His name was Jake
Content warning: mental health, suicide
He burst into the restaurant larger than life: iconic thick-rimmed glasses, wide smile nearly splitting his head in two, drowning in plans and dreams and ambition. It was Wednesday, April 9th, 2014. His name was Jake Millar. He was 18 years old.
We were there to help him with the plans and the dreams and the ambition. Our non-profit Ministry of Awesome is a force for high-growth startups, and our team was meeting with anyone who wanted to share their bold idea with us and see what we could do to support.
Jake’s vision was for an inspirational website where he would interview well-known leaders and get their advice for young people. He wanted to help his peers appreciate how vast and varied the options were for their lives, to help them do what they really wanted to do and not just what they thought they should do. He had turned down a $40,000 scholarship to law school to do this. His site was called Oompher.
We gave him feedback and agreed to introduce him to a few people, including a senior leader at Careers New Zealand. He left and started executing on his vision. He followed up. He followed through. He built his website, interviewed a wide range of accomplished people, delivered on his dream. A year later Careers New Zealand bought the company from him.
Jake was unstoppable, irrepressible. Before the ink was dry on the deal he was forming his next venture: a similar site but for business leaders, called Unfiltered. He raised $1.2 million from a who’s who of investors including Kevin Roberts, who had been CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi for 17 years. He interviewed the likes of Sir Richard Branson and General Stanley McChrystal. He launched Unfiltered Live, a business conference. His own style remained vivid and memorable: bow ties, colorful suits, fancy shoes.
I caught up with him periodically. He shared with me some of the startup challenges that sat behind the enthusiasm and optimism. He shared the pivots he was making to overcome them. I offered what insufficient insight, experience, and encouragement I had.
None of it worked.
I attended Unfiltered Live in June of 2019. He drank too much at the fancy pre-dinner and didn’t make it to the actual event. The cracks were starting to show.
He held on for another year and a half, but eventually Unfiltered went bust. Jake looked around for a last-ditch deal to save some semblance of face. He pulled off the deal — sold to another company for pennies on the dollar — but didn’t manage to save the face.
An angry investor or two was all it took for a media narrative to take shape: He had it coming.
Served him right, they said. It was obvious it would never work, they said. He should have been more careful with the money, they said. He shouldn’t have bought those fancy shoes. A social media wolf-pack had formed, and it was out for blood. Publicly torn to pieces, Jake fled to Africa.
Having a company go bad is simultaneously one of the cruelest of punishments and one of the most powerful of teachers. Every single mistake is seared into your neural pathways forever. You forget the things you learn in business school, but you never forget the lessons you learn when it’s your own ship that’s sinking.
And while I am not naive to the fact that con artist entrepreneurs exist (yes, Fyre Festival, yes, Theranos), I do not in any way believe Jake is one…
It’s a mistake for us to tear him down because things haven’t gone the way he hoped. If he did something illegal, sure. If he behaved unethically, sure. If he robbed or stole or cheated or kicked puppies… yep, all of it.
But he did not. He had a dream, and — this time around — was unable to make that dream come true.
When a company fails, having someone extend you grace may be the difference between whether you fail with it or whether you live to try again.
I published. Shared on social media. The wolf-pack doubled down: No, but he really did have it coming, though.
In September, I caught up with him on Zoom. He had been in Mexico, Switzerland, the US. His mental health had suffered severely. He was clearly unwell. And yet he remained as optimistic as ever: he was turning the corner, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. He would bounce back. Just you wait.
I was at the dentist when I got the text. I knew immediately. A man had been found dead in Kenya. It was Monday, 29 November, 2021. His name was Jake Millar. He was 26 years old.
I am heavy with grief. I am righteous with anger. I am numb with the seeming inevitability of it all.
The wolf-pack is, of course, complicit. A reckoning needs to be had. And in that reckoning we must not lose sight of the fact that almost every one of us has, at some point, joined a wolf-pack. The ones that we have joined were no different to the one that formed against Jake. Our snarky comments, our social media pile-ons, our self-righteous takedowns have a real cost.
Jake was torn to shreds by people who apparently have never made mistakes in their lives, in a way that produced precisely nothing other than to make those people feel smug.
If there is anything good to come from his passing, I hope that it serves as a reminder that there is a substantive difference between accountability and shame. We should all hold ourselves and each other accountable for our actions, but public shaming doesn’t accomplish that. Public shaming destroys the person on the receiving end and feeds the worst in those who perpetrate it.
Jake was bright and shiny and curious and generous and just… delightful. My life was richer because he was in it. He was human and flawed and fumbling — as we all are, imperfect meat sacks stumbling through life. He flew too close to the sun.
My heart and love go out to Jake’s mother, learning to live with the unimaginable.
And to Jake himself, I hope you now have the peace that was denied to you in life. Love to you, my friend. You were something special. You will be missed 💔