Bullying – the biggest allegation of all

In our quest for justice, Peter and I have been ‘shining the light’ on the allegations made in the two due diligence reports, commissioned by Callaghan Innovation as part of an RFP process last year. Reports which have subsequently been weaponised in what appears to be a concerted attempt to drive We Are Indigo and their subsidiary Manaaki, out of business, and ensure that their directors, Andy, Pat and Monty, never work again in the New Zealand small business / startup ecosystem.

We’ve left the biggest “allegation” of all to last. Bullying. Now, I hope that we can all agree that bullying is not okay, not ever okay. It’s effects are insidious, and surveys generally show that many, perhaps most of us, have felt bullied at some stage of our personal and professional lives. 

But not everything that is labelled ‘bullying’ is actually so.  A robust negotiation, an emotional outburst, a less than sensitive rejection, hey, even an honest statement of realities that exist in our ecosystem…  all of these can be perceived as bullying by the person on the receiving end.  But does that make them bullying?

And if bullying is about an imbalance of power in a relationship  – physical, emotional, financial power – does that mean the Government is potentially the biggest bully of all?  After all, government departments hold the purse strings on so much that goes into our fragile ecosystem.

Ironically, the WorkSafe site, part of MBIE, our biggest government ministry, has a pretty clear definition of what bullying is, and what it is not.

So our government health and safety police tell us that bullying is repeated unreasonable behaviour, targeting a person, aimed at doing damage – victimisation, humiliation, intimidation and so on.  They explicitly tell us that one-off rudeness or tactlessness is NOT bullying – and thank goodness for that, or we’d all be in serious strife!

Nevertheless, mention the word “bullying”, and it appears that people lose their sense of rational perspective.  Add in the “vulnerable founder”, “female founder”, “big bad (powerful, rich, male) investor” narrative, and debate becomes almost impossible.  The assumption is that if someone feels that they are being bullied, it must be so.

This makes bullying the hardest allegation of all to address in the Manaaki / We Are Indigo due diligence reports. 

Can I, hand on heart, say that Andy, Pat and Monty have never shouted at a business associate, colleague or employee, perhaps in sheer frustration?  Of course not.  Did the stress of lockdowns, Covid impacts on business, and pressure to keep people in work play out into stress-driven behaviours?  Perhaps – and that’s not an excuse, just a perspective.

Can any of us say we have always behaved impeccably in our business interactions?
I know that I can’t, and good on you if you can!

Actual evidence of bullying is scant in the due diligence reports – with just two specific examples.

  • In the first, the MindLab CEO claims that on one occasion Andy Hamilton was intimidating, demeaning and aggressive, in a telephone conversation about the Digital Boost programme.  Should this have happened?  Absolutely not.  But as far as we know, this was a one-off, rather than an ongoing pattern of behaviour.  And in the Digital Boost relationship, Indigo was a subcontractor to MindLab, and was not in a position of power.  Bullying?  Or an aggressive defence?  Not sure – but either way, Andy, what were you thinking?
  • The second example given is an email from Pat MacFie to the team working on the Chooice website, following the data breach event (already discussed HERE).  He said…

“No one ever turns the site off unless I say so.  It was a ridiculous over-reaction to turn the site off!  Turning the site off is my call alone not yours Soleil, not yours Sarah.  Going forward if anyone turns the site off without my express permission it will be construed as serious misconduct.”

Certainly assertive, and very very clear.  But not unreasonable, in my view, to establish where the authority lies, in the face of what appears to have been (based on the evidence presented by the investigator) a massive over-reaction to a minor breach, quickly fixed, with no harm done.

Investigation of bullying allegations is a very difficult task, and one requiring specialist and substantial resources.  It seems unlikely that the ‘open source’ techniques used by the investigator would be sufficient to do anything more than uncover accusations.  There was certainly no attempt, as far as I can tell, to prove these allegations to be evidence of actual bullying.

Beyond the specific allegations, most of the inferences about bullying in the reports appear to involve two attempts by Indigo to form joint ventures with other business partners, not as an investor, but as a co-founder, a partner, taking an active role in the venture. 

  • Chooice – the micro business platform established by Indigo and Sarah Colcord in partnership, in 2021. 
    The partnership was dissolved due to a fundamental disagreement between the partners;  a settlement was reached, documented in a press release issued at the time, which gifted Indigo’s shares to Sarah and the vendors on the platform.
  • MosaiqueTV – an entertainment subscription platform established between Indigo and Lance Savalli, Taran Paris and Jordan River in 2021, where the company was never formed as the partners could not agree on the shareholding.

We know that the attempts at partnership were dissolved.  We know that Indigo reached agreement and settlement of outstanding matters, in both cases at significant cost to themselves.

And as an aside, the third dispute, with K&J Growth (probably associated with the “aggressive” telephone conversation discussed above) was resolved when an outstanding invoice was paid.

Chooice and MosaiqueTV were both genuine partnerships, with Indigo being a joint founder. Indigo did not act as a VC as has sometimes been reported.  Indigo provided infrastructure, expertise and in some cases funded costs of the business activity.  At no stage was venture capital introduced, although with Chooice, there was a plan to raise growth capital from other parties. When the partnerships dissolved, the split was resolved in what Indigo believes was a fair manner.

Indigo received no Government funding for these partnerships, nor were Indigo contracted to support these businesses. Partnerships like these often fail.  Over 60% of founders and joint ventures in the startup space have major partnership issues, with founders splitting up, often acrimoniously.  In many cases a partnership failure is more akin to a divorce than to a business dispute.  No one wins.  There is never a joint-custody arrangement for the “baby” – the joint venture they formed together.

Joint venture discussions are often robust.  Not comparable to employment situations.  Either party can leave.  Partners are passionate about what they want to achieve – but not necessarily how it should be done.  Robust discussion is not bullying.

Can I, hand on heart, say that the break-up discussions between Indigo and its business partners were always conducted in a calm, supportive and understanding tone, on both sides?  Of course not.  But what I can say is that in both cases, the counter-parties (now accusers) walked away with the lion’s share of benefit, and that Indigo genuinely believed that these matters had been settled, until they were raked up again in this Callaghan RFP process.

In my view the DD reports have insufficient evidence to support the case of bullying.  It would be nice to have had that resolved.

And finally, we should consider just who is actually being bullied here. 

The repeated, relentless distribution of confidential reports, making allegations about people who have no way of defending themselves; the inherent intimidation of those who might want to speak out in their support, the raking up of long-past and unrelated business dealings by the media – this looks very much like a targeted campaign of unreasonable behaviours, designed to humiliate, intimidate and damage a bunch of people who are in no way perfect, but have done immense good for thousands of small businesses in New Zealand, and just want to be allowed to keep doing that.

And that, my friends, is not okay.

Callaghan Innovation – YOU are the ones that started this, YOU are the ones who can finish this.

Withdraw the reports, issue an apology, state clearly that the investigator was conflicted, that the EY review did not validate the claims made in the reports, that the reports should never have been circulated to others, and that there is very little evidence to suggest that Manaaki and We Are Indigo are anything other than a bunch of people, trying to build a business that supports other businesses to get ahead. 

And that they do not deserve to be dragged through the mud!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s