his claims. “All I’m going to say is that was the number of aggregate video views for all 300 interviews over five years of running the business with over 42 unicorn founders. We hit over 30 million videos views on our Unfiltered videos across all platforms. I’m not prepared to comment further on that.”

Videos from Unfiltered’s YouTube channel which have since been deleted

From New York to Nairobi

“When I describe Stephen Jennings to a friend, the words ‘genius’ and ‘visionary’ always come to mind – both words I save for a very select group of folks.” – Jake Millar in a since deleted Facebook post

When Millar was 20 years old and in his first year of running Unfiltered, he went on what he calls a Bill Gates-inspired “think week” – a solo retreat the Microsoft founder would often take to read and ruminate on his next big move. But instead of going to a cabin in the woods like Gates did, Millar hired a van and travelled the South Island while reading Branson’s autobiography for the second time. When he returned to Auckland after his think week, he called billionaire New Zealander Stephen Jennings – who made much of his $980m fortune in Russia – and told him that after rereading Branson’s book that he felt he was playing life “too safe”. 

“His advice to me was to ‘go into a more complex market’. I told him I was passionate about America and he said, ‘go to America’,” says Millar. “He said to me: ‘You need to take bigger risks in life. You need to believe in yourself. You’re young … and now is the time when you have the freedom to take enormous risks’.” That night, Millar booked a one-way plane ticket and set off for the US exactly a month later. Almost five years on, things have come full circle – he’s off another international adventure inspired by Jennings. This time, it’s Kenya. 

Interviewing Stephen Jennings in 2016

But Millar is adamant he’s not going to Kenya to work for Rendeavour, the urban development company founded by Jennings building seven satellite cities across Africa. Instead, he’s turning up to Kenya with “no business idea, no capital and quite frankly, no clue”. 

“Life over the next 30 years is probably going to be very similar and very predictable,” says Millar explaining his reasoning for the move. “I’m probably still going to be associated with the same people, eating at the same restaurants and travelling to the same developed countries. And that just felt boring to me. So the question I asked myself is ‘what can I do to massively shake up the trajectory in an otherwise relatively predictable life?’ And the idea of moving to sub-Saharan Africa felt like shaking up that trajectory. It’s all new and I’m terrified by the idea, but I’m motivated by fear.”

In New Zealand, aggrieved investors say they’re still waiting for answers. But Millar, who at this point in his life has no plans to return home, says he’s facing a “clear horizon moment”.

“My business has commercially failed and I have no obligations anymore to a set of investors. I haven’t raised a fresh set of capital and I don’t owe my time to any venture. I really am able to go in any direction I want and try something new.”

Keep going!