The sale of Unfiltered was initially pitched as a merger, but in reality was more akin to an estate garage sale.
Last week's announcement that Jake Millar's video site and fellow young entrepreneur Jamie Beaton's Crimson Consulting would "join forces", quickly fell apart as complaints from Unfiltered investors emerged showing the former company had been running on dead air.
Millar, 25, told the Herald in a written statement yesterday that 2020 had been a "brutal, bruising year," with Covid complications prompting a realisation that his business was "still struggling to take off" and, in fact, was never going to make it off the ground.
"We had five years to work things out and endless support and mentorship from many of the world's top investors and we never managed to crack it," he said.
Unfiltered had provided "inspirational" video content for entrepreneurs, but from the outside seemed to lack focus. Its content alternated between free or paid, and its purpose drifted between media publisher, corporate educator and publicity machine, and was inextricably bound to its founder whose apparent pinstriped success was defined - and enhanced - by laudatory interviews with his business idols.
But over the new year this self-image broke down and the Herald understands Unfiltered shareholders agreed, with 90 per cent voting in favour, to effectively shutter the business and sell its principal asset - a stockpile of video interviews - to Crimson for only US$60,000 (NZ$82,600).
Neither Millar nor Crimson, citing a non-disclosure agreement, would comment on this sale price, but these last rites contrast markedly with - and represent a 99 per cent discount from - the near-evangelic hype Millar and his company had been manufacturing about themselves.
In 2016, Millar bullishly talked of his company growing to be worth $100 million by 2021. And as recently as late 2019, when the firm said it had raised $2.4m to expand into the United States, Unfiltered claimed the capital raise now valued the firm as worth $12m.
Millar did not respond to questions about how much cash Unfiltered had raised from, largely New Zealand-based, investors since its 2015 founding, but interviews with shareholders estimated the sum to be around $4m.
Property developer Garry Robertson, who bought into the company a couple of years ago and is recorded as owning a nearly 10 per cent stake, was scathing about the windup of the business.
"When you make a major decision like this, it should require a shareholders' meeting, not just 'Let's close the company, and sell the assets for [next to] nothing'."
Robertson said he had also never been provided access to the company's books or financial statements. Several investors - including some very high-profile members of the New Zealand business community - broadly backed Robertson's complaints in interviews with the Herald.
Shareholder Steve Brooks, who contacted the Herald at the prompting of Millar, said he also had never seen the company's financials: "I put my trust into Jake and believed he was doing a good job. But also believed there was a risk," he said.
"I don't think it's the outcome any investor would have wanted. At the same time we've been on a journey."
Fellow investor Aaron Bhatnagar said 2020 had "shone a cold, hard light on a business model that wasn't shooting the lights out. They were struggling to make headway. That's not unique - there are probably 500 startups in that situation in New Zealand."
Millar said the company's finances - and his remuneration - were approved and overseen by the company directors.
Questions to former Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts about his years chairing Unfiltered, an involvement that ranged from 2017 until his resignation as director last August, were unanswered by publication time.
Millar, for his part, has deleted his social media presence in the wake of Unfiltered's demise and is presently staying with family in the US state of Georgia and mulling his next move.
"I am relocating to Sub-Saharan Africa to focus on new entrepreneurial ventures but I have no current plans to return to New Zealand," he said.